A North Korean business delegation will arrive in Beijing this week to discuss food supply and trade issues as the coronavirus pandemic has seriously disrupted the country's food supply, two people with direct knowledge of the situation told Reuters.
The delegation is traveling to the Chinese capital amid conflicting reports on the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The people who refused to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter said the visit to Beijing had nothing to do with Kim's health.
North Korean officials should already meet with Chinese Department of Commerce officials to discuss trade and bolster food imports before questions about Kim's health have arisen.
Beijing and Pyongyang have discussed the resumption of cross-border trade in recent weeks.
Earlier this year, Kim imposed strict restrictions on almost all transports across China and Russia, severely restricting trade and travel. Sources said this led to food and consumer goods shortages in a country with already limited supplies.
China has since banned non-Chinese people from entering the country as it tries to prevent the coronavirus epidemic from resuming.
China's foreign and trade ministries and the Chinese Communist Party's international liaison department, which manages relations with Pyongyang, did not respond to requests for comments. The North Korean embassy in Beijing did not respond to a fax and their phones remained unanswered on Tuesday.
Beijing has been reluctant to ease border controls because, according to people at home, it is still implementing stringent containment measures to fight the pandemic.
However, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported Tuesday that a source on the China-North Korea border had seen at least one freight train a day from Dandong, China to Sinuiju on the North Korean side since April 22.
China plans to send emergency supplies such as rice, soybeans, vegetables, instant noodles, and medical supplies to Pyongyang to help, one of the people with knowledge of the matter said. Further details, including the value of the aid, were not immediately available.
Ally and lifeline
China is the main ally and economic lifeline of North Korea, which has been hit hard by UN sanctions for its nuclear weapons program. Beijing is very interested in the stability of the country with which it shares a long, permeable border.
Impoverished and isolated North Korea is vulnerable to food shortages. According to South Korean estimates, 1.1 million people died in the famine of the 1990s.
Last week, two Seoul-based news agencies specializing in North Korea reported "panicking" some articles in Pyongyang.
NK News cited several sources who said that the buying frenzy seemed to focus on imported products, while Daily NK reported that the panic buying and price increases followed a government announcement that imports of "unimportant" items would be limited.
State media in isolated North Korea have not reported panic buying.
The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization said in February that the virus in North Korea "could put increasing pressure on the complex situation as a result of quarantine measures to combat the disease."
North Korea has stated that there are no confirmed cases of the new corona virus, but some international experts have questioned this claim given the country's secrecy, cross-border trade with neighboring China, where the outbreak started, and poor health care.
On April 23, the World Health Organization announced that Pyongyang said there were no positive cases among 740 people tested, the Voice of America reported.
The effects of the Coronavirus outbreak come at a time that some foreign observers consider North Korea to be an unsettled moment.
36-year-old Kim was conspicuously absent from the celebrations of his grandfather and founder Kim Il Sung's birthday on April 15, and has not been seen since a Politburo meeting on April 11, fueling speculation in the international community about his condition.
Last week, China sent a team of health experts to North Korea to advise Kim, Reuters reported. The Chinese delegation was led by a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party's International Liaison Department.
A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, who was asked about Kim and reports of a Chinese delegation sent to North Korea on Monday, told a regular press conference that he had no information on the subject.
North Korea is one of the most secret countries in the world, and the health of its leaders is treated as a matter of state security.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and published from a syndicated feed.)