Chinese Police Arrest North Korean Trade Workers for Illegal Gambling

With no way to make money due to border closure, the North Korean traders turned to mahjong.
Chinese Police Arrest North Korean Trade Workers for Illegal Gambling In a file photo, Mahjong tiles are shuffled in the outskirts of Beijing, China.

Police in a Chinese city on the border with North Korea have arrested 10 North Korean trade workers for gambling in illegal mahjong dens, sources in China told RFA.

The 10 were said to have turned to the popular ivory-tile game in desperation—with the coronavirus pandemic sapping all opportunities for them to make money, they needed a way to support themselves.

At the start of the pandemic, Beijing and Pyongyang closed the 880-mile Sino-Korean border and suspended all trade. The closure has made life difficult for North Koreans involved in the buying and selling of Chinese goods on both sides of the border.

A Chinese citizen of Korean descent from Dandong, just across the border from North Korea’s Sinuiju, told RFA’s Korean Service Thursday that the trade workers were arrested March 1.

“The Dandong Police received a tip-off and raided some mahjong dens, arresting everyone gambling there,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

“About 20 people were arrested at the two mahjong dens that day, 10 were North Korean trade workers and the others were Chinese. They were found to have gambled by betting 100 yuan [about U.S. $15] each game, and they will be punished by Chinese authorities,” the source said.

The source said the trade workers had frequented several other mahjong dens, but only recently started gambling in the newly established dens that were raided.

“A Chinese woman in her 50s launched a new illegal gambling house and customers were flocking in. This is when the person who ran an illegal gambling site popular with North Koreans reported it to the police,” said the source.

“The Dandong Public Security Bureau fined each person 5,000 yuan [about $770]. They fined the owners of the private gambling houses 10,000 yuan. Even after they pay the fine, they will only be released if they complete the gambling education program while they are imprisoned for 15 days,” the source said.

The source said many in Dandong are surprised by the news that North Koreans were gambling.

“They are well aware that North Korean trade workers can’t make money because of the border closure… As the North Korean trade workers are suffering from so many hardships, people are surprised that they can gamble thousands of yuan each day,” said the source.

Another Chinese citizen of Korean descent in Dandong confirmed the arrests to RFA Thursday.

“Most of the North Koreans arrested at the gambling houses were known to be workers from the Pyongyang trading company. As the borders were closed for more than a year due to the coronavirus, it seems like they began gambling because they were out of work and needed money,” the second source said.

“It’s been a shock to people here in Dandong that the North Korean trade officials were playing mahjong for 100 to 200 yuan per game all day long. Even Chinese people who love gambling are hesitant to use three to five thousand yuan in a single day,” said the second source.

The second source added that many traders appear to owe a lot of money from losses.

“People are curious as to what punishment the authorities in Pyongyang will impose on the arrested trade workers. If the gambling was with the intention to earn foreign currency due to the lack of work, this will end with light punishment.

But if it is because the trade workers simply became habitual gamblers, it will be difficult for them to avoid heavy punishment when they are summoned to North Korea,” the source said.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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