chagang food shortages signs
FILE PHOTO: A train can be seen travelling in an area of Chagang Province near the Sino-North Korean border. (Daily NK)

North Korea has used the freight train service restarted in early November with Russia to import foodstuffs and petroleum products, Daily NK has learned.

Observers are wondering why North Korea and Russia — which had long used ships to conduct their mutual smuggling operations — have suddenly restarted bilateral freight train service.

According to a source in North Korea on Monday, North Korea used trains to import mostly foodstuffs such as wheat, cooking oil and cheese, as well as energy products such as gasoline, diesel and LPG.

Some of the imported whole wheat was transported to grain processing centers. North Korea imported wheat from Russia in July as well. Indeed, wheat has been a favorite import item in North Korea’s recent under-the-table transactions with Russia.

Since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for improving the people’s food situation by doubling the acreage for wheat during a speech before the Supreme People’s Assembly last September, North Korean authorities have been expanding wheat imports rather than doubling the acreage for wheat as directed.


One noteworthy food item imported from Russia this month is cooking oil. The source told Daily NK that North Korea had never imported cooking oil from Russia before.

The cooking oil imported from Russia comes in transparent plastic 4.5 kilogram containers, but with no brand names on the front. North Koreans thus cannot check the oil’s date of manufacture or its ingredients.

This month’s imported Russian foodstuffs included dairy products such as cheese and butter, but they were of low quality. The military received all of the cheese and butter as rations. The source told Daily NK that military personnel really like rice topped with a spoonful of “butter oil.”

In the case of oil products, North Korea imported a substantial amount of oil from Russia by ship in September, too. Diesel oil accounted for the largest share of imported energy this month. The country imported lots of gasoline and LPG as well.

One item that had been missing from previous seaborne imports — but included in this month’s imports by train — was wood. The source said the wood entered the country as thick lumber rather than logs, with most of it likely to be used as construction material.

Meanwhile, North Korea exported nothing to Russia by freight train. Trains were reportedly always empty when they departed North Korea’s Rason Station for the Russian city of Khasan.

North Korea had been importing lots of items by ship, with the use of ships being highly successful at avoiding detection by the international community. With the country restarting freight train service despite this, some North Koreans speculate that the country is preparing to send North Korean workers to Russia.

Previously, Daily NK reported that North Korean authorities have already selected new workers to send to Russia and completed preparations to dispatch them.

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