September spike could signal DPRK’s willingness to expand trade for first time since the pandemic began, expert says

The total value of China-North Korea trade more than doubled between August and September, reaching its highest value in more than a year, newly released data shows.

According to the Chinese General Administration of Customs (GAC), China imported $14.3 million worth of goods from North Korea in September, up from just $6.2 million the month prior.

The September import figures are the highest since Dec. 2019, just before the COVID-19 virus spilled out of Wuhan and rattled the world economy.

Meanwhile, Chinese exports to North Korea increased from $22.5 million in August to $55.6 million in September.

In total, China-North Korea trade in September was worth $69.9 million, the highest volume since cross-border trade reached $73.8 million in July 2020.

Comparisons with pre-pandemic trade levels, however, reveal how little access Pyongyang has to Chinese commodities under its COVID-19 prevention policies. For instance, in Sept. 2019, trade between the two countries was worth $243.6 million — nearly four times the Sept. 2021 figures.

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Peter Ward, a North Korea economy expert and NK Pro analytic contributor, said on Monday that the upswing “indicates that the leadership in Pyongyang feels the need to reopen to Chinese trade, given the economic situation in the country.”

GAC data usually does not include coal illegally imported from North Korea, suggesting the uptick in imports is not tied to recent, suspected coal shipments to northeast China after authorities there directed state energy companies to secure fuel “at all costs.”

Ward added that the data could “presage a large influx of food or aid in the coming months,” assuming the latest figures do not include any sizeable increases in food imports. The GAC is expected to release more detailed trade data this Wednesday, local time.

In Jan. 2020, North Korea mostly sealed its border to prevent the spread of COVID-19, halting nearly all movement of people and goods to and from China. The restrictions have all but decimated cross-border trade since around Feb. 2020, upending a critical trade lifeline and thrusting the country into an economic situation that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has described as “grim.”

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