Archive for the ‘Antiques’ Category

DPRK border guard shoots 3 Chinese

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

UPDATE 2: According to the Daily NK:

The recent shooting of four Chinese smugglers on the border between North Korea and China by a North Korean border guard was due to a quarrel between the Chinese smugglers and North Korean border guards about an antiques smuggling ring, according to a local trader.

The North Korean border guard shot the four smugglers on June 4th; three were killed and one was wounded. Afterwards, the North Korean authorities apparently issued an apology for the accident to the Dandong municipal government and paid compensation to the victims’ families.

The trader, Kim, who lives in Dandong, reported the details of the shooting accident to The Daily NK earlier this week. The spot where the accident happened was on a boat around Hwanggeumpyeong on Shin Island at the mouth of the Yalu River, he explained, where the facilities of the Shinuiju Shoe Factory are located.

According to Kim, although it was reported in some quarters that the North Korean border guard did not know who was on the boat and fired at it in the dark, in fact, both sides already had close relations.

They were well acquainted with each other thanks to smuggling, Kim said; the North Korean guard had apparently passed several antiques which he had obtained in the North to the Chinese smugglers. However, the Chinese smugglers did not pay for them and severed contacts with him.

The antiques the North Korean guard had procured included rare pieces of white Chosun dynasty china, he said.

After the Chinese smugglers disappeared, the guard tried to find them for a while, but then encountered them by chance while on his patrols.

The guard chased and eventually caught them, then they argued, but the smugglers refused to pay money for the antiques, claiming they were all imitations.

After a while, the smugglers said they would give other goods of equivalent value instead of money and then tried to leave, at which point the guard apparently shot them.

Kim also reported the details of the North’s official response. After the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement heavily critical of the shooting, the North sent a delegate to Dandong on the 15th to apologize, he explained.

In a meeting with Dandong governmental officials, the North’s delegate reportedly said it happened accidentally, and expressed the North’s sincere apologies for the accident.

The delegate apparently added that the North would restrict shooting towards the Chinese side and suggested that both sides should strengthen their mutual regulations on smuggling. He also paid $3,000 for each death as per the stipulations of a treaty between the two countries.

Kim said, “I thought the compensation was too low, so I asked once again, but their answer was that it is stipulated by the treaty.”

He added, “They promised the Chinese side that the border guard who shot the Chinese would be severely punished on suspicion of smuggling antiques and killing citizens of an allied country.”

UPDATE 1:  According to Reuters:

The isolated North made the effort to soothe China, its sole major economic and political supporter, after North Korean border guards last week shot at the Chinese nationals crossing the river border near the northeast Chinese city of Dandong.

Three were killed and a fourth was wounded.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said both countries were now “further investigating and handling the case”. He provided no other details.

On Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry made a rare public complaint about its neighbor and now North Korea appears to be seeking to placate Beijing.

North Korean border authorities said an initial investigation showed the incident was an “accident”, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported.

“The North Korean side expressed its grief over the Chinese deaths, and offered condolences to the families of the dead and to the injured, and will severely punish the perpetrators,” said the report.

“The North Korean border security authorities will further investigate this incident and prevent such incidents from recurring.”

ORIGINAL POST: According to the Associated Press:

A North Korean border guard shot and killed three Chinese citizens and wounded a fourth on the countries’ border last week, China said Tuesday after lodging a formal diplomatic protest.

The guard shot the four residents of the northeastern border town of Dandong last Friday, apparently on suspicion they were crossing the border for illegal trade, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.

“On the morning of June 4, some residents of Dandong, in Liaoning province, were shot by a DPRK border guard on suspicion of crossing the border for trade activities, leaving three dead and one injured,” he said at a regularly scheduled news conference. He used the acronym for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“China attaches great importance to that and has immediately raised a solemn representation with the DPRK. Now the case is under investigation,” he said.

Dandong is a major shipping point and rail link for goods going into and out of North Korea from China.

Qin did not give any further information. There have been some reports in South Korean media on the incident, though North Korea has not acknowledged the shootings.

