China launches anti-drug smuggling boats on Yalu river

By Michael Rank

China has launched a fleet of patrol boats to combat drug trafficking on the North Korean border, a Chinese website reports.

The report shows pictures of the four boats, which are being deployed on a stretch of the Yalu river known as Badaojiang八道江, but gives few details.

The only drug named in the report is opium, which North Korea is reported to produce in large quantities. It says officers warn local people not to become engaged in drug smuggling by showing them pictures of opium and other banned substances.

“The creation of the anti-drugs speedboat force is not just a foundation in the people’s war against drugs, it also increases our strength in banning drugs on the river border and will be a force for us in building a harmonious border and in contributing to a drugs-free border,” an official from the new force is quoted as saying.

A separate Chinese newspaper report names a methamphetamine (known as magu 麻古) as another of the main drugs smuggled between North Korea and China, and says a haul of 13,775 magu pills, seized in winter 2004, was the largest amount of drugs ever confiscated by Dandong border guards. It says smuggling reached a peak in the years 2000-2006 and gives little information about the current situation, probably because this is politically too sensitive.

But it does mention the killing of three Chinese smugglers by North Korean border guards in June, and says the dead men were members of a gang led by a man known as Sun Laoer who controls much of the smuggling on one particular stretch of the Yalu. One man was injured in the incident, for which China demanded an apology. North Korea said it was “an accident”, while according to a Chinese television report the North Koreans suspected the smugglers of being South Korean spies.

The Chinese newspaper report says the main goods smuggled between China and North Korea are drugs, scrap metal, cigarettes, DVDs, chemicals and secondhand cars.

The most notorious gang was led by an individual called Jiang Weijia, who specialised in smuggling cigarettes and oil products from North Korea into China. Between June and December 1999 Jiang smuggled 45.8 million yuan worth of cigarettes. The gang was finally smashed in 2003.

The article in Southern Weekend, one of China’s more adventurous newspapers, also mentions human trafficking across the border. It says that “in 1996 you could exchange 50 jin [25 kg] of rice for a Korean daughter-in-law” and adds that the women had to pretend to be deaf and dumb since if they opened their mouths and were found to be from North Korea they would be sent straight back.

It notes that “world opinion suspects that North Korean government departments are covertly involved in smuggling on the Chinese-North Korean border, the reason being that in a country where power is highly concentrated, it would otherwise be almost impossible for large-scale smuggling to take place on the Yalu river border. But despite such suspicions, there is no complete proof.”

The report recalls how in the 1990s North Koreans, in the wake of the famine, would exchange scrap copper for rice at a rate of one kg of metal for one kg of rice and that many North Korean factories were stripped bare of all their metal fittings.

It also recalls how in the 1960s North Korea was richer than China, which suffered through years of Mao-induced famine, and people from Dandong would cross the Yalu at night in search of food.

“This shouldn’t be called smuggling, should it. People were bartering for food in order to survive,” it quotes one man as saying. It quotes another man as saying the border was largely unguarded until recently and when he was a boy (in the 1990s apparently) he would cross the frozen river in winter and North Korean guards would give him sweets.

The report says border trade with North Korea stopped during the Korean war, was revived in 1958 and faded during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and 70s. It was officially revived in September 1981 with an agreement between China’s Liaoning province and North Korea’s Pyeong’an Bakdo. Most of the trade from the early 1980s consisted of China bartering oil for fish.

The article says China-Korean smuggling goes back centuries, and in the 1930s an area of Dandong near the river called Shahezi 沙河子 was a famous smuggling centre under the Japanese. It also says a Qing dynasty customs office has been restored in Jiuliancheng 九连城, some 20 km from Dandong, and the area remains a smuggling centre.

North Korea has been widely reported to be a significant producer of illicit drugs. The CIA World Factbook notes  that for years, from the 1970s into the 2000s, citizens of North Korea, many of them diplomats, were apprehended abroad while trafficking in narcotics and police investigations in Taiwan and Japan in recent years have linked North Korea to large illicit shipments of heroin and methamphetamine, including an attempt by the North Korean merchant ship Pong Su to deliver 150 kg of heroin to Australia in April 2003.

In 2004 the Jamestown Foundation published a report by a North Korean defector who says he “learned of and witnessed first-hand the drug trafficking activities of the North Korean regime” when he worked for the North Korean National Security Agency from 1983 until 1998.

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