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North Korea arrests three merchants for selling smuggled memory cards

North Korea's Kim Jong Un. (KCNA/Xinhua via Zuma Press/TNS)
July 10, 2023

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

Authorities in the North Korean city of Hyesan have arrested three merchants for secretly selling SD cards, an alarming development for people earning a living in marketplaces who fear a wider crackdown may follow, residents of the city told Radio Free Asia.

In a country closed off from the global internet and where foreign media is forbidden, people in North Korea get glimpses of the outside world from easily concealable SD cards and USB thumb drives smuggled in from China and passed around from person to person.

Often, media like South Korean movies, music, and TV shows are copied and widely distributed in this manner. 

Because Hyesan lies on the border with China, smuggling and media-related offenses that occur there often lead to large investigations intended to find other people involved in either informal or sophisticated distribution networks. 

The three merchants were arrested in the middle of June, a city resident told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.

“They were caught in the act by a state security agent disguised as a civilian,” she said. “USB [flash drives] or [SD] memory cards cannot pass through customs [legitimately] because they are controlled items that cannot be sold in the marketplace. So [the ones] owned by individuals were smuggled in.”

‘Anti-socialist’ content

North Korea in recent years has declared war on what it says is an invasion of foreign culture, including by passing laws detailing harsh punishments for watching, storing, and distributing “anti-socialist” content. Violators of the law have been slapped with lengthy prison sentences and even the death penalty over it. 

As a preventative measure, computers sold in North Korea do not have USB access ports, but North Koreans are able to smuggle laptops from China specifically so they can use thumb drives and memory cards.

Smuggling became much harder during the COVID-19 pandemic because Beijing and Pyongyang closed the Sino-Korean border, with North Korea even ordering security forces to shoot and kill any unauthorized person found within one kilometer.

Since many of the people selling goods in North Korea’s marketplaces deal in smuggled items, residents are fearful that a crackdown stemming from the recent arrests could harm their livelihoods, or deny their access to foreign media and goods that North Korea itself does not produce.

“The police arrested the merchants and will try to catch the real culprit who brought in the memory cards,” the resident said. “ This incident could reveal the full picture of a major smuggling case, so the market merchants are very anxious, and the residents are as well.”

Another fear is that Hyesan could be put on lockdown during a potential investigation, she said.

“A stronger crackdown on the marketplaces will happen, and it will make the people’s lives more difficult,” she said. 

Scarcity determines price

Because smuggling has been difficult in recent years, memory cards are hard to find in marketplaces these days, another Hyesan resident, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA. 

“Until 2019, when smuggling was still possible, a 16GB memory card was 80 yuan (US$11), and an 8GB memory card was 40 yuan ($5.50) in the marketplace,” he said. “The merchants recently arrested by the state security department were selling 16GB memory cards for 100 yuan ($14)”

That’s a significant markup from the price across the border in China, where 10 yuan ($1.40) can buy a 16GB card. 

The second resident explained that even people without computers want SD cards to store photos and documents.

“The smugglers like to take the risk to bring these memory cards into the country because they don’t take up a lot of space and they can make 10 times as much in profit,” he said.