After fifteen months of economic hardship due to the COVID-19 border blockade, there are growing signs that the North Korea-China border will reopen soon. In fact, Daily NK recently obtained an image of a North Korean ship collecting sand in the Yalu River. 

A source in China told Daily NK on Apr. 19 that the North Korean ship performed sand collection in the Yalu River on Apr. 16, one day after Kim Il Sung’s birthday on Apr. 15. 

“There have been many sightings of North Korean patrol boats since the border blockade began last January, but this was the first time in more than a year that I spotted a North Korean ship on the Yalu River in the daytime,” the source explained. “Aside from the sand collection ship, three tugboats were working on the river for quite some time.”

The authorities may have allowed sand collection ships to restart their activities because such ships do not have to dock in China. 

There have not yet been any sightings of North Korean trading ships or fishing boats heading towards China during the daytime on weekdays. 

The North Korean ship in Daily NK’s photo is mainly used to collect and transport sand for use in construction projects. However, smugglers also used the ship during nighttime operations before the border blockade began last January. 

Sand collection ship seen recently (Apr. 16) on the Yalu River. / Image: Daily NK

Even after the restart of official trade, it is possible that smugglers will have a tough time conducting their activities in the Yalu River near Dandong for the time being because the authorities are closely monitoring the area. 

The Chinese government has stated that it will continue to tightly control unauthorized trade between individuals to prevent the spread of COVID-19 even after official trade restarts. 

Since the beginning of this month, there have been multiple sightings of vehicles crossing the New Yalu River Bridge, a three-kilometer-long bridge that connects Sinuiju and Dandong.

Most of the vehicles spotted crossing the river were trucks. The vehicles were reportedly transporting materials needed for the new customs office and warehouse currently under construction on the North Korean side of the New Yalu River Bridge.

North Korea and China agreed in October 2009 to build the New Yalu River Bridge to replace the old Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge. However, the two countries repeatedly delayed the bridge’s opening due to North Korean requests that China take on some of the costs of building customs facilities, roads, and other related construction projects.

It is unclear whether the construction materials transported by truck to North Korea over the New Yalu River Bridge were supplied to the country as aid from China.

Meanwhile, North Korea is reportedly using freight trains to import agricultural goods such as fertilizer and materials to build vinyl greenhouses.

While official trade has yet to resume between the two countries, this report suggests that North Korean authorities have been importing goods urgently needed by the country from China.

According to the Chinese General Administration of Customs’ website, North Korea imported USD 12,978,000 of Chinese goods in the last month alone. This was a massive increase compared to February 2021, when North Korea imported a paltry USD 3,000 worth of Chinese goods.  

There is a high likelihood that trade between North Korea and China will expand significantly following the restart of official trade. A Daily NK investigation has found that, barring any unexpected variables, North Korean customs officials will resume their work on or around Apr. 20. Trade companies will resume their activities first, followed by the restart of trade between individuals from early to mid-May. 

Chinese traders are reportedly busy preparing for the resumption of trade between China and North Korea. “Chinese traders are ready,” the source said. “They have already acquired goods ordered by North Korea and plan to send them into the country as soon as trade resumes.”

*Translated by S & J

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