North Korean authorities on March 15 arrested the commander of one of the country’s border defense regiments, who is alleged to have embezzled funds earned in a state-sanctioned car smuggling scheme.
Sources say the arrest seems out of place, as smuggling is rampant along the border with China, and carried out by or with the connivance of state agencies.
Residents find it odd for authorities of North Korea, which rejects the international trade sanctions that the smuggling is trying to evade, to be suddenly concerned about the smuggling trade, leading some to believe that is the result of political tension, while others believe it is a simple cash grab.
“The commander of the border defense regiment from the Hyesan area was arrested by the defense security command [on the 15th]. He has continually been involved in car smuggling, and [the authorities] didn’t seem to care. But then suddenly a crackdown has begun,” said a source from Yanggang province to RFA’s Korean Service on March 16.
“Many people have doubts about the reasons for the [sudden] crackdown,” said the source.
The source explained that Hyesan, situated on the southernmost point of Yanggang province’s border with China, has been a traditional hotbed for the smuggling business, where authorities either look the other way, or even assist smuggling operations.
“People here say that Hyesan is the best smuggling route in the whole country, so that’s why there are so many smugglers bringing goods through from China,” the source said.
“Border guards in Hyesan are tight with state-run agencies and they aid smugglers,” said the source.
The source revealed that in many cases the authorities are themselves smugglers.
“The state-run trade agencies are all involved with smuggling themselves, and it’s really just another way of conducting trade for the nation in a way that allows them to avoid U.N. sanctions,” the source added.
The sanctions, aimed at depriving North Korea of resources that could be channeled into its nuclear program, prohibit U.N. member nations from exporting certain goods into North Korea.
“It’s very strange that the commander was arrested on suspicion of embezzling money they earned from car smuggling, said the source, adding, “[He] has been involved with smuggling for more than a year, so getting him for embezzlement is very unusual.”
“It’s not yet known how much he’s [accused] of embezzling. He is being questioned by the Defense Security Command so [the details of] his crime will be disclosed in five or six days,” the source said.
“They didn’t take any action for his involvement in smuggling activities until now, but suddenly he got caught up in the crackdown. People think it is because they just wanted to seize the money he had,” said the source.
Charging the commander with embezzlement rather than smuggling itself might seem counterintuitive, but with the state itself involved in smuggling, to charge the commander with conspiring with the state to smuggle also would necessitate an admission that the state is involved in illegal activities.
A second source, also from Yanggang province said, “The military security made a big issue out of his smuggling activities and his engagement in collusion with the state-run trade agency, so tensions are high among trade workers in the border area.”
“Most of the national smuggling trade, so far, has been carried out by Hyesan border guards as if it were a normal trade activity. It’s not a secret,” the source said.
“However, as people are suddenly hearing the news of the arrest, many are wondering if the authorities plan to forbid smuggling altogether or if this is a bid to resume only legal trade with China,” the source said.
“Residents in the Hyesan area who have been making their livings through small-scale smuggling operations are starting to feel uneasy. Smuggling is their livelihood and they are worried if it is [going to become] completely controlled (by the authorities),” the source said.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.