North Korea and China have recently moved away from plans to restart international train service between the two countries, Daily NK has learned.

Daily NK had reported on Oct. 26 that North Korea and China had agreed to restart international train service from the end of November and permit tourism on a limited basis.

In a phone conversation with Daily NK on Wednesday, a source in North Korea said North Korean authorities had recently proposed to China that the issue of permitting tourists through international train service “be discussed again.” 

“China, which felt this indicated distrust in its quarantine situation, strongly objected, and the resumption of train service at the end of this month was, in practical terms, scuttled,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

Initially, North Korea was prepared to accept tourists from China – except individuals who are from or who have resided in Qingdao, Shandong Province, where there was a recent outbreak of COVID-19. North Korea appears to have been confident it could deal with the influx of a limited number of tourists as long as it kept an eye on the situation in China. 

However, with localized outbreaks continuing in China, North Korea’s position changed and it requested that the tourism issue be renegotiated. China felt that North Korea believed Beijing’s capacity to effectively quarantine COVID-19 cases was poor. It appears North Korea’s request to renegotiate ended up hurting the pride felt by Chinese officials, particularly given that they had recently declared victory over COVID-19.

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North Korean trucks near a customs office in Dandong, Liaoning Province. / Image: Daily NK

The source told Daily NK that North Korea is “bewildered” with China’s sudden decision to suspend the resumption of train service.

“North Korea, not China, is in a rush [to restart tourism and trade],” said the source. “Behind the international train[s] they were planning to attach cargo car[s] to bring in supplies, but with China refusing to resume service, [North Korea] is in a dilemma.” 

Initially, it seems China and North Korea agreed to secretly transport supplies along with Chinese tourists once they resumed international train services. China appears to have objected when North Korea proposed that it would accept only the supplies while denying entry to Chinese tourists.

“China complained that North Korea was ‘changing its words like a small child’ and arguing for conditions that would only suit North Korea,” said the source. “China believes that it will be tough to help North Korea if the North Koreans negotiate that way.”  

In early November, a North Korean delegation in China rushed to propose to the Chinese side the exchange of supplies through Nampo Port, but this was reportedly rejected as well.

“After the resumption of international train service fell by the wayside, the [North Korean delegation] met with a Chinese delegation in early November and proposed the exchange of supplies [selected by North Korean authorities] through Nampo Port as a second-best option,” said the source. “But China turned down this proposal, too.”

According to the source, “China worries that the slightest mistake while trading with North Korea could get it branded as a violator [of sanctions on North Korea]” and that “with all the other political problems it faces domestically and abroad, China is now rejecting even small-scale trade [with North Korea].”

The source said Chinese officials told North Korea that it could not resume trade through Nampo Port since the port is being closely watched by the international community.

“China thinks it’s a problem that North Korea asks for things only when it needs them and without any preparation,” said the source. “It seems China rejected the proposals believing there was no need to rush because North Korea was the one feeling all the urgency [to restart trade and tourism].” 

Buses transporting Chinese tourists to North Korea in 2018. / Image: Daily NK

The source also told Daily NK that “internally, North Korea now needs to stabilize its markets and the lives of the people by bringing in emergency supplies” and that “bringing in emergency supplies is a matter of life or death, and more important than acquiring foreign currency through tourism, but there’s no clear road ahead [to bring in emergency supplies].” 


Meanwhile, North Korea has reportedly decided not to accept Chinese tourists through at least next January.

“On Monday, [North Korea’s] diplomatic authorities were told about Comrade Kim Jong Un’s order not to restart tourism until the Eighth Party Congress,” another source inside North Korea told Daily NK. “The decision comes after there was another outbreak in China, which has declared an end to COVID-19.” 

The source said that Kim “believes no one can predict what will happen with COVID-19 in China” and that he “seems to believe that, given the current situation, bringing in foreign currency [through tourism] is not an important issue.” 

In short, the source’s report suggests that Kim has ordered a halt to efforts to restart tourism from China before the Eighth Party Congress because he believes that preventing COVID-19 infections is more important than acquiring foreign currency. 

It is not clear, however, whether Kim’s order to halt tourism impacted the negotiations with China to restart international train services. Kim’s order may have just been aimed at “building internal solidarity,” the source speculated. 

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