North's trade volume with China plummets amid closed borders, flooding

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North's trade volume with China plummets amid closed borders, flooding

Recovery work is underway at an area in North Korea's Kangwon Province damaged by flooding earlier this month. [NEWS1]

Recovery work is underway at an area in North Korea's Kangwon Province damaged by flooding earlier this month. [NEWS1]

 
North Korea’s trade volume with China shrank by more than two-thirds during the first half of 2020, Seoul’s top inter-Korean agency said Tuesday. 
 
The total volume of trade between the North and China from January through June this year was estimated to be around $411 million, a Ministry of Unification official told South Korean lawmakers at a parliamentary hearing.  
 
The figure represented a decrease of around 67.2 percent compared to the first half of last year, when the North recorded a volume of around $1.25 billion in its trade with China.
 
Though international sanctions were largely responsible for the crunch in the regime’s external trade since its last nuclear test in 2017, trade between the Communist allies took a major hit after Pyongyang ordered a total shutdown of its land borders with China and Russia during the early phases of the coronavirus outbreak in China.  
 
Making things worse, the North was battered by heavy rains that drenched the peninsula this month, causing flood damage to much of its breadbasket provinces that it relies on to feed its chronically malnourished population.  
 
Testifying to the economic hardship it faces, the regime’s leader Kim Jong-un acknowledged the country had failed to meet its economic growth goals this year.
 
According to a high-ranking South Korean official familiar with events in the North, belt tightening is apparent on the ground in the regime.  
 
Celebration of the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party has all but stopped, with propaganda outlets instead trumpeting next year’s planned party convention as an occasion to reinvigorate its ailing economy.  
 
Public mentions of major construction projects that were scheduled to be completed in tandem with this year’s party foundation day have all but disappeared from state media, adding to speculation that they may have been delayed or put on hold as a result of the economic situation.
 
The regime had earlier proclaimed the Wonsan-Kalma beach resort, Kim’s pet project aimed at bolstering the country’s tourism industry, and Pyongyang General Hospital would be complete within the year, but both projects have reportedly been hampered by a lack of funds and building materials.  
 
Dandong customs office in Liaoning province, China, which lies on the border with North Korea. The majority of goods from China pass through the city to the North. [YONHAP]

Dandong customs office in Liaoning province, China, which lies on the border with North Korea. The majority of goods from China pass through the city to the North. [YONHAP]

 
With few of his ambitious economic promises fulfilled, Kim has taken the occasion to crank up the regime’s propaganda efforts to underscore complete loyalty to himself.
 
The Rodong Sinmun, the regime’s official party newspaper, published an editorial calling for the military to follow “only the orders of the Paektu bloodline,” in reference to the Kim family’s dynastic rule over the regime.  
 
Last week, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) caused a stir after it reported to lawmakers that Kim had delegated his powers to his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, which fed speculation she was being groomed to succeed him.  
 
South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo appeared to acknowledge this interpretation at a parliamentary hearing on Tuesday, after he answered in the affirmative to a lawmaker's suggestion that the younger Kim had seized control of the regime's personnel department. 
 
Not all South Korean officials agreed, however. Unification Minister Lee In-young on Tuesday said there was little evidence to suggest Kim Yo-jong was vested as an heir, but rather that Kim Jong-un appears to have merely imbued his deputies with greater responsibility to coordinate affairs on his behalf.  
 
BY JEONG YONG-SOO, SHIM KYU-SEOK   [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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