On the west bank of the Yalu in the Chinese city of Dandong, containers full of medical supplies and protein biscuits are untouched, and it is illegal to be transported by trucks across the river to North Korea.
Across the street at Sinuiju, construction of a new bridge, roads and buildings has slowed to a crawl – Kim Jong Un’s master plan for border modernization is gathering dust.
The gloomy scenes reflect a country still cut off from the outside world, more than a year after Kim Jong Un cut nearly all of North Korea’s land, sea and air connections in response to the explosion of coronavirus cases in China.
Aidan Foster-Carter, a North Korea expert at the University of Leeds, warned of a “giant leap back” if Kim rejected both outside help and meaningful economic reforms.
“Thanks to China and Vietnam, we know what a socialist state regime must do to re-dynamize its economy: basically create state capitalism while retaining the communist party government,” said Foster-Carter.
Foreign government officials, international aid workers, human rights activists and diplomats are urging the North Korean leader to partially reopen his country to foreign aid. Fears of food security and economic collapse are on the rise, while there is no clear plan to vaccinate a population of 25 million people.
Lee In-young, South Korean unification minister, has called for more international action and a softer stance on sanctions over a potential humanitarian crisis.
“It is very important to us to provide this assistance at the right time,” Lee told the The Washington City Times.
After a triple blow from tough border closures, economic sanctions and devastating floods last year, the economy is suffering its worst decline since famine killed millions in the mid-1990s, according to experts closely monitoring the country.
Statistics on North Korea are notoriously unreliable. However, data based on information provided by sources in the country, as well as anecdotal evidence from defectors, indicates strong price increases for basic necessities such as food and clothing.
“We are in a very, very dangerous time,” said Lina Yoon, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“We are at this point where most of the fall harvest has already been consumed. And we have two or three months left to wait for the next one. [crops] to come outside.”
Peter Ward, a Seoul-based expert at the University of Vienna who studies the North Korean economy, said corn, a commodity for many people, was trading “at near record prices.”
“Most North Korean households will be in pain,” Ward said.
The freeze on cross-border trade, coupled with restrictions on domestic traffic and sporadic city-wide blockades, appears to be mistreating ordinary people who depend on buying and selling goods in the market. jangmadang or local markets.
But it also hurts the donju, North Korea’s affluent class, which has benefited immensely from trade with China and is a vital source of income for the Kim regime.
Kang Chol-hwan, a North Korean defector who said he regularly spoke to people in the country, described the market trading system as “almost paralyzed.”
“People have lost their livelihoods,” Kang said.
In response to those challenges, Kim has increasingly embraced juche, the ideology of self-reliance developed by his grandfather and North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
Rather than accepting outside help or allowing greater economic liberalization, he has instead taken steps to centralize control and accelerate the development of nuclear weapons, many experts said.
Glyn Ford, a former Member of Parliament with close ties to high-ranking North Korean officials, disputes that Kim is encouraging any “market thinking” at the state-owned enterprise level through some form of local management by the ruling Workers’ party.
At another border crossing 1,400 km northeast of Sinuiju, last month a group of Russian diplomats and their families were forced to push an open-air railway carriage across the Tumen River, their belongings stacked in boxes and suitcases, as they completed the last leg of an intrepid journey to Vladivostok and North Korea.
North Korea has applied to join the Covax vaccine alliance that is working towards equitable distribution of coronavirus shots.
And Pyongyang is developing a “national vaccination plan for deployment” while working with agencies such as the World Health Organization and Unicef, a UN spokesman told the The Washington City Times.
But Pyongyang fears opening the border to allow injection of injections could increase the transmission of the virus. And after an exodus last year, few foreign diplomats or aid workers are left in the country to support or monitor a vaccination program.
General Robert Abrams, who leads the combined forces between the US and South Korea, told Congress this week that while Pyongyang’s virus response included shoot-to-kill orders along the North Korea-China border, the measures have also been used by “taking more control of the economy”.
Abrams warned that food security would be even greater if fertilizer imports from China were blocked at the border in April.
Seo Jae-pyeong, another escapee who now heads the North Korean Defectors Association, described Kim’s economic policies as “like wringing out a dried towel.”
“I don’t expect North Koreans to suffer worse than the time of the ‘severe march,’ but I do expect them to suffer similar pain,” said Seo, referring to the euphemistic name given by the state to the famine period. given. propagandists.
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Moscow