Squaring the conflicting news reports on North Korea’s border reopening

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Over the past few days, there’s been a flurry of news reports suggesting two seemingly conflicting things: 1) that North Korea may reopen its borders with China and Russia already in November and, 2) that the border closure may remain in effect for several years to come.

First, Yonhap:

North Korea is in the final stage of preparations to reopen its train routes with China following prolonged border controls to stave off the coronavirus, a unification ministry official said Thursday.

The North is expected to first resume cargo transportation via land routes, the official said, though adding it’s hard to tell exactly when the operations would begin.

“Our assessment is that various preparations for the resumption of goods exchange through train routes are at the final stage,” the official told reporters on background.

Seoul officials have said signs indicating preparations for trade resumption were detected in the North Korean regions bordering China, such as the construction of quarantine facilities.

Last week, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) told lawmakers the North is in talks with China and Russia to resume train operations across the border and those connecting Sinuiju and Dandong — border cities of the North and China, respectively — could resume as early as November.

(Source: “N. Korea in final preparations to reopen border with China: official,” Yonhap News, 4/11/2021.)

In addition, NK News have reported several times over the past few months on satellite imagery showing construction of quarantine facilities near the border with China as well as activity near border crossings suggesting that trade might soon resume.

At the same time, according to media outlets with grassroots sources in North Korea, the authorities have told the population to buckle down and prepare for hard times to continue, as the border lockdown won’t ease even partially this year. Daily NK:

In particular, the provincial party said the border closure was not just a measure to protect the people from COVID-19, but also to awaken government organizations, enterprises and people “full of illusions about imported goods” from their delusions. They stressed the need to satisfy the people’s demand for consumer goods with “products produced in our country (North Korea).”

The source added that the party said the goal of the light industry and commercial sectors was to produce “uniquely North Korean light industrial goods” independent of imports by substituting foreign materials for domestic ones, and to supply those goods to the people.

The provincial party also decided to promote domestically produced commercial goods, basic foodstuffs and groceries as good for one’s health as they are eco-friendly, and equal to those of any other country.

The source added that the party said the state would “thoroughly control” the import of raw materials for consumer goods or basic foodstuffs “that we could easily produce and use in our country (North Korea).” He also said the party said that controls could be placed on imports “unapproved by provincial, city or county commercial departments” at local markets “even if the border were reopened.”

Meanwhile, the source said the provincial party told officials that they should understand that the border closure “will never be lifted, even partially” this year and that they should supervise matters well.

(Source: Jong So Yong, “N. Korean Cabinet calls on commercial sector to eradicate the ‘import disease’,” Daily NK, 4/11/2021.)

As I noted on the blog earlier this week, Radio Free Asia has reported that authorities say the border won’t open for trade until 2025.

Obviously, you can’t keep the border both closed and open it at the same time. So how can these claims be squared? As with all news on North Korea relying on few sources or South Korean intelligence claims, a huge dose of skepticism is warranted. It is of course entirely possible that some of these claims will later prove to be inaccurate. No one knows when border trade might reopen.

But both reports could be true at the same time. Note especially this paragraph in the quote from Daily NK above:

In particular, the provincial party said the border closure was not just a measure to protect the people from COVID-19, but also to awaken government organizations, enterprises and people “full of illusions about imported goods” from their delusions. They stressed the need to satisfy the people’s demand for consumer goods with “products produced in our country (North Korea).”

This goes to the heart of the question about whether the government may be using the pandemic as an opportunity to push for policy changes it would have sought anyway. It has long been a central economic policy goal for North Korea to decrease its reliance on imports and instead improve domestic manufacturing. Kim Jong-un has spoken about it frequently, as did his father before him.

Particularly in this light, it seems possible that the government might resume some border trade with China that is particularly important for its political purposes (or otherwise urgent), such as construction materials, certain machine parts that cannot be domestically manufactured, and potentially fertilizer. At the same time, it might continue the overall border closure in the name of the pandemic, severely limiting the flow of goods, with decreasing the country’s reliance on imports as an important long-term policy goal in mind. So for the general public, the message may remain that they must cope with an economic reality where the border remains largely shuttered, while trade resumes in some strategically important goods.

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