And how did the South Koreans react?  According to the Los Angeles Times:

The irony of China’s protest over last week’s shooting was not lost on South Korea.

“This time it is their citizens who are killed, and they show they are not so naive after all about North Korea,” said Kim Tae Jin, a North Korean defector and human rights activist in Seoul. However, he applauded China’s protest of the shooting. China needs to show North Korean leader Kim Jong Il “that he can’t get away with whatever he wants,” Kim said.

China’s public protest is unusual in that relations between China and North Korea are normally shrouded in secrecy, to be discussed only in the politburos of the longtime communist allies.

“It is rare for China to publicly complain. Usually there is a private apology or money paid,” said Kim Heung Gwang, a former North Korean college professor and head of Seoul-based North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity.

The stretch of the Yalu just south of Dandong is frequently trafficked by smugglers, some of them bringing North Korean-made drugs into China or banned Chinese products, such as DVDs or cellphones, into North Korea.

The North Korean government is especially strict about the export of copper, which has been looted from factories, electrical and telecommunications facilities by Northerners desperate for money. But the North’s border guards do not normally shoot to kill — at least not when the smugglers are Chinese.

“Only their own people,” said Kim.

Read the full stories here:
China says NKorean border guard killed 3 Chinese
Associated Press
Tini Tran

China makes rare public protest against North Korea over killing of 3
Los Angeles Times
Barbara Demick

North Korea seeks to soothe China over border shootings


College Students Turn to Middlemen in Pyongyang

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

Daily NK
Yoon Il Geun

An inside source told the Daily NK recently that about 20 to 30% of business agents in Pyongyang are university students.

Since the late 90s, college students started working as agents between artifacts buyers and sellers.

Pyongyang middlemen usually connect local merchants in border area and retailers in Pyongyang. Besides trading foreign goods, they also took part in artifact business around Kaesung, which was the capital of Koryo dynasty from 10th century to late 14th, and thus full of ancient artifacts.

College students lack funds, so their only way to earn money is to be agent.

The insider said “Pyongyang’s college students are the smartest and known for their business skills. Among them, students from Kim Chaek University of Technology are best. It is reasonable to assume at least two out of ten students have become working as trading agents since the March of Tribulation in 1990s.”

“Students are perceived as trustworthy because they are from middle class families. And those who are from local provinces and studying in Pyongyang have advantages.”

Most of these business-practicing students are former army veterans, especially those who are interested in earning money rather than studying. A few poor students who have not enlisted do business.

According to the source, these students rarely attend classes and bribe school college administrators in order to graduate. During “farming supporting period” every spring and autumn (every college student is mandatory to work at farms twice a year), business-students are exempt while buying food for those who participate.

A defector from Pyongyang said “There is little to learn at universities and society is changed to capitalist, so there is no shame for doing business among college students. The other reason might be influx of army veterans into colleges.”


Drain of Antiques from Chosun Central Historical Museum

Tuesday, September 4th, 2007

Daily NK
Kim Min Se

Recently, a report was issued that Pyongyang’s Chosun Central Historical Museum made a request to a Japanese broadcaster to buy a rare cultural artifact, a bamboo chest with an engraved drawing for $700,000, causing a shock to the domestic historical world.

On June 10th, Japan’s TBS broadcasted a program called, “Special Report – Why was it sold? North Korea’s Historical Treasure,” but its contents were divulged belatedly, so was reported domestically only recently.

The program contained in detail TBS’ freelancer cameraman Gatanoda’s visit to North Korea and his direct exchange of cultural assets with a person who asserted himself as the “Chosun Central Historical Museum’s Vice-Curator.”

The North Korean government’s officials’ chronic corruption and drain of nationally propagated cultural assets due to careless maintenance of the state is well-known. However, the spread of news of the Central Historical Museum’s Vice-Curator directly stepping forward like this time and attempting sales with a foreigner is at its first.

Due to this event, the shock received by South Korean experts on history has been huge. When this event was reported on the 31st of September, domestic cultural experts said, “If they are going to insist on selling to foreigners, they should make a long-term loan to our National Central Museum and receive rental fees instead.”

