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UN sanctions are good business for Chinese smugglers in North Korea

People on a street in China. (PxHere/Released)
April 09, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A group of Chinese merchants who are residents of North Korea are using their connections and border-crossing privileges to smuggle goods subject to U.N. sanctions from China into the North, sources in the border region say.

The sanctions, aimed at depriving North Korea of resources that could be channeled into its nuclear program, prohibit U.N. member nations from exporting certain goods into North Korea.

The illegal but lucrative trade in banned goods has enabled the merchants to amass small fortunes.

“Many of them are making money by smuggling goods prohibited by the Chinese government into North Korea across the river,” said a source from a Chinese city bordering North Korea in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service.

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“[These] merchants are doing big business, able to smuggle 200,000 Chinese Yuan (about $30,000) worth of illegal goods into the North [with each shipment],” said the source.

The large-scale nature of their smuggling enterprise necessitates an effort that amounts to far more than an individual hiding a few pieces of contraband in their personal luggage. These operations require complex teamwork, according to the source.

One partner operating in China will deliver the goods across the river to the other partner in North Korea. Trust is paramount in these types of operations, so many work with family members.

“Most of them work in pairs, like a husband and wife or a father and son. They can also team up with other smugglers and send goods [to each other] across the river,” said the source.

The source described two popular routes for smugglers, explaining that the width of the river and the presence of border guards were a factor in determining the costs of their trade.

“It costs about 200 Chinese Yuan (about $30), on average, to transport 70 kilos from Changbai county, Jilin province to Hyesan city, through a [professional] smuggler. However, it costs double if they transport the package via Dandong and Sinuiju.” the source said, referring to towns and cities on the shared river border between China and North Korea.

“The river is much wider [between Dandong and Sinuiju] and they have to spend more to bribe the Chinese and North Korean border guards,” said the source.

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The source said that under normal circumstances, the goods being smuggled would not be worth the bribes these smugglers must pay to get the goods across the river, but the sanctions have made the effort worthwhile.

Another source, an ethnic Korean living in China said the items being smuggled include “automobile parts, water pumps, diesel power generators and electric locks.”

“Items like these seem like they would be necessary for North Korean companies, high ranking officials or [otherwise] rich people,” the source said.

“[The smugglers] make more money when there are more things to smuggle so they actually welcome international sanctions on North Korea,” the source said.

“It actually works out because China and North Korea have a common interest in bringing sanctioned goods into North Korea,” the source said.

Smuggling has become more and more commonplace as North Korea transitions into a market economy. As people cannot live on what they are paid by the government, many must find alternative income sources. This has led to a very active black market enabled by bribery and corruption, often with government and military officials themselves leading the smuggling operations.

RFA reported in March that a commander of a North Korean border defense regiment was arrested for embezzling funds from a state-sanctioned car smuggling scheme. Sources in that story were surprised by the sudden crackdown on smugglers, given that the practice is rampant along the border with China.

Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.