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North Korea’s closure of borders to safeguard the country from the pandemic is dealing a bigger blow to trade with the isolated economy than international sanctions, according to a report by a trade association in Seoul.

North Korea’s trade with China, by far its largest economic partner, shrank 73% through September and is on course to plunge 80% for the whole year, the Korea International Trade Association said recently. That would exceed the 57% drop seen during the same period in 2018 when international sanctions intensified to penalize the Pyongyang regime for its tests of nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver warheads, the report said.

To be sure, in absolute terms the impact of sanctions on the country’s trade is larger than the drop seen so far this year.

Still, the trend in trade figures shows that while sanctions mainly hit North Korea’s exports to China, the pandemic has severely curtailed imports.

Pyongyang has so far denied any confirmed COVID-19 cases on North Korean soil, but reports from state media suggest the country is experiencing extreme economic pain. Store shelves in Pyongyang have seen sharp drops in several food staples compared to a year ago, specialist service NK News reported last week week.

Unlike North Korea’s heavily militarized border with South Korea, the country’s 1,420-kilometer border with China is porous — and the black-market traders who have crossed for years from both sides have come under closer scrutiny since they could be a source for bringing the virus into North Korea.

Kim Jong Un issued a rare warning for the economy in August, telling party leaders that his country “faced unexpected and inevitable challenges,” adding that his development goals had been seriously delayed.

North Korea intensified its border quarantine around August-September to prepare for its Oct. 10 party anniversary, and will probably maintain strict control until January’s party congress, importing only essential goods, the KITA report said.

Of the total 73% drop in North Korea’s trade with China, exports fell by 70% to $46 million while imports declined 73% to $487 million, according to KITA.

Sales of North Korea’s major export products, such as watches and wigs, have come close to a full stop, KITA said, adding that the shutdown of borders has disabled the shipments of goods that are free from sanctions. North Korea’s purchases of key food staples and medical goods fell less, with falls as small as around 2%.

North Korea doesn’t release official growth data, and the breakdown from China’s trade report is widely used to gauge the health of the reclusive regime.

Fitch Solutions said in an August report that North Korea’s economy would shrink at least 8.5% this year due in part to the pandemic’s negative impact.

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