North Korea has allowed a military-controlled seaport on the country’s west coast to reopen, indicating that the military is resuming its foreign currency earning trade activities while the rest of the country remains on lockdown to combat the coronavirus epidemic, sources told RFA.
Haeyang port, which is the largest port in North Pyongan province, is located in Ryongchon county. It was among maritime ports closed off at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in January along with the country’s land border with China. The stoppage of all trade with China resulted in a decimated the local economy.
“Since the end of April, the seaport in Ryongchon has been reopened,” a source working in the trade industry who requested anonymity to speak freely told RFA’s Korean Service May 5.
“This means that trade between North Korea and China has resumed after a long hiatus due to the coronavirus crisis,” said the source.
The source said only companies with ties to the military can utilize the port, however.
“It is the largest seaport in the province, and only the military has the rights to it. The port is currently being used by trade companies affiliated with the military to earn foreign currency,” said the source.
The reopening of Ryongchon port is an official resumption of trade, but it is still the only port trading right now.
“Trade by sea has resumed, but the general ports in Dongyang and Unpasan, near the border area of North Pyongan province remain blocked,” said the source.
“Authorities resumed trade in [Ryongchon] port first in preparation for a worsening food shortage among military units. They are allowing foreign currency-making companies to trade over the sea with China, so they can procure food for the military,” the source added.
Ships that had been docked at other ports are now trying to take advantage of the situation in Ryongchon.
“Since we’re trading again, trade vessels that had been waiting the trade freeze out in general ports such as those in Dongyang and Unpasan are now flocking to [Ryongchon],” the source said.
“But each vessel must contribute U.S. $500 to the military to use the port here,” the source said, adding that the vessels utilizing the port include military fishing boats and ordinary boats hauling rice.
Another trader in North Pyongan Province, who requested anonymity for legal reasons, told RFA on the same day, “Haeyang port is a [relatively] newly established foreign currency earning port that was built with the aim of securing military funds. [It has been around] since the inauguration of the Kim Jong Un regime [in 2011].“
“The port is wider than most other ports and is connected to the West Sea, so many trading ships regularly use it,” the second source said, using a colloquial Korean name for the Yellow Sea.
Since the epidemic started, trading companies, including those owned by the military, were struggling to keep their heads above water as trade was stopped.
“The coronavirus crisis has caused the military to suffer serious financial difficulties as maritime port trade had been suspended altogether,” said the second source.
“To overcome this, military trading companies have been engaging in smuggling since mid-March using the port of Unpasan, where the border command is stationed. The smuggling of trade companies belonging to the military was possible because the authorities tacitly allowed it,” the second source added.
According to the source, the border command is mainly concerned with shipping costs and will not thoroughly check on what is being shipped.
“I can bring in anything, but the shipping cost per ton is 3,500 Chinese yuan ($494). If we pay that, we can bring in everything, including agricultural machinery and cranes, in all sorts of ways through Dongyang or Unpasan,” the second source said.
But regular traders are asking why the government is giving preferential treatment to the military trading companies, and they are forced to continue taking risks by smuggling.
“In April, smuggling by the military and some of the other national foreign currency making companies was rampant. The authorities were concerned about coronavirus coming in, so they started controlling it more strictly,” the second source said.
“But now that the port [at Ryongchon] has been reopened and only the military-affiliated trading companies are allowed to go try to make foreign currency, the general trading companies are protesting,” the second source said.
“Why do they give only preferential treatment to the military?”
Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.