“There is the possibility of selling fakes.”

However, criticisms on whether such occurrences are actually possible are not negligible. In particular, most of the “bridgeheads” for the outflow of North Korean cultural assets, businessmen in Dandong, China cannot be trusted. In Dandong, 100~150 curio dealers have formed large-sized businesses and are selling North Korean cultural assets to South Korean dealers.

In Dandong, Chae Jung In (pseudonym), who has been selling North Korean cultural assets for 10 years, in a recent phone conversation with DailyNK, retorted, “Think about this how they dare sell the national assets from the Museum?”

He said, “If North Korea is in a dire situation as in the late 90s, I can understand, but there is no way that it is secretly dealing cultural assets with foreigners. Those who know the North Korean situation well will never believe that, considering people can be put to death for secret sales if the treasures are rare.”

He carefully proposed the possibility that the bamboo chest reported this time is a fake, “In the late 90s, I did hear that there were cases of the North Korean museum out flowing fake cultural assets.”

Also, another curio dealer, Lee Myung Hee, said, “A year ago, the North Korean museum, introduced a Japanese person after receiving the request to sell a saber used by the Japanese Lord of the Heaven, but it was revealed as a fake, so they lost face.”

Mr. Lee hinted the possibility of “frauds,” saying, “The tendency of the North Korean people, when conducting such business, is not to directly deal with South Korean or Japanese people.” The reason for this is that, “They can be mistaken for South Korean spies and can be executed.”

Ms. Lee is a veteran who has been selling North Korean cultural assets since the beginning of the 90s. At one time, she entered Kaesung with Chinese identity in order to acquire highly-treasured antiques, but was arrested under the charge of espionage, stayed in a North Korean prison for a year, and came out as a “living witness of North Korean cultural asset drainage.”

One treasure that the North Korean Central Historical Museum surreptitiously tried to sell is a 3rd-century bamboo chest unearthed in Pyongyang by the North Korean Historical Remains Research Committee in 1931 and Japan’s TBS reported at the time that it was a valuable relic deemed as a “top-class world asset.”


If Have a Gift for Kim Jong Il, Safe Passage through the North Korean Customs

Saturday, September 1st, 2007

Daily NK
Kim Min Se

The news of one Chinese trader resolving all issues with the “certification of gifts,” while passing through a high-level North Korean customs’ confiscation of goods and demand of open bribes, has received recent spotlight.

In the latter half of the 90s, a businessman who has been exporting and importing North Korean cultural and daily necessities while coming and going from North Korea met a reporter on the 30th in Dandong and relayed this anecdote, “I have returned to China after having received “honored” treatment from all customs officials under the Shinuiju customs director. That is the first time I received such treatment in the 10 years I have been conducting the trade business.”

The story of the businessman has also apparently become noteworthy news in the Dandong customs office in China.

The businessman is supposed to have earned huge gains by handling North Korean porcelain since the latter half of the 90s. Thus, for long-term gains, he supported the arts and culture projects for the idolization of the Kim father and son in North Korea under his company’s name.

Subsequently, a North Korean writers’ company recently invited him and showed him several sights in North Korea and relayed a gift (edibles) under Kim Jong Il’s name afterwards.

The businessman, after eating the goods he received as gifts in the hotel he was staying in at the time, left with the “certification of gift” in his bag as his souvenir.

He said, “At the time, in Chosun (North Korea), I acquired quite a bit of North Korean silk for gift-giving to close acquaintances, such porcelain and paintings of famous artists. However, the cargo was heavier than expected, almost one carload (2.5 tons trucks). From Pyongyang to Shinuiju, I arrived without much mishap because transportation was provided, but passing through customs was not an easy feat.”

“The North Korean customs unpackaged all goods, so they started going through my stuff as soon as I arrived. Also, they started going through the bag I was carrying and the eyes of the inspector became fixed as the goods were taken out one by one. He had seen the “gift certification” inside a red case.”

