China Relaxes Customs Inspections on Border With North Korea, Despite Sanctions Assurances

Sources say the reduced monitoring has facilitated the smuggling of restricted goods.

A truck with a North Korean license plate drives away from the Quanhe border crossing between China and North Korea in Yanbian, in China's Jilin province, Sept. 8, 2017.

China is relaxing customs inspections and allowing restricted goods to flow across its border with North Korea, according to sources, despite making assurances that it will continue to enforce sanctions against the reclusive nation until it fully dismantles its nuclear arsenal.

A trader in China’s Dandong city, located in Liaoning province across the Yalu River from the city of Sinuiju in North Korea, recently told RFA’s Korean Service that inspections on trucks heading across the border to the North “have eased significantly,” and that customs officers who “used to check every single item following x-ray scans” are now searching “only around half of all vehicles.”

“In the past, when a truck driver got caught bringing restricted items on the sanctions list, the truck was impounded for a day and could only pass through the border if a fine was paid,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“These days, those kinds of trucks [smuggling restricted goods] are fined, but can go through customs right away.”

The trader added that as customs officers have become less rigorous about their checks, “North Korean truck drivers are beginning to regularly smuggle items that are not on their manifestos.”

A resident of Dandong, who also asked to remain unnamed, told RFA that the customs process for North Koreans who travel to his city for personal reasons is also “now much easier,” noting that Chinese customs officers used to require them to open their luggage for inspection, “but they can now pass through after a routine x-ray screening.”

“Alcohol and tobacco products are limited to one bottle of alcohol and one carton of cigarettes, but the custom officers don’t make an issue out of having two or three bottles and a couple of cartons of cigarettes,” the source said.

A businessman based in Dandong, who said he exports clothing illicitly assembled in North Korea to Japan and other countries, told RFA that crackdowns on illegal trade between China and North Korea had also been reduced in recent months, making it easier for him to earn a profit.

“I use illegal vessels to send materials into North Korea and bring out processed clothes via the Yalu River, and it has been so much easier for me to operate these days,” he said.

“It always used to take me a long time to transport the clothing, due to China’s tight security along the border area, but now it doesn’t take long at all.”

Sources in Dandong and the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region, in northeast China’s Jilin province, said that Chinese border guards ended their tight monitoring of smuggling after Kim made a rare visit to Beijing at the end of March and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

At that time, North Korea stopped repatriating workers it had based in China to generate foreign currency for the Kim regime, and even dispatched some additional workers to the country, the sources said.

And ever since Chinese authorities relaxed their controls on smuggling activities, they added, North Korean organizations tasked with generating foreign currency have begun steadily trafficking sanctions-restricted items into China, including iron, non-ferrous metals, chemicals, and seafood.

Trump-Kim summit

Reports of the reduced inspections follow a historic summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, held on Tuesday in Singapore, during which Trump “committed to provide security guarantees” to the North and Kim had reaffirmed his “firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with his Chinese counterpart State Councilor Wang Yi in Beijing and told reporters after the talks that “China has reaffirmed its commitment to honoring the U.N. Security Council resolutions” for sanctions leveled against the North for repeated ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests.

After Tuesday’s summit, China had suggested that international sanctions on North Korea could be lifted, but Pompeo on Thursday said Washington had “made very clear that the sanctions and the economic relief that North Korea will receive will only happen after the … complete denuclearization of North Korea.”

A major obstacle to reaching and implementing any nuclear deal is that the U.S. and North Korea have differing definitions of denuclearization on the Korean peninsula. North Korea wants the extended nuclear deterrence the United States offers South Korea included in any deal, while Washington sees the issue as the dismantling and removal of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities.

Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.