|The North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported June 18 that medical supplies and other goods prepared by party central committee officials and their family members were delivered on June 17 to a region in South Hwanghae Province that has seen an infectious disease outbreak. KCNA-Yonhap|
China's exports to North Korea slumped by 85.2 percent in May from April
By Ji Siqi, Kim Bo-eun
SHENYANG, HONG KONG ― North Korea bought a large volume of soybeans from China in May even though overall imports from its neighbor slumped more than 80 percent from the previous month, trade data from Beijing showed, amid suspicion the reclusive state is suffering food shortages as it fights a coronavirus outbreak.
North Korea spent $2.97 million on 3,744 tons of Chinese soybeans last month, the second-largest monthly amount since 2017, Chinese customs data showed.
The country imported just 500 tons of soybeans from China in the first four months of 2022.
North Korea is facing a potentially dire food situation this year, which has been exacerbated by trade disruptions caused by the pandemic.
The CIA estimated last month North Korea's food shortages were roughly 860,000 tons ― equivalent to two to three months of food for the country.
Low rainfall across the country and lockdowns are adding to food pressure, experts said.
"Efforts to overcome drought and the decrease in the external supply of grains and farming goods due to the lasting lockdown will prove to be key variables (in North Korea's food situation)," Cho Joong-hoon, a spokesman for South Korea's Unification Ministry, said in a briefing on Monday.
North Korea's state broadcaster and newspaper have been closely covering rice planting that began in May as a means to encourage farmers to increase output.
While soybean shipments were up, China's overall exports to North Korea slumped by 85.2 percent to $14.51 million in May from $98.1 million in April, following the halt of train cargo between the countries.
|A freight train stands at Dandong Railway Station in Liaoning Province, China, on April 17, 2021. Yonhap|
The cross-border service via the Chinese city of Dandong only resumed in January after a break of more than a year. It was suspended again in late April when virus cases were detected in the border city, which has traditionally been the gateway for at least 70 percent of trade between China and North Korea.
Dandong has been under lockdown for nearly two months under what China has termed its "dynamic zero-COVID policy," despite there being only a couple of new infection cases reported daily in the past few weeks.
Still, local authorities are taking no chances, warning citizens against lingering along the Yalu River, which forms the border between the two countries, or touching the river water and floating objects.
As there is no road freight between the countries, cargo flows ― licit or illicit ― have returned to sea transport in the past month, according to a Chinese trader who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Port of Longkou in Shandong province was once a hub for exports and smuggling to North Korea, the trader said, but patrols have intensified in the area recently, pushing activity further south to ports such as Lianyungang and Nantong in Jiangsu province.
"Most (shipments) will be from smuggling," the trader said.
North Korea's economy cannot operate without imports and the country is dependent on China for trade, according to Choi Jang-ho, head of the International Cooperation for Korean Unification Team at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy.
"North Korea relies almost entirely on imports for not only petrochemical raw material, but also steel products, basic food supplies such as soybean oil, sugar, and flour, semiconductors and means of transportation such as cars and trains," Choi said.
"If North Korea's COVID situation worsens, trade with China will inevitably continue to be restricted, and in this case the damage will be substantial for North Korea," he said.
Apart from soybeans, top export items in May from China to North Korea included $2.64 million of granulated sugar, $1.49 million of soybean meal and $846,598 of wheat flour.
Although food insecurity is a growing concern for North Korea, it is not the country's only pressing problem.
The nation of 26 million people recorded 18,820 new "fever" cases on Monday, according to state news agency KCNA, with daily infections continuing to drop and no new deaths reported.
North Korea only acknowledged its first COVID-19 outbreak on May 12. More than 4.6 million have shown fever symptoms since then, but it has not revealed how many of those patients have tested positive for the coronavirus.
The country imported no COVID-related medical supplies from China in May after buying a large number of ventilators, patient monitors, face masks, protective clothing and thermometers from China in the first four months of the year.
In May, North Korean exports to China reached $5.8 million, increasing by 36.5 percent from April. The export items were mainly electricity and silicon iron, Chinese customs data showed.