North Korea’s customs agents are refusing to allow products marked in Korean into the country on suspicion that they are manufactured in enemy South Korea, according to sources who say that retailers have been left scrambling to rebrand the goods.
Goods produced in China, North Korea’s leading ally, are most affected by the new order as they are often bundled in both Chinese and Korean packaging for ethnic Koreans living in provinces along the border of the two countries, sources told RFA’s Korean Service.
Inter-Korean trade is limited to goods produced from a joint factory park in Kaesong, North Korea. All other economic exchanges between the two Koreas have been banned by Pyongyang.
Even when North Korean customs agents are aware that a product originates from China, any items marked in the Korean language are turned away, said the sources, who live and trade in the city of Dandong, in southeast China’s Liaoning province.
“It is not uncommon to see peddlers in a state of confusion, forced to change the wrapping of goods packaged in Korean because of the arrogance of North Korean authorities,” said Kim, a Korean-Chinese who trades with North Koreans near Dandong’s maritime customs office.
Kim said that apples and beer are examples of products which retailers are being forced to repackage since the order came through recently, despite thousands of containers crossing the border from Dandong into North Korea’s Sinuiju each day.
Even Dandong’s well-known “Yalu River Beer,” named for the waterway which divides China from North Korea, has been forced to remove the drink’s Korean name from its labels, he said.
According to the sources in Dandong, truck drivers have abandoned the practice of delivering birthday cakes decorated with well wishes written in Korean across the border into the North, in favor of those sporting Chinese characters.
A Korean Chinese trader confirmed that the new restriction has hit trade badly.
“Since I began my business, there has never been a slowdown like this before,” the trader surnamed Lee, who manages a South Korean specialty goods store in Dandong, told RFA.
“This is like the slump and depression that followed the North Korean currency reform in November 2009,” Lee said, referring to a decision by Pyongyang to scrap its old currency and allow its people to exchange only a limited amount of the old money at a rate of 100 to 1.
The move wiped out the savings of millions and sent prices skyrocketing, bringing the already struggling economy to a standstill.
But while many products are being blocked, the sources said North Korean customs agents have strangely been allowing “Cuckoo” brand electric rice cookers—which they know have originated in South Korea—through the border because the product is labeled in English.
Traders said that they expect the restrictions on Korean-labeled products to gradually be lifted, but in the meantime, Chinese traders and North Korean consumers say the situation is dire.
North Korean authorities have long tried to forbid South Korean goods and cultural offerings from entering into the Hermit Kingdom in an attempt to keep out “unwanted foreign influences.”
In June, North Korea stepped up restrictions on goods smuggled in from South Korea amid tensions between the two neighbors, with traders complaining that bribing officials and removing manufacturer labels were no longer enough to get the items past customs.
Goods from South Korea—including clothing, cosmetics, electronics, chocolate snacks called Chocopie, and even DVDs of South Korean soap operas—trade briskly on the black market in North Korea.
Reported by Joon Ho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Doeun Han. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.