Authorities in North Korea and China have temporarily reopened customs offices on their border to allow a group of Chinese stranded since the frontier was closed over coronavirus fears in January to return home, sources on the Chinese side of the border told RFA.
Pyongyang and Beijing shut down their border in January and suspended all trade to prevent the spread of the virus, but many Chinese were in North Korea at the time, unable to go home.
Now, the customs offices in Sinuiju, and across the Yalu River in Dandong, China are processing stranded Chinese in limited numbers.
“The Dandong and Sinuiju customs offices opened temporarily at 11 a.m. today,” a resident of Dandong told RFA’s Korean Service Wednesday.
“Today six returning Chinese arrived at Dandong customs from Sinuiju customs by a small bus. As soon as they got off the bus, quarantine officials subjected them to disinfection procedures and tests and moved them to a nearby hotel serving as a designated quarantine facility,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
The source said that there are many more people who have not returned from North Korea since the border closed in January, but the return of the six is a sign that they will allow more Chinese to come home.
“There has already been news since last month that the customs office would open soon. This is why Dandong business partners of North Korean trade agencies are paying close attention to when Dandong customs will open completely and resume operations,” said the source.
Another Dandong resident confirmed to RFA that the office reopened Wednesday.
“If there are no abnormalities in the quarantine results among today’s returnees, people believe that the office can be partially reopened,” said the second source, who declined to be named.
“With partial opening, trade and exchanges with North Korea… could resume. If the customs office reopens, trade with North Korea will explode,” the second source said.
Rumors of the reopening had been swirling in recent weeks in a region hit hard by the border closure, which left North Korea isolated from its largest trading partner and primary source of foreign currency and brought hardship to traders who eke out a living trading or smuggling goods across the border,
An official of a trading company in Dandong told RFA late last month, “I heard that the customs office in Sinuiju is currently installing equipment for the coronavirus, including an automatic thermometer. It must be because North Korea is preparing to reopen the customs office, perhaps on a limited basis.”
“The Chinese authorities are allowing businessmen from some countries, including South Korea to enter the country… but they have to go through a 14-day quarantine at a state-designated facility,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.”
Meanwhile, North Korea is allowing its residents of Chinese descent to apply for exit visas to visit China.
Called Hwagyo in Korean, ethnic Chinese residents are not North Korean citizens and as such are not afforded certain rights that citizens have, but they have traditionally been afforded slightly more freedoms, including being allowed to go abroad.
“Hwagyo are confused right now because the authorities in North Korea are encouraging those of us who once frequently traveled to China before the coronavirus to apply, promising they would give us permission if we wanted to go to China,” a Hwagyo in Dandong told RFA Oct. 28.
“Some of us are saying that North Korean authorities are allowing us to go to China because they have discussed it with the Chinese authorities. A growing number of people are applying for the exit visas, saying it probably wouldn’t do any harm.”
Reported by Jieun Kim and Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.