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As Beijing Prepares Huge Food-Aid Operation, Trains for North Korea Stop Shipping Commercial Freight

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Trade officials in China are limiting commercial freight train shipments to North Korea because Beijing has plans to provide a massive amount of food aid to Pyongyang, according to RFA sources in the Chinese border city of Dandong.

As the North has not reported any kind of food crisis within its borders, sources are bewildered as to why China is preparing a large-scale aid package for the beginning of 2020.

A source in Dandong told RFA’s Korean Service that despite an abundance of freight trains gathered at Dandong’s rail station, officials are not allowing any commercial freight to be sent across the Sino-Korean border just south of the city.

“It’s very unusual that they suddenly announced that the freight trains gathered at Dandong station won’t be handling ordinary cargo,” the source said.

“Trade officials here in Dandong say this is because [China] will send food aid to North Korea soon,” said the source.

The source said China was known to be sending “corn, flour and soybean oil, but it is not yet clear whether unglutinous rice will be included in the aid package.”

Unglutinous rice is of a different strain than the rice typically eaten in Korea and Japan. North Korea has, in the past, signaled a preference for food-aid packages consisting of South Korean or Japanese glutinous rice.

The source said that food was being stockpiled near Dandong station.

“Starting early [this] year, the food aid will be a gigantic operation that requires the shipment of all the food stored just behind the freight train terminal. It will be sent to Sopo Station in Pyongyang,” the source said.

The source was able to estimate the duration of time that the no-commercial-shipment period might last.

“Freight trains from Dandong to North Korea run three times a day between midnight and 4:00 a.m.,” said the source, adding, “If a single freight car can carry 64 tons, so depending on how many freight cars they can connect, the food aid transportation period could be shortened or extended.”

A trading source, also in Dandong, told RFA that the period would last “the next couple of months.”

“Trading companies that normally would be using the freight trains to send goods to North Korea, and trade agents who have been ordered to return home [after finishing their terms of service in China] are disconcerted,” the second source said.

People who were ordered to return to North Korea need to bring their belongings to Pyongyang but unfortunately they will have to wait until after March,” said the second source.

“Considering that general cargo handling has been delayed for two months, it is estimated that the amount of food that will be transported to North Korea will reach hundreds of thousands of tons,” the second source said, wondering why such a massive aid operation was even necessary.

“There is no food crisis in North Korea yet, everyone is wondering why China is rushing to provide such a large amount of food.”

According to a New York Times report on May 15, the state-run Korea Central News Agency said that North Korea this year experienced its worst drought in 37 years. The report predicted that a food crisis in the country would worsen, given that the harvest in the fall of 2018 had been the worst in a decade.

The World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization were at that time concerned that the June harvest of crops like wheat and barley would be extremely low based on the prolonged drought.

RFA reported in May that several sources believed that the food shortage was not as severe as reported. They believed that authorities were overstating the severity of the shortage in order to secure more aid.

Another RFA report in August quoted Chinese sources who said that North Korea’s exports of processed foods to China raised questions about how food aid was being used.

A report released by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in May painted a dire picture of living conditions within North Korea, saying that in 2019, 10.9 million people (more than 43 percent of the population) do not have access to enough food.

In the 1990s a famine killed several million people, and those who came of age during that period continue to suffer from “injuries both physical and psychological,” said a report issued last month by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), a Washington-based NGO.

Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.