China exports to North Korea surge with edible oil, wheat flour in demand as trade resumes

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BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s exports to North Korea surged in January-March with sales of edible oil, wheat flour and pharmaceutical compounds to its reclusive neighbour sky-rocketing after a COVID-induced pause, Chinese customs data showed on Wednesday.

China resumed freight trains to North Korea in January for the first time since COVID-19 led to a border lockdown between the two countries in early 2020, halting almost all trade.

The rebound in trade comes as the United States is urging the U.N. Security Council to further sanction North Korea over its renewed ballistic missile launches. North Korea has been subjected to U.N. sanctions since 2006, although the Security Council does allow for humanitarian exemptions.

In January-March, Chinese exports to North Korea leaped to $173.4 million from only $13.0 million a year earlier, and nearly recovered to the $215.3 million figure for the first quarter of 2020, when COVID was just emerging. Imports more than quintupled from a year earlier to $23.5 million, according to the customs data.

For March alone, Chinese shipments to North Korea stood at $57 million, up from $13.0 million a year earlier, while imports were at $3.5 million, versus $1.3 million in the previous year.

The top export items were edible oil and wheat flour.

North Korea bought $16.4 million of soybean oil, $5.1 million of palm oil, $4.3 million of wheat flour and $4.1 million of soda in the first quarter, the customs data showed.

North Korea has long suffered from food insecurity, with observers saying mismanagement of its economy had been exacerbated by sanctions and then the unprecedented border lockdowns due to COVID-19.

China also exported $11.3 million of chemical compounds mostly used in making steroids in the first three months. It also shipped more than $3.7 million of tobacco to its neighbour.

The United States is also seeking a ban on tobacco to North Korea. Its leader Kim Jong Un is known as a chain smoker, often seen with a cigarette in hand in state media photographs.

(Reporting by Stella Qiu, Hallie Gu and Ryan Woo; Editing by Edmund Klamann)