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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
The governor of China’s Liaoning province met with a top North Korean economic official in Pyongyang late last week, where a local party newspaper said the two agreed to boost exchanges in trade, “personnel,” tourism, and other areas.
The trip to North Korea for the leader of China’s key bordering province comes ahead of a deadline to repatriate DPRK workers abroad, and as questions continue to be raised over China’s commitment to sanctions enforcement on Pyongyang.
A report published Sunday in the Liaoning Daily, an official outlet of the provincial Chinese Communist Party (CCP) committee, said that Governor Chen Qiufa in a meeting with DPRK Ministry of External Economic Relations (MEER) chief Kim Yong Jae proposed four main areas to expand economic cooperation.
These are to “first, continue to strengthen personnel and trade exchanges; second, propel cooperation in agricultural exchanges; third, strengthen exchanges in the area of public welfare; and fourth, actively carry out tourism cooperation.”
Kim Yong Jae reportedly “fully agreed with the four suggestions and hoped the two sides would further expand exchanges and cooperation in agriculture, healthcare, tourism, etc.,” the report stated.
It is unclear if the “personnel” exchanges refers to North Korean laborers abroad, technical or training personnel, or other kinds of human exchanges in trade, though the meeting’s focus on economic cooperation suggests these are all possibilities.
If Chen and Kim indeed discussed boosting North Korean workers in China, the move could raise concerns: a December 22 deadline looms for China to “repatriate to the DPRK all DPRK nationals earning income” within their territory, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2397 passed on the same date in 2017.
The Liaoning Daily report also said that Chen during his trip met in the border city of Sinuiju with his counterpart Mun Kyong Dok, who serves as party chief of the province lying adjacent to Liaoning, North Phyongan.
In addition, Chen met in Pyongyang with vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Ri Su Yong.
DPRK state media reported only on the meetings with Mun Kyong Dok and Ri Su Yong, and omitted any mention of the economics and trade-focused meeting with Kim Yong Jae.
In his meeting with chairman of the North Phyongan WPK Provincial Committee Mun Kyong Dok, Chen reportedly said he “hoped both sides will make local contributions” to implementing the wishes of DPRK leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported the meeting took place on Friday but did not provide further details, and that Chen returned to Liaoning on Saturday.
His delegation first arrived in Pyongyang last Wednesday.
The Liaoning Daily also reported that while in Sinuiju, Chen attended a signing ceremony for a “agreement on a communication and cooperation mechanism on infectious disease prevention and control between Dandong and Sinuiju.”
The region encompassing Liaoning and North Phyongan is home to the two countries’ largest overland cross-border trade hub, between the cities of Dandong and Sinuiju.
Other major trading hubs in Liaoning include Shenyang, which sees weekly Air Koryo flights to Pyongyang, and Dalian, which also sees semi-regular flights to the DPRK and whose port sees high volumes in maritime trade with the North.
Cross-border trade between the two provinces is set to see a major boost, too, with the impending opening of the long-stalled New Yalu River Bridge, at which construction on a connecting road on the Sinuiju side finally restarted last month after a five-year hiatus.
Meanwhile, the Liaoning Daily report said that other North Korean officials joining meetings and events with Chen included vice-minister of the International Department of the WPK Central Committee Ri Chang Gun, vice-minister of Public Health Kim Hyong Hun, and deputy director-general of the State General Bureau of Tourism Ri Ung Chol.
Also mentioned were vice chairman of the North Phyongan Provincial WPK Committee Ri Chun Gwan, vice chairman of the North Phyongan Provincial People’s Committee Hong Kil Nam, and propaganda chief with a Party Committee Kim Chang Sik.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA