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Zero-COVID policy in Chinese border city stops freight to North Korea

North Korea and China are again suspending rail freight as Beijing’s zero-Covid policy spreads to cities on the Sino-Korean border, sources in both countries told RFA.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China announced at an April 29 news briefing that it would temporarily suspend all freight transportation between China’s Dandong and North Korea’s Sinuiju because of the COVID-19 situation in Dandong.

Dandong and Sinuiju lie on opposite sides of the Yalu River that separates the two countries, and are the key hubs in Sino-North Korean trade.

“The Dandong-Sinuiju freight train … will operate until the end of this month and will be suspended again from May 1,” a source from the North Korean province of North Pyongan told RFA’s Korean Service last week.

“Since COVID-19 is spreading in Dandong … the city government began to lock down the city from the 25th and restricted residents’ movement. Because Dandong is locked down, our side is also suspending freight trains to prevent COVID-19,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

The rail stoppage comes as tens of millions of residents of major Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are facing rigid lockdowns and strict testing regimens as the country tries to stop the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19 under the Communist Party’s zero-COVID policy.

At the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020, Beijing and Pyongyang closed the border and suspended all trade, a move that was disastrous to the North Korean economy.

Rail freight finally resumed on a limited basis almost two years later in January 2022, only to be shut off again after less than four months due to the lockdowns

Days before the closure, traders made preparations for the last shipments, the source said.

“The freight station is now filled with fertilizer, pesticide and food purchased by North Korean trading companies as national emergency goods. The last trains will be shipped to a quarantine facility in Uiju either tomorrow or the day after,” he said.

RFA reported last year that North Korea had completed a new rail line between Sinuiju and a quarantine facility in Uiju, in anticipation of trade reopening prior to the end of the pandemic. The new facility allows entire trainloads of cargo to be sterilized prior to distribution to Pyongyang and the rest of the country.

A second source familiar with Sino-North Korean trade in Dandong confirmed that rail freight would stop at the beginning of May.

“North Korea urgently needs farming materials and fertilizer, so the two sides have both agreed to bring the supplies to Sinuiju by the end of this month,” he said. “People expect that the freight train between Dandong and Sinuiju will resume only after COVID-19 disappears and the city lockdown is lifted throughout China.”

The lockdown in Dandong forbids all 2.2 million residents from leaving their homes and requires them to submit to daily testing.

Translated by Claire Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.