South Korean electric rice cookers seized illegally by North Korea after the Kaesong joint industrial complex was shut down two years ago are being smuggled for sale to China by a North Korean trading firm run by the sanctions-hit country’s powerful military, North Korean sources say.
The cookware, left behind by South Korean manufacturing firms when North Korean expelled them from the complex in 2016, was moved “little by little, at first” by the trading firm during the last year, a source in North Pyongan province, bordering China, told RFA’s Korean Service.
“However, in recent weeks they sent around a thousand rice cookers at once to the Chinese port city of Dandong to earn foreign currency,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The smuggled rice cookers were then transported by truck to southern China where they were sold to a store specializing in selling South Korean products at wholesale prices, the source said, adding that a large shipment of cookers was also smuggled into China in May.
“The North Korean trading company doing the smuggling operates under the control of the military, and the military backs them up so they can get their hands on the goods to be sold,” RFA’s source said.
“The trading company has been looking for Chinese merchants who can pay them in cash for thousands of ‘Cuckoo’ brand rice cookers, and they have been able to smuggle the cookers with the help of an ethnic Korean broker based in China,” he said.
“However, I don’t know the name of the company in China that bought the cookers, or the name of the company that smuggled them out,” he said.
Prompted by reports that Kaesong may soon reopen in the wake of North-South summit meetings and a thaw in ties, with stocks seized by North Korea possibly returned to South Korean control, powerful North Korean trading firms are now rushing to sell South Korean products left behind at Kaesong, the source said.
Smuggling common at Kaesong
Also speaking to RFA, a source in North Korea’s South Pyongan province said that smuggling at Kaesong was common even when the industrial park was formerly in operation.
“South Korean products such as clothing and shoes were smuggled out of Kaesong and sold in markets in the city of Pyongsong, where they sold quickly because of their high quality,” he said.
“Cutting boards made in the Kaesong complex are still a popular item in local markets,” he said, adding that Cuckoo-brand rice cookers can now be sold in Pyongsong for more than U.S. $200 each, a price as much as four times higher than the price charged for cookers made in China.
Formerly viewed as a symbol of cooperation between the two halves of the divided Korean peninsula, Kaesong was closed in February 2016 after North Korea ordered all South Koreans out of the complex, seized South Korean assets there, and declared the area under military control.
The move came a day after South Korea announced it was pulling out of Kaesong in retaliation for North Korean nuclear and long-range missile tests earlier in the year.
Reports have frequently circulated during the last two years that South Korean-manufactured products left behind in Kaesong are being traded inside North Korea or sold abroad to raise cash for the country’s sanctions-hit regime.
North Korea has also operated textile factories in the officially shuttered complex, with 19 factories reported in October 2017 to be producing clothing in Kaesong for the domestic market and for sale to neighboring China, sources told RFA in earlier reports.
Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Richard Finney.