Photo/Illutration A freight train running from Dandong in China to Sinuiju in North Korea crosses the China–North Korea Friendship Bridge in Liaoning province in China in March. (Kim Soonhi)

Pandemic-hit North Korea has asked China to resume the suspended regular freight train service running between the two countries.

In doing so, the country wants to prioritize solving its severe shortages of food and medical supplies, exacerbated by the suspended freight train service, over keeping the novel coronavirus at bay, according to multiple sources in China knowledgeable about the situation in North Korea.

“The state’s epidemic prevention operation has turned a crucial corner--it has shifted from the lockdown phase to the stage of implementing lockdowns and the eradication of the virus at the same time,” said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the plenary meeting of the central committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea held from June 8 to 10, according to the Korean Central News Agency.

North Korea is requesting the freight train service running between Sinuiju in the country and Dandong in China be resumed.

It was first suspended in January 2020, when North Korea sealed its border with China in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus in the country.

The service was resumed in January this year, but the Chinese foreign ministry announced on April 29 it was suspended again following discussions between the two countries.

Strict measures to restrict people’s behavior were in place in late April in Dandong to stem the spread of the virus.

It is believed the number of patients with fever symptoms in North Korea began to rise sharply in late April.

Therefore, it is believed the freight train service was suspended for the second time as the two countries became more alarmed about the virus.

North Korea has been vigilant for some time against the possibility of the novel coronavirus entering the country from China.

However, North Korea has decided that the food and supplies shortages are more serious than the pandemic, according to the sources, after concluding the Omicron variant, which is believed to be spreading in the country, is less likely to cause serious symptoms.

China is being cautious in deciding whether to resume the train service, however, as it remains wary of the possibility the virus could enter from North Korea across the border, according to the sources.

June 12 marked one month after North Korea made public the existence of Omicron patients in the country and it is now stressing the pandemic situation is “stable” there.

Though the spread of the virus is subsiding in Pyongyang, it is still serious in some of the farming villages in the country, according to the sources.

The spread of the virus in North Korea coincided with the start of the agriculture season in the country.

It is believed the virus has spread in North Korea because the country, which is suffering from chronical food shortages, tried to secure an agricultural workforce by lifting lockdowns in various areas.

The country is restricting people’s behavior once again in areas where rice planting work has concluded.

There have been around 4.5 million reported patients with a fever in North Korea since the end of April, according to the Korean Central News Agency.

As North Korea lacks adequate COVID-19 testing capabilities, suspected cases are reported as patients with fever symptoms. 

It is believed the country has lately been logging new daily fever patients in the range of 30,000 and 39,999.

However, many South Korean experts on North Korea doubt the reliability of such figures.

Thus, the actual scope of the pandemic in North Korea remains unclear.

(This article was written by Kim Soonhi in Shenyang and Kiyohide Inada in Seoul.)