North Korea and China have recently agreed to resume international train service, which was suspended in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. A source told Daily NK that the two sides also agreed on a plan to permit Chinese tourists to enter certain areas of North Korea on a limited basis.

A source in China told Daily NK on Sunday that the North Korean and Chinese authorities had recently agreed to restart international train service from Nov. 30, and that “along with train service, they also agreed [for North Korea] to accept Chinese tourists.”

North Korea suspended international train service and stopped admitting foreigners in January to prevent COVID-19 from entering the country. The news suggests that behind-the-scenes negotiations to restart train service and tourism had resulted in at least some agreement between the two sides. 

“The agreement to restart train service was first proposed by China,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s an expedient to help North Korea without [China] having to give [North Korea] state funds.” 

The source explained that China is trying to assist North Korea through private-sector tourism because Beijing must avoid “officially supporting” the country due to UN sanctions.

The move may also be aimed at strengthening China’s good relationship with North Korea. With tensions high between China and the US over trade, Beijing seems to be actively working to improve its relationship with Pyongyang to use North Korea as leverage.

In fact, North Korea and China have begun improving bilateral ties by stressing the “blood alliance” formed during the Korean War.

Rodong Sinmun reported on Thursday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un marked the anniversary of China’s participation in the Korean War by visiting the Martyrs Cemetery of the Chinese People’s Volunteers and laying a floral basket on the grave of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s eldest son, who was killed in the conflict.

In a speech at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping marked the 70th anniversary of the “war to resist US aggression and aid Korea” by saying the Chinese government made the “historic decision” to enter the conflict based on a request from North Korea’s government and ruling party, and that Chinese participation was a “righteous action.” 

The restart of train service and tourism could signal improving relations and more active trade between the two countries.

COVID-19, however, may prove a stumbling block.

“The reason they agreed to restart train service at the end of next month is so they can watch the spread of COVID-19 for about another month,” said the source. “If the situation suddenly grows worse, such as the virus rapidly spreading, the restart of train service could be delayed again.”

China officially declared victory over COVID-19 last month, but there are still localized cases of the virus in the country. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un claimed in an Oct. 10 speech on Party Foundation Day that there are no cases of the disease in his country. Many experts, however, cast doubt on this claim. 

Nevertheless, that the two sides made a certain level of agreement on restarting train service and tourist activities suggests they believe the COVID-19 situation in both countries is under a certain level of control. 

The source told Daily NK that because of continued fears over COVID-19 the two sides are discussing a plan to gradually increase the number of tourists rather than completely re-open tourism from the get-go.

“North Korea has informed the Chinese side that it is willing to accept Chinese tourists as long as they have official health certificates,” the source said. “However, people from Qingdao or those who have stayed in that area will be unconditionally excluded.” 

A freight train arriving in Dandong from Sopo District, Pyongyang. / Image: Daily NK

The source explained that North Korea asked that residents of and visitors to Qingdao be excluded as tourists due to a recent outbreak of COVID-19 in the city, which is in China’s Shandong province.

Chinese authorities went into emergency mode after 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported in Qingdao on Oct. 12.

The source said China positively responded to the North Korean request, and that “talks to restart train service and tourism are going smoothly.”

“Still, the two sides agreed to strengthen quarantine measures by cutting passenger capacity on international trains to a third [of what they would normally be],” said the source. “Additionally, they agreed to initially allow tourists to two spots only: Pyongyang and Mt. Kumgang.”

North Korean authorities apparently intend to minimize contact with locals by limiting their numbers and the places they can go.

Meanwhile, the source said the two sides agreed to place no limit on the amount of foreign currency tourists can carry. Eliminating the ceiling on the amount of cash one can carry in North Korea, where using a credit card is effectively impossible, appears to be a way to entice tourists to spend and provide North Korea with foreign currency.

“Chinese [tourists] had been unable to carry more than USD 10,000 [in the past],” said the source. “But the two sides agreed to do away with that limit.”

The source said, in summary, that the “the number of people allowed in has been cut, but they can spend an unlimited amount of money.”

The idea was “proposed by North Korea to boost the tourism industry, and China accepted it,” he added. 

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

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Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.