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North Korean Bus Returns From China in a Sign of Border Opening

(Bloomberg) -- North Korea appears to have dispatched a bus across a bridge with China, satellite imagery showed, in what is likely the first such move since Pyongyang sealed its borders nearly four years ago at the start of the pandemic.

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A bus apparently making a return trip to North Korea was photographed crossing the bridge between the Chinese border city of Dandong and the North Korean city of Sinuiju on Aug. 31, the satellite image analyzed by the Open Nuclear Network shows. Several more large vehicles were seen stopping at the customs area on the North Korean side.

The move comes after North Korea sent commercial aircraft to Beijing and Vladivostok at the end of August for the first time since early 2020. North Korea has sent its workers to Russia and China for years, where they earn hard currency desperately needed by Pyongyang, and in defiance of United Nations resolutions that ban the moves.

“Satellite imagery from the past few days suggests North Korea is resuming road-based passenger traffic via the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge,” said Jaewoo Shin, an analyst for the Open Nuclear Network research group. The North Korean customs area also shows increased activity but no large cargo vehicles have been spotted yet, he added.

“Nonetheless, this is a further sign that North Korea is slowly easing its border lockdown protocols and is likely looking to resume normal trade activities soon,” Shin said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s decision to seal borders at the start of the pandemic slammed the brakes on the little legal trade conducted by his heavily sanctioned state. It also left stranded its diplomats, students and thousands of workers sent overseas.

Pyongyang appears to be easing up on the restrictions to help its beleaguered economy recover from the hit the country took when it sealed itself off, South Korea’s Unification Ministry has said.

Signs of a resumption of trade with China, historically Pyongyang’s biggest partner, led Fitch Solutions to estimate North Korea’s economy returned to growth after two full years of contraction. Still, it added that significant uncertainties remain.

There are no indications North Korea is set to resume international tourism, which once brought in hard cash from visitors from places such as China to a country that has sparse foreign currency reserves.

Over the weekend, North Korea test-fired several long-range cruise missiles for simulated nuclear strikes, just days after it shot off a pair of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in a show of anger against US-South Korea joint military drills.

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