Border Searches of North Korean Cargo Suggest Beijing’s Response to US-China Summit

2017-04-10
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Goods bound for North Korea at a customs checkpoint near the border in Dandong, China, in a file photo.
Goods bound for North Korea at a customs checkpoint near the border in Dandong, China, in a file photo.
AFP

Chinese border guards have begun thoroughly searching North Korean cargo trucks crossing into China, an indication that Beijing is implementing financial sanctions against Pyongyang in the wake of last week’s U.S.-China Summit, according to sources.

Traders based in China told RFA’s Korean Service that Beijing has instructed the country’s customs office and commercial banks to apply pressure on Pyongyang because of the summit, citing “meticulous inspections” aimed at snaring illicit cash hauls.

“[China’s] customs office has strengthened searches of freight vehicles coming from North Korea to China,” said a trader based in the Chinese city of Dandong, along the border with the North, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Until recently, inspections were only conducted on cargo going from China to North Korea, but these days vehicles entering China [from the North] are also thoroughly searched. The meticulous inspection process has left North Koreans baffled.”

According to the source, traders based in North Korea had been asking North Korean truck drivers to smuggle money across the border to pay their counterparts in China for goods, but Chinese officers are now searching the inside of the vehicles when they drive through customs.

“The inspection is [carried out] to find the bulk of the money, which is hidden inside of the vehicle,” he said.

“If the inspector finds cash, it is seized unconditionally. Because of the new situation, Chinese businessmen often don’t receive the payments due to them for goods they sent North Korean traders on credit.”

As a result, he said, fewer Chinese traders are willing to conduct business with the North on credit.

The increased customs scrutiny is not only being applied to commercial entities, the source added.

“A thorough search by China's customs for incoming cargo from North Korea is also equally applied to North Korean travelers traveling for private reasons,” he said.

“If the amount of simple items, such as alcohol or cigarettes, is higher than customs limits, then a huge amount of duty is issued or the items are seized.”

Chinese traders affected

A second trader source from China told RFA that traders on both sides of the border are hoping the increased pressure is only temporary, “because the atmosphere of customs has changed dramatically.”

“In March, Chinese banks blocked individual remittance transactions by refusing to open personal bank accounts for North Koreans,” he said.

“Furthermore, China is blocking the transport of cash by cargo vehicles. Therefore, traders in both countries are very concerned.”

Facing criticism from Washington and in U.N. reports on sanctions compliance, China has applied pressure on North Korea in the past, recently stopping vital imports of coal from its impoverished neighbor as part of a bid to dissuade the North from pursuing the development of its nuclear weapons program under regime leader Kim Jong Un.

But both sources suggested the most recent clampdown was a direct response to “persistent demands from the U.S. on sanctions aimed at North Korea.”

Recent summit

Few details or formal agreements have been announced after what was billed as a get-acquainted meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump's Spanish-style Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida last week.

But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that Xi and Trump agreed to increase cooperation on curbing North Korea's nuclear program, which the Chinese leader said had reached a serious stage. No details were offered.

North Korea has said it is progressing toward its goal of building long-range nuclear ICBM missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland.

The North regularly carries out missile launches, most recently firing a ballistic missile into the sea off its east coast on April 5. It conducted a fifth nuclear test on Sept. 9, 2016.

Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Soo Min Jo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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