Trade Slows on North Korea’s Border With China as Sanctions Start to Bite

Private trade and smuggling continue, though, with some traders using boats to move their goods.

North Korea is seen across the Yalu River from the Chinese port city of Dandong, Feb. 8, 2016.

Customs posts on North Korea’s border with China are standing nearly empty as new sanctions punishing Pyongyang for its illicit nuclear and missile programs take hold, though smuggling is growing across the rivers separating the two countries, sources say.

Tighter controls imposed by China since Aug. 20 have now greatly reduced traffic flows at official crossing points, a North Korean resident of Rason city in North Hamgyong province, bordering China, told RFA’s Korean Service.

“The North Korean customs post in Wonjong town, located across from the Chinese Maritime Customs post at the port of Hunchun, is suddenly not crowded anymore,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Usually there is bumper-to-bumper traffic waiting to be cleared through, but now I often see no trucks at all at the customs post,” the source said, adding that North Korean seafood, now blocked by sanctions along with coal and iron ore from entering China, usually crosses at Wonjong.

Other customs posts on the border now stand mostly idle, too, the source said.

“North Korea’s Namyang customs post, which faces Chinese customs at Tumen in Onsong county, the Sambong customs post which is a gateway to Kaishantun in China, and the Chilsong customs post in Musan county in North Hamgyong, are all much quieter now,” he said.

“This reduced traffic is due to stricter trade controls imposed by China since Aug. 20,” he added.

Cross-border trade by firms set up to generate foreign currency for North Korea’s cash-strapped regime, including trade in medicinal plants and gold, continues though, RFA’s source said,

“And we expect that these things will be sent across the border illicitly.”

Also speaking to RFA, a North Korean source in North Pyongan province’s Sinuiju city said that the vehicles now seen at customs posts are mostly the trucks carrying items of “ethnic Chinese merchants who have been running their own businesses for a long time.”

“Twenty-ton trucks going to China have recently disappeared,” he said.

North Korean residents of areas near the border say that new Chinese sanctions are beginning to show their effect, though amid the new and increased scrutiny on trucks, smugglers now plan to use ships and boats to move their goods across.

“Illicit traders' sneaky plan is to use ships if the trucks are cracked down on, and then to use boats if there is a crackdown on the ships,” the source said.

Because foodstuffs, medicines, chemical products, fuel, and even handmade goods are still being successfully smuggled across the border, China’s strict controls at visible customs posts may be mainly for show, RFA’s sources said.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Richard Finney.