BEIJING (Reuters) - A North Korean economic delegation is due to arrive in Beijing this week to discuss food supplies and trade issues as the coronavirus pandemic has severely disrupted the country’s food supply, two people with direct knowledge of the situation told Reuters.
The delegation is headed to the Chinese capital amid conflicting reports about the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The people, who declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter, said the visit to Beijing is unrelated to Kim’s health status.
North Korean officials were already scheduled to meet with officials from China’s Ministry of Commerce to discuss trade and bolstering food imports before questions arose about Kim’s health, the people said.
Beijing and Pyongyang have discussed the resumption of cross-border trade in recent weeks, they said.
Early this year, Kim imposed strict restrictions on nearly all transportation across its borders with China and Russia, severely limiting trade and travel, which the sources said have caused food and consumer goods shortages in a country with already-limited supplies.
China, meanwhile, has barred entry of non-Chinese into the country as it scrambles to head off a resurgence of the coronavirus epidemic.
China’s foreign and commerce ministries, as well as the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, which handles relations with Pyongyang, did not respond to requests for comment. North Korea’s embassy in Beijing did not respond to a fax and its phones went unanswered on Tuesday.
Beijing has been reluctant to ease border controls as it is still imposing tight containment measures at home to tackle the pandemic, according to the people.
However, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported on Tuesday that a source at the China-North Korea border said they had seen at least one freight train a day since April 22 cross from Dandong in China into Sinuiju on the North Korean side.
China plans to send emergency items such as rice, soybeans, vegetables, instant noodles and medical supplies as aid to Pyongyang, one of the people with knowledge of the matter said. Further details, including the value of the aid, were not immediately available.
China is the chief ally and economic lifeline for North Korea, which has been hard-hit by U.N. sanctions over its nuclear weapons programme. Beijing has a keen interest in the stability of the country with which it shares a long, porous border.
Impoverished and isolated North Korea is prone to food shortages. As many as 1.1 million people died during the famines of the 1990s, according to South Korean estimates.
Last week, two Seoul-based news outlets specialising in North Korea reported “panic buying” of some items in Pyongyang.
NK News cited multiple sources who said that the buying spree seemed to be focused on imported products, while Daily NK reported that the panic buying and price increases followed a government notice that imports of “unimportant” items would be limited.
State media outlets in isolated North Korea have not reported any panic buying.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said in February that in North Korea the virus could “add increasing pressure to the complex situation due to quarantine measures set up to control the disease”.
North Korea has said it has no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, but some international experts have cast doubt on that claim given the country’s secrecy, cross-border trade with neighbouring China, where the outbreak began, and a poor health care system.
On April 23, the World Health Organization said that Pyongyang had told it there had been no positive cases among 740 people tested, the Voice of America reported.
The repercussions of the coronavirus outbreak come at what a number of foreign observers view as an unsettled moment for North Korea.
Kim, believed to be 36, was conspicuously absent from April 15 birthday celebrations for his grandfather and state founder Kim Il Sung, and has not been seen since an April 11 politburo meeting, fuelling speculation in the international community about his condition.
Last week, China sent a team that included health-care experts to North Korea to advise on Kim, Reuters reported. The Chinese delegation was led by a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department.
A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, asked on Monday about Kim and reports of a Chinese delegation being sent to North Korea, told a regular media briefing that he had no information to offer on the matter.
North Korea is one of the world’s most secretive countries, and the health of its leaders is treated as a matter of state security.
Reporting by Beijing newsroom; additional reporting by Josh Smith in Seoul; Editing by Nick Tattersall