North Korea and China have resumed freight train services after a five-month suspension due to the pandemic, South Korean media has reported.
A freight train travelled from the Chinese border city of Dandong to North Korea’s Sinuiju, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported on Monday.
Trains had been suspended since April 29, after an outbreak of COVID-19 in Dandong.
It was not immediately clear if the train that crossed the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge on Monday marked the resumption of regular services, but Yonhap news agency quoted an anonymous source in China as saying trains would run one or two times a day.
China is North Korea’s main economic lifeline, normally accounting for more than 90 percent of its trade, but cross-border commerce has been sharply curtailed during the pandemic.
China’s trade with North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), plunged to $318m in 2021, down 90 percent compared with pre-pandemic levels, according to Chinese customs data.
Aid workers and analysts have warned that the country’s isolation has hammered its already fragile economy and exacerbated food shortages that have resulted in widespread chronic malnutrition.
North Korea’s economy shrank an estimated 0.1 percent last year, according to South Korea’s central bank, following a 4.5 percent decline in 2020.
Alastair Morgan, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to North Korea between 2005 and 2008, said the significance of the latest freight train service would depend on whether it marked the beginning of regular operations.
“A one-off shipment of, for example, medical goods and equipment or food would not be unprecedented,” Morgan told Al Jazeera.
“The resumption of regular freight shipments could be expected to support economic activity and availability of goods in the DPRK. The economic implications for China at a national level would be negligible. China in principle supports trade with the DPRK in non-sanctioned goods and favours the maintenance of stability in DPRK.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last month declared victory over the coronavirus, after authorities in the isolated country had reported about 4.8 million “fever cases” following an extensive outbreak in May. Kim, the third member of his family to rule the secretive state, has nonetheless acknowledged the hardships facing North Koreans, likening the pandemic to the 1950-1953 Korean War.
The North has reported just 74 COVID-19 deaths overall, a record doubted by experts given the country’s apparent caseload, lack of vaccine coverage and dilapidated health system.