Used buses in China are finding new life in North Korea as trade companies in the North are smuggling them across the Sino-Korean border–secretive transactions done to skirt U.S. and U.N. sanctions, sources say.
The sanctions, aimed at depriving Pyongyang of resources that could be used in its nuclear and missile programs, explicitly prohibit heavy machinery and vehicles.
The buses formerly served the city of Dandong, on the Chinese side of their Yalu River border.
“About four or five years ago, bus companies here in Dandong replaced their diesel buses with natural gas-powered buses,” said a source from the city in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service.
“[They] left the diesel buses in their garage, and now they are being sold one by one to North Korea,” said the source.
The switch in fuel type came much earlier than the diesel buses’ life expectancy.
“They’ve only been used for about four or five years. [Bus companies] didn’t want to just junk them so they have been sitting idle in storage all this time. Now North Korean trade companies smuggle a bus or two into North Korea,” the source said.
“Since they haven’t been running for a long time, it costs about 20,000 yuan [about $3,000] to refurbish the buses including their interiors and repaint them. Then they can be sold for about 70,000 yuan [about $10,000],” said the source.
The source said that smugglers are having trouble filling the tall North Korean order.
“[Someone in] North Korea has ordered a large quantity of the buses, but only five can be smuggled across the border per week, because [the traders] are trying to dodge sanctions,” the source said, adding, “Chinese maritime customs [officials] have become stricter recently, so it is getting harder and harder to avoid falling victim to a crackdown.”
The source said that smugglers stand to gain 20,000 yuan (about $,3000) for each bus they can successfully bring into North Korea.
“But they don’t like [trying to] smuggle a huge bus because they have a higher chance of being caught,” the source said.
“It is not clear why, but China is enforcing smuggling crackdowns along the [popular route] at the mouth of the Yalu river,” the source said, adding that further inland a new route has opened near Supung (in Chinese, Shuifeng) dam.
“But smugglers still play hide and seek with Chinese maritime customs officers,” the source said.
Another source, from across the river in Sinuiju, said that the North Korean city’s bus system needs replacement buses badly.
“Buses here in Sinuiju have longer intervals these days,” said the source, adding, “It’s probably because they are so old. There are many broken buses that can’t be repaired because the parts can’t be imported.”
“I heard that they were smuggling neat looking Chinese buses over here, but I haven’t seen them here running in Sinuiju,” said the source.
“They might be in other cities.”
During and shortly after the Cold War, North Korea imported buses, trains and trolley cars from the Soviet Union and eastern European countries. The Pyongyang Metro famously uses subway cars that were formerly in service in East Berlin.
The sanctions against North Korea make smuggling the Chinese buses a necessity, as importing the vehicles or their parts legitimately is now a near impossibility, the sources said.
Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.