A North Korean customs house as seen from the Chinese side. Containers from China can be seen in front of the customs house.

◆The current situation at the Rason-Quanhe trade hub

Overland trade between North Korea and China has restarted after North Korean closed its borders due to COVID-19. At the end of December, the trade route between Sinuiju and Dandong, the biggest hub for overland trade between the two countries, reopened. What is the current situation at the Rason-Quanhe trade hub? An ASIAPRESS reporting partner living in China recently visited the Rason-Quanhe area, which boasts the second largest amount of trade flow after Sinuiju-Dandong. (HAN Ha-yu)

A map of the North Korea-China border (ASIAPRESS)

North Korea has gradually pulled away from the strict isolation policies it adhered to during the COVID-19 pandemic. In late December 2022, China shifted from its “zero-COVID” policy to a “living with COVID” policy, which led to the start of train-based trade between Sinuiju and Dandong, the biggest trade route between the two countries. North Korean authorities, however, are still not permitting people from crossing over the border.

Freight trucks waiting to pass through the Quanhe customs facility. The trucks are carrying containers filled with goods to be transported into North Korea.

◆ North Korea-China trade on fast-track to normalization

According to China Customs data, which allows us to see changes in the amount of trade between North Korea and China, the amount of imports and exports during the first half of 2023 exceeded the total amount of imports and exports recorded in all of 2022. Maritime-based trade through Nampo Port in the West Sea was restarted some time ago, but it is clear that the volume of North Korea-China trade is recovering at a rapid pace.

Two bridges that connect China and North Korea. In the past, the left-hand-side bridge was used for trade; however, presently, trade is conducted along the green-colored bridge to the right, which was constructed by China. The bridge to the right, meanwhile, is now just a tourist attraction as you can only walk to the middle.
A monument saying that the area is Chinese territory. It is located at the entrance of a bridge heading toward North Korea.

What is the situation at Rason-Quanhe route along the Tumen River, which is another major hub for North Korea-China trade after the Sinuiju-Dandong route? According to Yonhap News, freight trucks began going back and forth between Rason and Quanhe in January of this year. ASIAPRESS commissioned a reporting partner living in China to visit the Quanhe customs house to find out more about the current situation.

A graph showing changes in trade between North Korea and China. (ASIAPRESS)

◆ Drivers not allowed to leave their vehicles in North Korea

The reporting partner told ASIAPRESS that “drivers of freight trucks who cross over into North Korea can’t leave their vehicles. They go immediately to unloading spots, unload their containers, and then immediately head back to China. I’ve heard that in accordance with North Korean COVID-19 quarantine procedures, the containers must stay up to a week in front of the North Korean customs house where they are quarantined and sanitized before being carried off to their final destinations.”

The reporting partner added that “I didn’t see any freight trucks that had come over from North Korea that day, and I asked a trade-related official about what kinds of goods were being transported from China to North Korea, but I couldn’t find out anything.”

The front of the Quanhe customs house in China. Entry into the customs house is restricted and there are guards at the entrance.
The new headquarters of the Chinese customs house, whose construction was started in 2017 and is now complete. This building, however, does not appear to be in use. It is currently one stop on routes taken by tour groups.
(Left) A photo of barbed-wire fencing on the North Korea-China border taken in September 2019. (Right) A photo taken in late July 2023 showing two layers of fencing on the Chinese side. This suggests that security along the China-North Korea border has been tightened.

※ With the exception of one photograph, the photos published below were all taken by an ASIAPRESS reporting partner based in China in late July 2023.