In what appears to be a reaction to the defection of a high-ranking diplomat, North Korea is tightening the reigns on traders doing business with China, sources tell RFA’s Korean Service.
While Pyongyang has always assigned traders a designated area, the authorities never appeared to care if they moved to another place as long as they were bringing in much-desired hard currency to North Korea.
With the defection of Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, that laissez-faire attitude looks to have changed, sources in China tell RFA.
“Previously the North Korean authorities allowed several trade workers to work at lucrative appointments although they were working in places where they were not assigned,” said a source in China. “However, because of this new order, all trade workers who left their assigned areas have already come back or are hurrying to return.”
Thae, North Korea’s second highest ranking official in the United Kingdom, defected to South Korea. He is the highest-ranking diplomat ever to defect to South Korea, and his August defection gave the Kim Jong Un regime a black eye.
Since then North Korean authorities have been enforcing the regime’s requirement that traders work in their specified territory, sources tell RFA.
“This instruction was issued right after Thae Yong-ho's defection,” said the Chinese source.
Another source agreed: “This is not unrelated to the exile cases of elite North Koreans; including, Thae Young-ho.”
City of big profits
While traders are assigned a specific area in which to work, they often pick up and go to Dandong where they can make a bigger profit, said another source in China.
Dandong has the largest population of ethnic Koreans who live in China and ethnic Chinese from North Korea. North Korean citizens who represent their country’s trade offices in China often employ these bilingual people from border regions to conduct their business.
Dandong lies across the Yalu River from Sinuiju, North Korea, making it a desirable location for people who frequently shuttle between the two countries.
“For traders, the most popular area to trade is Dandong,” said the Chinese source. “This is because Dandong is closer to their home country (North Korea), and the prices are lower than other major cities.”
A restaurateur whose establishment is popular with North Koreans told RFA that some of his customers who are also traders have stopped coming by.
“It’s been a while since I have seen some of my regular customers from North Korea,” he said. “So I thought they went back home, but I recently found out that most of them moved into their assigned areas.”
Keeping traders in their designated areas makes it easier for the North Korean authorities to monitor and control them, according to one of the sources.
“Trade workers have to report their daily movements to state security agents via phone at least once a day, but if trade workers change their areas randomly, it may cause the authorities to lose control,” said a source.
Reported by Joon-ho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hyosun Kim. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.