A marker delineating the border between China and North Korea (Wikimedia Commons)

Previously locked down Chinese cities are gradually coming back to life as COVID-19 numbers decrease, but Chinese authorities have yet to reopen trade with North Korea.

Although North Korea is making a show of confidence, claiming that the coronavirus situation in the country has “completely stabilized,” the Chinese government is tightly controlling trade with the North due to concern about the state of the pandemic in the country.

According to a Daily NK source in China on Monday, as coronavirus cases decrease, factories and restaurants are reopening in regions of China that border North Korea, including Liaoning and Jilin provinces. With highways, railways, ports and other inter-regional transportation links soon set to reopen as normal, the movement of goods and people within China is expected to improve. 

However, in contrast to moves to relax domestic disease control measures, the Chinese government has yet to begin easing controls and inspections regarding trade with North Korea. In regions that border North Korea, Chinese authorities are reportedly cracking down hard on Chinese people directly contacting or doing business with North Koreans.

The source told Daily NK that the Chinese government is levying fines of at least RMB 300,000 (around USD 44,450) on people caught smuggling with North Koreans, a measure that has helped prevent Chinese traders from readily dealing with their North Korean counterparts. 

On the other hand, North Korean trade officials are making more requests for imports from Chinese traders. With North Korean authorities recently allowing certain North Korean trading companies to participate in or expand existing trade with China, these companies appear to be responding by increasingly asking for items to import.

Daily NK reported earlier this month that North Korean authorities — in the course of completing efforts to merge or close underperforming trading companies — recently decided to expand trading opportunities for certain larger trading companies on the condition that they assume the debts of the smaller companies they absorb.

North Korean trading companies are reportedly asking their Chinese counterparts for fertilizer and other agricultural supplies, steel products and car parts, among other items.

Interestingly, many North Korean trading companies are also asking for powdered milk for children. The source said while North Korea has the capacity to produce powdered milk on its own and is in fact doing so, it cannot produce much of it, so the authorities appear to be trying to make up for shortfalls with imports.

North Korean trade officials are also asking for soybean oil and seasonings, prices of which have shot through the roof in North Korean markets since the closure of the China-North Korea border.

However, Chinese business entities cannot freely engage in direct trade with North Korea in regions along the border due to the Chinese government’s tight controls. Currently, most exports to North Korea from China enter the country by sea through the port of Nampo, with many ships reportedly departing from the Chinese ports of Shanghai or Dalian.

The Chinese government’s continued tight controls on both official bilateral trade and smuggling is most likely due to concerns regarding North Korea’s COVID-19 situation.

North Korean authorities are currently claiming a steadily falling number of new fever cases. Rodong Sinmun recently displayed confidence in the country’s quarantine efforts, running an article on July 11 claiming that the nationwide quarantine situation had entered a “completely stable phase.”

However, the Chinese government appears to have little faith in North Korea’s pronouncements. The source told Daily NK that China is strictly controlling illegal contacts or transactions with North Koreans because Beijing is worried about importing COVID-19 from North Korea. 

“In some parts of Sinuiju close to China there are over 50 fever cases emerging everyday,” said the source. “[China] has worked hard to bring coronavirus cases to zero, so it would be a big problem [for the Chinese] if infections re-emerged because of North Korea.”

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Seulkee Jang is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.