North Korean merchant says trade and smuggling slashed by sanctions

Kim Sung Il  |  2018-02-07 05:24
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A customs checkpoint in China's Dandong City, on the border with North Korea.
February 2nd was a quiet day, with barely any vehicles permitted to enter North Korea.
Image: Daily NK

Chinas Liaoning Province is responsible for 70% of bilateral trade with North Korea. Daily NK recently spoke with a North Korean merchant in the border city of Dandong to better understand what sort of impact the international sanctions campaign is having on business.

The interviewee noted that the damage to trade has been significant, saying, It was possible to engage in some level of smuggling a while ago, but it has become tougher. Im carrying electronic products with me on the train now, but I can only take a small amount at a time. He added that he frequently speaks with other North Korean contacts who are doing business in China, all of whom are worried about their future.   

The following is an excerpt from the interview.

Daily NK (DNK): Are the Chinese authorities proactively enforcing UN Resolutions?

Merchant: There are increasing reports of even unsanctioned goods getting delayed or refused completely by Chinese customs prior to entry into North Korea. Weve started to wonder whether the Chinese are looking to enforce these sanctions and make our lives miserable. There are so many clauses and provisions in the sanctions, so its hard for us to memorize them all. It has become more difficult to find goods that arent sanctioned.

DNK: There are reports of smugglers using international trains to get goods into the North.

Merchant: The customs offices are extremely strict, but train stations enforce the regulations more loosely. So some merchants are taking small volumes of vehicle and electronic components with them on trains into North Korea. But these are limited opportunities with small profit margins.

Trade facilitated by trucks has reduced significantly. There used to be over 100 trucks a day rolling into North Korea through the Dandong customs office, but now that number is about 30-40 per day. This means that the volume of vehicle-based trade through the area has been cut in half.  

DNK: And smuggling has also become harder?

Merchant: Of course. For a while, smuggling operations flourished in the Tonggang vicinity at the rivermouth of the Yalu. But Chinese government surveillance has strengthened, and with it the cost of smuggled goods has risen, so the Chinese are no longer looking for smuggled goods.  

In the past, if smugglers brought over medicinal herbs, antiques, or seafood into China from North Korea, it was possible to make a profit of about 20,000 yuan (about US $3,170), but that has become difficult now. The number of buyers and sellers is dwindling.

DNK: There has also been some talk of Chinese businesses pulling out of North Korea.

Merchant: I havent heard anything about that yet. If they do pull out, it would be devastating for us. There are a lot of joint North Korean-Chinese ventures in Sinuiju City. North Korean residents working there earn about 200-500 yuan (about US $30-80) per month. Thats a lot of money in North Korea. If the Chinese businesses leave, these residents will have a very hard time.

A truck is stopped at the customs office in Dandong.
Chinese soldiers are inspecting all vehicles. Image: Daily NK, taken in April 2017

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