North Korean women are risking death as they attempt to cross the treacherous Yalu River in a desperate bid to smuggle goods into China.
Recent heavy rains have caused the Yalu River, which borders the two countries, to swell, leading to drowning deaths among women, who are usually encouraged to do the smuggling because they are punished less harshly when caught.
Heavy rainfall, which included Cyclone Khanun, in July caused flash flooding and landslides, with severe damage reported across North Korea.
According to a source in Yanggang province, which lies alongside China, the flooding has destroyed crops and exacerbated food security issues, driving North Koreans to seek additional income by selling goods across the border.
But the rains have also led to increasingly dangerous conditions for those who brave the Yalu.
Just last week, five women died attempting to cross the river, said the source, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity.
“In the early morning on Aug. 19, we found the bodies of five women,” the source said.
“They were all residents of Hyesan city, in the area near the river.”
According to the Hyesan city police department, the five women left their homes with two border guards who showed them a way to cross into China undetected.
Police are still seeking the two guards, according to authorities.
Another source from Yanggang province, who also spoke to RFA anonymously, said that an additional three women were arrested while trying to cross the river on Aug. 19.
“At midnight on Aug. 19, three other women crossing the river with scrap metal on their backs barely escaped a watery grave thanks to the assistance of guards and officers’ aides. It was an embarrassing incident,” the source said.
According to the source, the women realized that they could not traverse the river and pleaded for help about halfway across.
The three were arrested as soon as they were helped out of the water, along with two guards who had helped them find a place to cross.
Despite the high risk of drowning, sources said, it is mostly housewives who attempt to cross the Yalu to conduct illicit trade in China because they face less stiff punishments if caught than would men or unmarried women.
The sources said housewives caught crossing the river have received punishments of 15 to 20 days of forced labor.
Other sources said that the housewives have no choice but to smuggle due to drastic increases in the price of food in the aftermath of the flood.
An assessment by the United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Office earlier this month concluded that the flooding had left many parts of the already impoverished nation in dire need of emergency water, hygiene, sanitation, and health provisions.
Statistics provided by the North Korean government on Aug. 3 cited a total of 169 deaths, as many as 400 missing, and some 212,000 left homeless.
Pyongyang also reported that more than 65,000 hectares (160,620 acres) of arable land had been affected, with crops of mainly rice and maize either submerged or washed away.
Since July, the cost of rice has increased from 3,000 won to 5,000 won per kilogram.
According to official conversion rates, 130 won should fetch one U.S. dollar, but the market rate requires about 3,000 won to the dollar.
The U.N. said last autumn that some three million people would require food aid in North Korea this year, even before July’s floods.
Reported by RFA’s Korean service. Translated by Juhyeon Park. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.