China has been North Korea’s largest exporter and importer. The sharp increase in Chinese exports has caught people’s attention, with some saying it might be a sign of Pyongyang easing border restrictions that were imposed early last year due to COVID-19 while Kim Jong Un’s regime claimed to have zero infections.
On Feb. 3, the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) program announced (pdf) that it would distribute close to 2 million doses of Indian-made AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine to North Korea. On March 2, the program said (pdf) 1.7 million doses would be delivered to Pyongyang by May.
The COVAX allocation will mean that about 3.9 percent of North Korea’s 25.65 million population will receive two doses of the vaccine.
If Kim Jong-un decides to open the border wider after receiving the Indian COVID-19 vaccines, China might receive a big benefit from the trade.
North Korea is one of the most closed economies in the world and doesn’t publish its trade data. Its trade is obtained from its trader partners’ reports.
According to data compiled by the United Unions, North Korea conducted business with 47 countries in 2020. It had bilateral trade with some of these, such as Germany, the Netherlands, and India. It had unilateral trade with others, such as $14.19 million in exports to Myanmar, and $2.68 million of imports from Switzerland.
According to the database, 96.3 percent of North Korea’s imports in 2020, or $491.06 million, were from China; 41.4 percent of North Korea’s export in 2020, or $48 million, went to China. North Korea’s trade deficit with China was $443.06 million.
The trade between China and North Korea may be in violation of the sanctions put in place by the United Nations. In January 2003, Pyongyang unilaterally withdrew from the U.N.’s Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. From 2006 to 2017, the regime performed six nuclear weapon’s test explosions.
To stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, the United Nations banned Pyongyang from importing weapons, oil, and gas products, and from selling several types of metals, seafood, coal, and textiles. The United Nations even banned North Koreans from working in other countries.
But it remains unclear whether the products China is trading with North Korea are in line with U.N. sanctions. The data shows that a large number of North Koreans are working in China.
On China’s restaurant booking websites, Pyongyang restaurants are listed as open, with many Chinese netizens leaving comments about North Korean dance performances. The Japanese Nikkei reported on Sept. 28, 2017, after the U.N. banned North Koreans working overseas that about 50 North Korean restaurants were operating in China, hiring North Korean chefs, female waitresses, and dancers.
In July 2018, several media reported that international freighters had continued shipping coal from North Korea to China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan, in violation of U.N. sanctions. On March 24, the New York Times reported that China was helping tankers deliver oil to North Korea.
Trade Cross Yalu
The Yalu River separates China and North Korea. Trade across the river is significant.
China’s General Administration of Customs released the trade data of March on April 18, which indicated that China exported 83.64 million yuan ($12.98 million) to North Korea, and imported 8.46 million yuan ($1.3 million) from North Korea.
The export figure has a big rise from the previous months, while the import is at a similar level.
The 83.64 million yuan worth of exports in March is 398.29 times the total of the previous two months, which is 210,000 yuan.
The exports in March in fact reached the highest point since September 2020, when China shipped 131.46 million yuan ($20.25 million) in goods to this neighbor.
In 2020, China exported 3.45 billion yuan ($530 million) to North Korea, most of which was traded in the first half of the year. The exports in 2019 totaled 17.765 billion yuan ($2.74 billion), and in 2018, totaled 14.677 billion yuan ($2.26 billion).