After spending two years in a strict lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic, North Korea may finally be opening up — slowly. The reason could reflect a growing sense of recognition by the leadership that the nation badly needs to win outside economic relief.
The North’s tentative reopening is seen in the apparent resumption of North Korean freight train traffic into 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 about resuming tests of nuclear explosives and long-range missiles targeting the American homeland.
The apparently divided message — opening the border, slightly, on one hand, while also militarily pressuring Washington over a prolonged freeze in nuclear negotiations — likely signals a realization that the pandemic has worsened an economy already damaged by decades of mismanagement and crippling U.S.-led sanctions over North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles.
According to South Korean estimates, North Korea’s crucial trade with its ally China shrank by about 80 percent in 2020 before plunging again by two-thirds in the first nine months of 2021 as it sealed its borders.
The partial reopening of the border also raises questions about how North Korea plans to receive and administer vaccines following a yearlong delay in its immunization campaign.
“North Korea could end up being the planet’s last battlefield in the war against Covid-19. Even the poorest countries in Africa have received outside 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 at Seoul’s Institute of National Security Strategy, a think tank run by South Korea’s main 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 cargo at an airfield in the border town of Uiju, according to the North Korea-focused 38 North website. The airfield is believed to have been converted to disinfect imported supplies, which may include food and medicine.
China’s Foreign Ministry has said trade between the border towns will be maintained while pandemic controls stay in place. But South Korean officials say it isn’t immediately clear whether the North is fully reopening land trade with China, which is a major economic lifeline.