China rejects N. Korean request to restart trade across border

China also expressed disappointment toward North Korea in "preemptively" closing the border to trade

The Chinese government recently rejected a North Korean request to restart trade across the two country’s border by Feb. 15, Daily NK has learned.

The Chinese response comes after Kim Song Nam, the first vice-director of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK)’s international department, reportedly requested a restart to bilateral trade during a trip to Beijing in early February.

“China sent a response to North Korea at around 5 PM on Feb. 14 saying that it would be difficult to restart smuggling activities across on the border by Feb. 15,” a high-level government source in Pyongyang told Daily NK on Feb. 18.

“It was essentially a rejection of North Korea’s request [to restart trade],” he added.


Daily NK had learned from sources in North Korea earlier this month that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had ordered Kim Song Nam to request a restart to Sino-North Korean trade by Feb. 15.

Kim Song Nam’s official reason for visiting China was to hand over a letter to Chinese officials expressing condolences about deaths caused by COVID-19.

In laying out the reasons for rejecting North Korea’s request, Chinese authorities pointed to the international attention China is receiving because of the spread of COVID-19. Specifically, the Chinese expressed concern that even an insignificant level of trade between the two countries could “create misunderstandings” among countries in the international community.

Chinese authorities also reportedly expressed disappointment at North Korea’s “preemptive” closure of the Sino-North Korean border and its halt of all bilateral trade activities due to fears over the spread of COVID-19.

North Korean smugglers unloading goods in Dandong
North Korean smugglers unloading goods in Dandong, China, in 2017. / Image: Daily NK

In its response, the Chinese also told North Korea that it had “no responsibility” for issues occurring in North Korea due to the halt of bilateral trade while pointing out that the closure of the border was a measure taken first by North Korea.

The response did, however, state that Chinese authorities would not “take issue” with individual, small-scale smugglers.

The wording of the Chinese response strongly suggests that Chinese authorities may turn a blind eye to small-scale smugglers, even while large-scale bilateral trade is still off the table.

The Chinese response reportedly ended with a request to the North Koreans to “wait a little longer” for a restart in trade because the coronavirus situation has “started to calm down.”


North Korean authorities, for their part, have reportedly been taken aback by the Chinese response. They had expected bilateral trade would restart on Feb. 15, but are now facing an unexpected situation, Daily NK sources said.

“After receiving the Chinese response, North Korean authorities handed down an order to state-run organizations that no smuggling between individuals would be permitted,” the Pyongyang-based source said.

“They had looked forward to the restart of trade by Feb. 15 and this hard line measure shows how disappointed they were in the Chinese response,” he added.

Smuggling generally refers to illegal trade between private entities, but in North Korea’s case smuggling activities involves state-run or WPK-run trading companies.

State-run trading companies, including those operated by the WPK and Ministry of State Security (MSS), began to dominate smuggling over the border after the UN Security Council implemented stricter sanctions on North Korea in 2017.

Individual, small-scale smugglers in North Korea are reportedly unhappy about the state’s dominance in bilateral smuggling activities because it takes away business from them.

*Translated by Alek Sigley

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