A female worker at a North Korean restaurant in Dandong. There was a steep drop in customers at such restaurants after COVID-19 began, leading to the closure of many establishments; restaurant employees, however, have been unable to return home due to COVID-19 restrictions. Taken by ASIAPRESS in July 2021 in China.

For the past three and a half years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020, North Korea has tightly shut its borders, making it almost impossible for foreigners or North Koreans themselves to enter or leave the country. Under the pretext of preventing the spread of COVID-19, the regime also severely restricted trade until late December of last year, which was when the Chinese abandoned their zero-COVID policy. Quarantine restrictions are now easing inside North Korea, sparking questions about when human and material traffic across the China-North Korea border will be permitted to resume. ASIAPRESS recently asked a businessman in China’s Jilin Province who has long been involved in business with North Korea and is an expert on the China-North Korea trade situation about recent developments. (Interview conducted by KANG Ji-won in mid-July)

◆ Little interest in China toward trade between companies

―― There’s constant rumors about North Korea restarting trade these days…

“Companies and investors who have long been involved in trade with North Korea hold frequent meetings, but I’ve failed to confirm when exactly trade routes will open to allow the restart of trade.”


―― Is there a lot of anticipation in China about the restart of trade?
“In the past, most companies that conducted many trade activities with North Korea are now doing other things (because of North Korea’s COVID border closure). Even if North Korean customs houses were to open immediately, these companies would do little to take advantage of the situation. They just don’t have much interest in trade. There’s the issue of (UN Security Council) sanctions on North Korea, for example…
That being said, there are companies that are considering exporting goods to North Korea. There are people who plan to export rice, fabric, paint, and sundries to North Korea once trade opens up; however, they’re just considering it. They’ve barely made a dent in establishing specific plans in this regard.


――What about imports from North Korea?
“There’s Chinese investors who are highly interested in North Korean minerals. Some of them request consultations with me to discuss the issue of the UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea, and several people have asked whether smuggling is possible. The most inquiries I’ve received relate to copper, followed by lead, zinc, and iron ore.”


―― It seems like North Korea is strengthening its control over trade-related activities.
“Just like in the past, North Korea doesn’t have a system where you can make deals through discussions with trading companies or individuals. There’s rumors that North Korea will only make deals with large Chinese companies, along with rumors that only companies manufacturing items through joint ventures that involve investments into manufacturing equipment in North Korea will be able to export goods to China.”

◆The scramble for low-cost North Korean labor

―― It appears that North Korea is going to replace much of the existing labor workforce in China with a new workforce.
“There’s a great number of factories that want to use North Korean labor. There are even companies serving as middlemen to introduce factories to laborers entering China through Dandong (in Liaoning Province). They’ll be a lot of companies that rely on these middlemen to introduce them to North Korean labor when trade resumes. Clothing factories in particular are heavily competing with each other to bring North Korean laborers to their factory floors.”


―― Will North Korea allow Chinese tourists to visit the country again?
“There’s companies in China starting to prepare tourism packages for travel in North Korea, but I’m not certain whether North Korea will allow tourists into the country.”

Map of North Korea ( ASIAPRESS)