North Korean authorities have recently been signaling a change in the tenor of their quarantine policies, leading to speculation that they may open the China-North Korea border. Barring any major unseen variables, however, North Korean authorities are likely to keep the border closed through 2022 while continuing restricted “state-led trade.”

According to a high-ranking Daily NK source in North Korea last Thursday, North Korean authorities have decided to ease inter-regional movement, even while strengthening quarantine efforts in regions bordering China this year.

North Korean authorities currently ban travel between different regions except for people engaged in government business or those who have received prior permission. Ordinary people cannot travel between regions unless they are going to family funerals or weddings, which means they are generally unable to visit their relatives or hometowns.

North Korean authorities have tightly controlled things along the border in particular, placing entire cities on lockdown when people have crossed the China-North Korea border illegally or engaged in smuggling.

North Koreans have expressed a considerable amount of discontent toward these quarantine policies, which have been in place for around two years. The authorities have chosen to ease inter-regional movement slightly as part of a bid to dial down this discontent, according to the source. 

The Rodong Sinmun reported on Jan. 10 that the authorities must constantly “innovate their quarantine efforts to thoroughly ensure their perfection.” It said that quarantine efforts should shift their focus from “quarantine through control” to a more “advanced, people-focused quarantine” based on the foundations of the “strong emergency quarantine wall built up until this point.” 

special patrols coronavirus outbreak smuggler mobile phones strict smuggler border
A border patrol checkpoint in Pungso County, Yanggang Province. This photo was taken in February 2019. / Image: Daily NK

According to the source, many North Koreans believe that COVID-19 infections have been limited thanks to the state’s quarantine measures and that relaxing controls somewhat on inter-regional movement should be fine if, that is, China-North Korea border controls are maintained.

Daily NK was unable to find out in detail just how far North Korean authorities will relax inter-regional movement, but a greater movement of people could lead to an increase in the distribution of goods along with an expansion in market activities.

One North Korea expert, who requested anonymity, told Daily NK that greater market activity in North Korea would lead to a “brisker circulation of funds” and “personal and small-business activity could get a shot in the arm.”

He noted further that North Korean authorities could amend their economic policies by increasing taxes people have to pay while encouraging commercial activity through the easing of restrictions on inter-regional movement.

Meanwhile, it appears likely North Korean authorities will maintain their current controls on the China-North Korea border.

That is to say, they will strictly ban illegal entry into the country of both people without prior entry approval and goods without proper quarantine procedures. 

Moreover, in terms of trade, the authorities plan to engage in limited imports and exports of permitted goods through trading companies and trade officials that have been authorized to do so. 

According to the source, North Korean authorities do plan to expand state-led trade a bit as part of efforts to increase imports and exports past last year’s levels.

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

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