North Korea has stepped up restrictions on goods smuggled in from South Korea amid tensions between the two neighbors, with traders complaining that bribing officials and removing manufacturer labels are no longer enough to get the items past customs.
Traders who smuggle the valued goods from South Korea via China, where there is a thriving illicit border trade with North Korea, said they were facing tighter controls at customs checkpoints in recent weeks.
It was not immediately clear whether the new controls are linked to tensions between the North and the South which hit a peak this year when Pyongyang’s third nuclear test drew international sanctions and the North threatened to launch nuclear strikes against South Korea and the United States.
Goods manufactured by South Korean companies in China are also not spared the stricter screening measures, dampening a flourishing border trade.
“Recently, the North Korean customs office has been examining every bag to block the entry of South Korean products,” said a North Korean trader surnamed Ju who regularly travels between Pyongyang and China to bring back goods.
Another trader, a resident of Hamhung city surnamed Min who regularly visits China, said he had received stern warning that South Korean goods would no longer be allowed in.
“A customs official who had usually let me off very lightly since I kept giving him bribes gave me a warning, saying ‘Next time, you will never be allowed to bring South Korean products, so please do not bring them ever,’” he said.
“The atmosphere of the customs office is harsh, unlike it was before,” he said.
Unlabeled goods barred
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.
In the past, the South Korean products were able to pass through customs with their labels removed, but now customs officials are barring traders from bringing in any products without labels, sources said.
To bring in South Korean-made shoes, smugglers would use irons to melt off the words “Made in (South) Korea” printed on the soles, but the trick is no longer working as officials don’t let the unlabeled shoes through, they said.
Coffee and flavor enhancers from the South used to clear customs after their packing containers were switched, but now goods with fake packaging are also prohibited.
Even some products that are made in China by South Korean companies have had problems passing through customs, they said.
Ju said that amid all the restrictions, the only South Korean products that traders can carry into the country now are glasses and ceramic plates which typically don’t have labels on them.
No North Koreans in the stores
In China’s border cities, the heightened restrictions have left stores that sell South Korean products with few North Korean customers, sources said.
North Koreans officials sent to China or employees sent on official business are barred from buying South Korean products and can not frequent South Korean stores, sources said.
The owner of a South Korean grocery store in the Chinese border city of Dandong said she has recently seen few North Koreans in her store, though some have others buy her goods for them on the sly.
“North Korean resident employees in China rarely visit us,” said the shop owner, surnamed Yu.
“They get other people to buy them stuff instead, or they request delivery service,” she said.
Sources said the stepped-up customs controls are seriously limiting the flow of South Korean goods into the North.
“If this situation keeps going for several months more, you will barely be able to find South Korean products in North Korea,” Min said, adding that checks are being conducted on goods that have already made their way inside North Korea.
“I heard that the North Korean government is scrutinizing not the only sellers and buyers of South Korean products in the marketplaces, but also customs officials [who let the goods through],” he said.
The strengthened restrictions came as North Korea blamed South Korea for the cancellation of talks planned for this week to discuss, among other topics, reopening the North-South jointly run Kaesong industrial complex—a key cooperation project that is another source of illicit South Korean products.
Traders told RFA shortly after operations at the factory park were halted in April that they expected its closure would jack up the prices of South Korean goods in North Korea.
Putting an end to cheap goods smuggled from the factories within the zone, which lies in North Korean territory, would increase demand for goods smuggled into the country from the South, they said.
Reported by Joon Ho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Goeun Yu. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.