NORTH KOREA’S TRICKLE of trade across its border with China, its only significant trading partner, has been suspended for more than a year and a half, with Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un concerned about importing Covid-19, which would quickly overwhelm North Korea’s rickety health system.
Now, Japan’s Nikkei news reports, preparations are being made to reopen the rail line across the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge connecting Dandong in Liaoning province and Sinuiju in North Korea to bring in shipments of food and pharmaceuticals to alleviate the chronic hunger prevalent in North Korea.
In June, Kim all but admitted food shortages for the first time. Extreme heat followed by recent flooding in the east of the country, which North Korean state media say has inundated farmland destroying crops, will only have exacerbated malnutrition.
That preparations are being made to reopen a trade corridor does not mean it will necessarily happen. The Nikkei says Kim has since April pulled back from restarting trade at the last minute several times. The same could happen again now that China is grappling with the largest virus outbreak since the first wave last year.
A quarantine facility for cargo at a military airfield close to the border was due to have been completed this month, but has run into sanitizing problems; the Nikkei quotes unnamed South Korean intelligence sources saying that this was the ‘great crisis in ensuring the security of the state and safety of the people’ that Kim mysteriously referred to in late June. It also says that Ri Pyong Chol, a former general and relative of Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, is believed to have been demoted from the Politburo standing committee as a result.
Kim may also turn to Russia for imports. The Russian Embassy in Pyongyang says its ambassador, Alexander Matsegor, agreed at a meeting with North Korea’s external economic affairs minister in Pyongyang last Tuesday to work on an accelerated resumption of trade, given the severe economic situation.
Failure to restart trade with China or Russia would leave Pyongyang with its least palatable option, reopening negotiations with Seoul and Washington for aid or sanctions relief.