North Korean trading companies are importing construction materials, food and other items from China in spite of international sanctions banning such imports, Daily NK has learned.

“A freight train was loaded up with food condiments, soybean oil and other items in Dandong before returning to Sopo [District, in Pyongyang] late last month,” a China-based source told Daily NK yesterday.

“The train also was also carrying construction materials and various electronic components,” he added.

The Sopo District of Pyongyang is home to North Korea’s largest freight train station. The goods imported from Dandong were likely unloaded at the station before being sent to other parts of the country.

Generally speaking, imported goods whose final destination is Pyongyang go through customs at the station.

The source told Daily NK that “There were around 10 freight cars” and they had “large sheets made out of iron” inside them.

“North Korea doesn’t manufacture those kind of iron sheets,” the source said, adding, “The import of food condiments seems like a scheme to hide the import of the iron sheets.”

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

The import of the food, however, does seem to reflect shortages of certain necessities in North Korea. Imports of food condiments, for example, witnessed price surges after North Korea announced restrictions on “unnecessary” goods on Apr. 17.

The inclusion of food-related imports on the freight train may be a response to popular discontent over shortages of certain food items in the country. Indeed, North Korean authorities recently decided to permit trade over the Sino-North Korean border in select areas from June and demanded that traders include state-designated items – namely foodstuffs – in their imports.

The goods designated by the state reportedly include rice, flour, cooking oil, sugar, and food condiments.

Traders who refuse to import these designated goods – even those who typically import other types of goods – will be banned from conducting trade activities. Based on the China-based source’s report, trade companies focused on acquiring construction materials seem to have been ordered to import food as well.

North Korea is prohibited from importing construction materials and electronics under international sanctions, but the country has long been importing construction materials and supplies in spite of the ban.

Earlier this year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered that construction on the Pyongyang General Hospital be finished by Oct. 10. Daily NK understands that the country still needs a large amount of supplies and materials to finish the project.

Daily NK reported last month that trucks were seen passing through Chinese customs into North Korea carrying shipments of metal.

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