North Korean Smugglers Shift Strategy Amid Tightened Controls on China Border

Nkorea-china-border-2013.gif A North Korea soldier stands guard as people unload a boat on the Yalu River, which separates the North Korean town of Sinuiju from the Chinese border town of Dandong, Dec. 17, 2013.

Farm products have taken over from metal-based goods as the favorite choice of North Korean smugglers crossing over the border to peddle contraband in China, sources say, even as Pyongyang steps up its border patrols.

A source in North Korea’s North Hamgyeong province bordering China said increased security had forced smugglers to carry goods such as medicinal herbs and wild edible greens, which are easier to conceal than the bulkier metal goods, including scrap products.

“People can’t access the border with the usual smuggled goods, such as [goods made from] copper, aluminum, and scrap iron,” he told RFA’s Korean Service.

“Instead of these goods, smugglers are collecting medicinal herbs and wild edible greens” which are also highly valued in China, the source said.

Herbs and wild greens are key foreign currency earners for the North Korean regime, which has required residents to collect them for sale to officially sanctioned trading companies that resell them at marked up prices to buyers in China, the source said.

Smuggling herbs and edible greens has become so popular because organizations relying on the farm products to earn foreign currency have had problems meeting their monthly export quotas due to increased border security, the source said.

North Korean residents also prefer to sell to the smugglers after gathering herbs and edible greens because they will pay more money for them than state sanctioned traders and are less stringent about the quality of the goods.

Sources said that while border controls had been relaxed during the annual mass mobilization for spring planting in May, when students and government workers are sent to work on farms in a push to meet planting targets, the North had recently stepped up security again.

The number of guards stationed along at least two lines of defense has been increased, including at checkpoints built between North Korean villages and the border meant to control the movement of area residents, said a source in Yanggang province, bordering China.

The source said that a large number of military reservists had been called into active duty, making security at the border “more tightened than before,” referring to the more relaxed May mobilization period.

South Korean goods

A second source in Yanggang told RFA that smugglers had originally limited the goods they dealt in to items such as metal-based goods and illegal drugs, which are heavily restricted by the North Korean regime.

“But now, smuggled items have completely changed to goods which are not controlled by the North Korean government,” he said.

North Korean smugglers are also becoming more cautious in bringing back goods from China which they buy using money obtained from selling their contraband.

In May and June, smugglers were trading goods across the border for highly sought after items such as gasoline, South Korean ramen noodles and South Korean sanitary pads, which they would bring back to North Korea to resell, the source said.

More recently, he said, the smugglers are only taking Chinese yuan as payment because it is easier to bring back cash following the tightening of the border.

Goods from South Korea—including clothing, cosmetics, electronics, chocolate snacks called Chocopie, and even DVDs of South Korean soap operas—trade briskly on the black market in North Korea.

Impoverished North Korea relies on China for vital economic aid and trade.

According to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, bilateral trade volume between North Korea and China came to U.S. $6.54 billion, accounting for 89.1 percent of the North's overall trade in 2013.

Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jina Lee. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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