China-North Korea Trade Recovering Post-Pandemic; May Increase Further With 75th Anniversary Of Bilateral Relations

Shotaro Demizu / The Yomiuri Shimbun
A truck crosses the so-called “China-North Korea Friendship Bridge” on May 16 from Dandong in China’s Liaoning Province, bound for North Korea.

SHENYANG, China — Trade between China and North Korea is trending toward recovery, which seems to be what China is aiming for in supporting its U.N.-sanctioned neighbor.

Their bilateral economic activities may further increase this year, which marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two nations.

One day in mid-May, more than 15 large trucks and trailers slowly crossed the so-called “China-North Korea Friendship Bridge,” an iron bridge connecting Dandong, in China’s Liaoning Province, with Sinuiju in North Korea.

The aging bridge creaked with every vehicle that rolled across it. As drivers waited in a growing line to go through customs, a traffic jam formed — a sight that would have been unimaginable last October. According to locals, there are days when more than 50 trucks cross the bridge.

In the parking lot of a clothing and household goods store in Dandong, a Chinese worker was trying to cram as much cargo as he could in the back of a truck. Asked about the contents, the man admitted that it was being transported to North Korea, but he soon rushed off without explaining what was inside.

The total value of trade between China and North Korea started to decline in 2020, when their border was closed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Now that overland trade by rail and truck has resumed, it is on the road to recovery.

According to Chinese customs authorities, the total value of China-North Korea trade in 2023 rose to $2.3 billion (about ¥358.3 billion), 80% of what it was in 2019, just before the pandemic.

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The main trade item is wigs: China exports human hair to North Korea, where it is made into wigs which are then exported back to China. Wigs accounted for more than half of North Korea’s exports to China in April.

“Wigs are a valuable way to earn foreign currency, and they are not subject to economic sanctions,” a diplomatic source said, referring to the economic sanctions which the United Nations Security Council enforces on North Korea.

Both nations are positioning this year, which marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between them, as a “year of friendship.” High-ranking officials from both nations have been visiting each other.

In April, Zhao Leji, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and third in the hierarchy of the Communist Party of China, met in Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and they agreed on a policy to further develop the cooperative relationship between China and North Korea.

The focus going forward will be on whether and when another bridge, the about 3-kilometer-long “Yalu River Bridge” whose construction began in Dandong in 2010, will finally be opened.

Although it has been pointed out that the construction of customs clearance facilities on the North Korean side is progressing slowly, some people expect the bridge to open in October, the month of the 75th anniversary.

A source connected to China-North Korea trade, however, said, “North Korea is assessing how much profit it will gain from the opening of the bridge.” The source indicated that if North Korea judges that its trade deficit will get worse, the bridge will not be opened so soon.

The Yomiuri Shimbun