Chinese Rail Wagons Becoming Scrap Iron in North Korea

[imText1]The food support entering North Korea from China is at a standstill right now because there are no means of transportation, according to affiliated parties of international aid organizations.

The World Food Program (WFP) said on the 18th that 10,000 tons of emergency food aid has been put on hold in China for weeks due to the lack of rail wagons.

Britain’s Financial Times also reported on the 19th, “Depending on the extent to which North Korea has turned 1,800 Chinese rail wagons that originally carried food aid and goods into scrap steel and sold them, the Chinese government will cease operations of key freight trains going into North Korea.”

From where do these stories of such activity conducted by North Korean railroads originate? It will be difficult for South Koreans to easily accept the idea that the Chinese authorities have refused transportation of goods, saying they did not have any more trains to send.

The rail wagon issue between North Korea and China has been seriously argued ever since the early 1990s. In the 1980s North Korea began instituting the method of using rail wagons from the former Soviet Union and China to resolve the transportation shortage.

Chinese trains came from Dandong and former Soviet Union trains from Rajin and Sunbong, carrying crude oil, food provisions, and freight. When these rails came in, they were substituted with North Korean rail cars and rail wagons (for cargo) and were then rerouted to a destination within North Korea. The issue is that the North Korean authorities did not return the rail wagons to China or the Soviet Union in one piece, but instead turned them into scrap metal after using them to carry freight at maximum capacity.

North Korea, due to the shortage of raw-materials and technology to manufacture train wheels, has had difficulty producing rail wagons.
Therein lies the answer to the question as to why rail wagons with Russian and Chinese characters could be easily seen in front of North Korean train stations in the 1980s.

From the 1990s, Russia (which succeeded the Soviet Union) ceased to provide commodities to North Korea other than in the form of cash; therefore, North Korea’s reliance on Chinese rail wagons has increased.

One defector with a background in railroads said, “In the 1990s, when relations between North Korea and China worsening, the Chinese government began focusing on the rail wagon issue. The Chinese government postponed or refused not only the provision of food but also the provision of industrial raw materials, which North Korea has obtained through cash payments using the lack of rail wagons as an excuse. It was a burden that it [China] could fix North Korea’s trend.”

He further explained that “China ceased the provision of cokes around 1994 because North Korea had not returned the rail wagons. This eventually led to the ceasing of operations at the Kim Chaek Steel Mill.” North Korea acquires cokes required for steel production by importing the entire amount from China.

In the North Korea-Chinese rail agreement, the amount of Chinese rail wagons that could remain in North Korea for a month was fixed. Before the deterioration of North Korea’s economy in the `80s, the quantity was set at around 800 cars. It was specified that China was to implement trade sanctions should more than 800 cars remain in the North per month. However, such specifications proved to be ineffective. Testimonies revealed that an average of 1,500 Chinese rail wagons have remained in North Korea in any given month.

One individual affiliated with Dandong Station in China said in a phone conversation with DailyNK on the 21st, “We have resorted to every method to retrieve the rail wagons we sent to North Korea, but the situation has not changed at all. Rail wagons that go to North Korea and come back have to immediately be sent to maintenance factories.”

The report that North Korea has made Chinese rail wagons into scrap iron and has sold them, resulting in a shortage of transportation, is partially exaggerated. However, the continuing discord with China that has resulted from this issue cannot be denied.

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