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SEOUL: After spending two years in strict lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea may finally be opening up – slowly. The reason could reflect a growing sense of recognition by leaders that the nation badly needs to earn outside economic aid.
The North’s tentative reopening can be seen in the apparent resumption of North Korean freight rail traffic to neighboring China. But it comes even as Pyongyang has staged several weapons tests, the latest being two suspected ballistic missiles on Thursday, and issued a veiled threat over the resumption of tests of nuclear explosives and long-range missiles targeting the homeland. American.
The seemingly divided message — opening the border, slightly, on the one hand, while pressuring Washington militarily for an extended freeze on nuclear negotiations — likely signals a realization that the pandemic has worsened an economy already damaged by decades of mismanagement and crippling US-led sanctions against North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles.
According to South Korean estimates, North Korea’s crucial trade with its ally China shrank by around 80% in 2020 before plunging again by two-thirds in the first nine months of 2021 as it closed. its borders.
The partial reopening of the border also raises questions about how North Korea plans to receive and administer vaccines after a year-long delay in its vaccination campaign.
“North Korea could become the planet’s last battleground in the war against COVID-19. Even the poorest countries in Africa have received external aid and vaccines or acquired immunity through infection, but North Korea is the only country in the world without a real plan,” said analyst Lim Soo-ho. from the Seoul National Security Strategy Institute, a thinker. tank run by the main South Korean spy agency.
Commercial satellite images indicate that the first North Korean freight train that crossed the Yalu River last week then returned from China and unloaded goods at an airfield in the border town of Uiju, according to the 38 North website. focused on North Korea. The airfield is believed to have been converted to disinfect imported supplies, which may include food and medicine.
China’s Foreign Ministry said trade between border towns would be maintained while pandemic controls remained in place. But South Korean officials say it’s not immediately clear whether the North will fully reopen overland trade with China, which is a major economic lifeline.
Some South Korean media have speculated that North Korea may have temporarily reopened the railway between Sinuiju and Chinese Dandong just to receive food and essential goods to be given as gifts to its people during the important holidays, including the 80th birthday of leader Kim Jong Un’s father next month, and the 110th birthday in April of his grandfather who founded North Korea.
Many experts, however, say it is more likely that the economic pressure of the pandemic will force North Korea to explore a gradual reopening of its borders which it could quickly close if greater risks emerge.
After two years of extreme isolation and economic decline, Pyongyang’s leaders are looking for more sustainable ways to deal with a pandemic that could last for years.
While North Korea has so far claimed zero virus infections, it is also calling its anti-virus campaign a matter of “national existence”. He severely restricted cross-border traffic and trade, banned tourists and expelled diplomats, and reportedly even ordered troops to shoot intruders on sight.
Pyongyang’s leaders know a major outbreak of COVID-19 would be devastating due to North Korea’s poor healthcare system and could even stoke social unrest when combined with its chronic food shortage, experts say.
South Korean officials said North Korea had established disinfection zones in recent months in border towns and seaports. The World Health Organization said in October that the North had started receiving shipments of medical supplies by sea from China via its port of Nampo.
The pandemic is another difficulty for Kim, who has gained little from his nuclear disarmament diplomacy for aid with former US President Donald Trump. Those talks imploded in 2019.
Kim in 2020 acknowledged that his previous economic plans were not working and opened 2021 by releasing a new development plan for the next five years.
But North Korea’s review of its 2021 economy at a ruling party meeting in December indicated the plan’s first year was disappointing, Lim said. A rare tangible progress was a modest increase in food production, which rebounded from a 2020 marked by storms and floods that destroyed crops.
The resumption of trade between North Korea and China will be driven by imports. Most of North Korea’s major export business has been blocked by tightened international sanctions since 2016 after Kim accelerated nuclear and missile development.
The North could focus on importing fertilizers to boost food production. He also needs building materials for development projects important to Kim. Factory goods and machinery are key to reviving industrial production, which has been decimated by two years of a trade shutdown.
Experts, however, still expect North Korea’s trade with China to be significantly below pre-pandemic levels.
North Korea cannot immediately purchase a huge amount of goods as the multi-year toll of pandemic-related sanctions and hardship has depleted foreign currency reserves.
“Still, it’s clear that North Korea is not a country that can survive without imports for two or three years, so for sure they will try to slowly increase imports within a limited framework,” he said. Go Myong-hyun, an analyst in Seoul. Asan Institute of Policy Studies.
North Korea has so far shunned millions of vaccines donated by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly reflecting an unease with accepting international monitors. But the country could still seek help from China and Russia to vaccinate workers, officials and troops in border areas as it proceeds with a gradual resumption of trade, said Hong Min, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
North Korea could also be forced to adopt a reduced vaccination program by strictly restricting access to border areas and providing regular testing and vaccination to border workers.
“It could take nearly 100 million vaccines to fully vaccinate North Korea’s population of over 25 million, and the country will never get anything close to that,” Lim said.

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