After grinding to a halt to prevent the spread of COVID-19, there are signs that trade between North Korea and China is slowly recovering, with North Korea recently purchasing a large quantity of premium construction materials from China.

“Twenty or thirty large container trucks from Dandong in Liaoning Province recently entered Sinuiju,” a source based in China told Daily NK on Sunday. 

“Some of these trucks were carrying construction materials, and a significant portion of the materials are premium products that North Korea cannot produce on its own,” he said, adding, “It is unclear why the government is spending so much on expensive materials when the people are struggling and don’t even have enough food.”

Daily NK was unable to identify whether the construction materials were actually produced in China or produced in another country and supplied to North Korea through China. 

North Korea is prohibited from importing construction materials due to international sanctions. Since the country is having difficulty obtaining sufficient construction materials due to the closure of the Sino-North Korean border, China may be supplying the materials through some sort of agreement between the two countries. 

An investigation by Daily NK found that the deadline for the construction of Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Zone, which was originally set for April this year, has been pushed back to October. The modernization of Samjiyon, which was scheduled to finish in October, also faces similar challenges to be completed on time. 

Faced with difficulties sourcing construction materials, North Korea secretly purchased construction materials and electronics last month alongside imports of condiments and soybean oil. 

The “premium” nature of the materials purchased on this occasion suggests that they are for the special residences (luxurious mansions) of the Kim family. 

“Premium materials obtained from overseas are never used in ordinary construction projects,” a source in North Korea told Daily NK. “These materials are likely to be used for the Majon residence.” The Majon residence is a luxurious villa that Kim Il Sung used to stay at with his grandchildren Kim Jong Un, Kim Yo Jong and Kim Jong Chul.  

“The Majon residence has been undergoing remodeling work since October last year,” the source said. “The purchase likely involves materials that suit Kim Jong Un’s taste.”

The source also noted that “premium materials for special residences are obtained through Bureau 39 or companies that earn foreign currency under the Central Committee” and that “these are highly important and sensitive projects, so those in charge really have to stick their necks out.” 

North Korea originally closed the Sino-North Korean border and temporarily halted trade in January to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Trade between the two countries seems to be picking up recently, however. 

A report published by the IBK North Korea Economic Research Center on June 25 noted that “after falling to a record low due to the repercussions of the closed border, we are seeing a clear recovery in North Korea-China trade.” The report went on to state that “although [trade] remains at only a quarter of levels witnessed in May of last year, trade has increased by 163.8% compared to the past month.”

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Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time reporters and covers North Korean technology and human rights issues, including the country's political prison camp system. Mun has a M.A. in Sociology from Hanyang University and a B.A. in Mathematics from Jeonbuk National University. He can be reached at