China's Covid-19 surge could set back border reopening with North Korea

A man points at the New Yalu River Bridge designed to connect China's Dandong New Zone and North Korea's Sinuiju, in Dandong, Liaoning province, China on April 20, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - New Covid-19 restrictions in the Chinese area bordering North Korea may have scuttled Kim Jong Un's plans to reopen a vital crossing that has been closed for almost two years.

The Chinese border city of Dandong this week asked residents not to leave unless necessary due to a flareup of Covid-19 cases in nearby Zhuanghe.

"The risk of an epidemic spreading is very high," Dandong disease control officials said in a statement on Monday (Nov 8).

The statement came the same day that a North Korean train crossed into Dandong, South Korean broadcaster KBS reported, showing a video of what it said were carriage cars passing over a bridge between the neighbours.

And it was now unclear whether North Korean trains would be able to return anytime soon, the NK News website reported, citing Dandong residents.

The closed border has weighed on North Korea's economy, with Kim making rare admissions of the country's difficulties in recent months.

Reopening it could take pressure off of him to return to stalled nuclear disarmament talks with the United States, where the Biden administration is dangling the prospects financial rewards in exchange for steps to wind down its atomic arsenal.

With his impoverished country at particular risk from outbreaks, Kim took a hard line against travel to China, closing checking points in the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan.

In recent weeks, satellite imagery has indicated increased activity in recent weeks at the crossings, NK News said.

There were indications that preparations to resume train operations between the North Korea and China were in their final stages, Yonhap News Agency said, citing an unnamed Unification Ministry official in Seoul.

It was still unclear whether North Korea had opened its border, Yonhap added.

This comes as China pushes on with stringent curbs to disrupt the coronavirus's domestic transmission, suggesting it won't break away from its Covid-zero strategy anytime soon.

Kim's decision to shut borders likely sent the country's sanctions-hit economy last year into its biggest contraction since the 1990s, according to Fitch Solutions and data from the Bank of Korea in Seoul.

It also has caused political strains as home, leaving the economy around 9 per cent smaller than when Kim took power a decade ago with a pledge to improve people's living standards.

Trade with China plunged about 80 per cent last year, dealing a bigger blow to North Korea than international sanctions to punish it for its nuclear weapons program, according to a trade association in Seoul.

The downward slide has continued into this year with trade between the two dropping to about US$185 million from January to September, about a third of what it was a year earlier, lawmaker Ha Tae-keung of the opposition People Power Party told reporters after a briefing by the spy agency about two weeks ago.

The pandemic has only increased North Korea's isolation. Foreign aid organisations have been largely thwarted from getting into the country to deliver humanitarian assistance due to Pyongyang's worries about the operations bringing in Covid-19.

Kim meanwhile, has shunned offers of vaccines through the Covax programme backed by the World Health Organisation, apparently because it's unwilling to follow the organisation's instructions and rules.

North Korea has said it had no cases of Covid-19, but officials from the US, Japan and others highly doubt the claim.

North Korea's propaganda machine, meanwhile, has tried to hammer home that Kim is making sure that Covid-19 doesn't take root in the country and cracking the whip on cadres to keep them vigilant on virus prevention.

The state's official Korean Central News Agency added to the message on Tuesday and reported authorities are "further intensifying mass epidemic prevention work to thoroughly block the inroads of the pandemic and get rid of any possibilities of the virus' spread."

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