Further, he added, “The customs officer verified the name of the certification and my passport and quickly went into an office with the ‘certification.’ Shortly after, the customs director came out and ushered me into a reception area and asked about the context for my receipt of the gift.”

At the time, the customs director had said, “You are a distinguished person who has done a huge work for our country. We did not recognize that. Please let us know if there is anything you are uncomfortable with. Whatever it is, we will help you.”

Then, he is supposed to have ordered the lower level officers, “Using the customs car, make sure that this person’s luggage arrives safely in China without any damage.”

He said that a single piece of Kim Jong Il’s “gift certification” carrying so much weight was beyond the expectations of not only himself but the Chinese customs personnel.

Another related source of the Dandong customs office said, “We were surprised that a single piece of the “gift certification” could wield such power. This event became a famous anecdote within the Dandong customs office.”


Golden Buddha Stolen From Haeju Museum, North Korea

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

Daily NK
Kwon Jeong Hyun

National Safety Agency rounds up an arrest

On the 11th, robbers raided the Haeju Historical Museum in Haejoo, North Hwanghae, stealing golden statues of Buddha and ancient Korean pottery worth a large amount, an inside source disclosed.

The source said, “On the night of 11th, golden statues of Buddha and ancient Korean pottery were stolen from Haeju Museum. The exact identity of which Buddha statues and rare artifacts were stolen has not been revealed, however, it appears the goods were rather important considering a special order was given to the border guards and the National Safety Agency has become involved.”

Haeju Historical Museum opened in 1949 and has maintained its heritage for 60 years. The museum displays a collection of ancient Korean pottery from the area and a variety of golden Buddha statues. This museum falls under the same category as the top 5 museums located in North Korea including the Central Historical Museum in Pyongyang and Kaesong Museum, Sariwon Museum and Chongjin Museum.

“If the thief escaped Hwanghae on the day of the raid, then he will be difficult to catch. However, if that is not the case, there is a high chance that the thief will be caught within the next couple of days,” said the source.

He said, “An order has already been made to strictly control the smuggling routes around the border of Shinuiju.” He added, “Stealing historical artifacts and exporting them out of the country is a crime punished with death.”

Following the food crisis in the 90s and early 2000, there were many cases where military officials, security agents and the elite frequently stole historical artifacts. The whole city was affected especially if there were many people living in the area who had inherited historical artifacts from ancestors.

However, for the past 3~4 years, there was a decrease in stolen articles as the number of ancient artifacts had been depleted and furthermore because authorities immediately punished those who stole and sold the goods overseas with capital punishment.

However, as this case shows, stealing a number of articles from museums has continued. In particular, imitations of artifacts have been sold outside the country, and North Korean authorities are facing complaints from foreign buyers. Consequently, there have been cases where affiliated persons have also been executed.

A defector who has experience in selling antiques said, “In 1993, a picture of a Great Monk Seosan was sold in Hong Kong but then returned to North Korea after it was discovered to be a fake. Parties concerned were punished.”

He said, “Precious artifacts are either sent to Pyongyang to be exhibited at the Central Historical Museum or stored separately. A curator affiliated to Mansudae Art Institution then makes a copy and sends it to either the country or, in most cases, puts it on display in Pyongyang.”

He said, “Even if the Japanese buy $10,000 worth of Nihontou (Japanese swords) with the carved seal of a Japanese Emperor, there are still many people who want to possess artifacts from the Chosun Revolutionary Museum. Even I went around until my feet were worn out carrying antiques to make money. However, most of these goods were imitations copied by Mansudae Art Institution.”

Last year, there was one case where a group of 22 people were caught stealing tombstones off royal tombs. Though it is difficult to transport these tombstones, since they weigh a minimum of 500kg and as much as 2-3tons, once they are secretly transported to China, the tombstones sell at a very high price.

The moment North Korean authorities discovered the case, Chinese authorities were contacted and a cooperative investigation begun. The tombstones were redeemed from a storage area in Dandung. At the time, the Chinese dealers were given a heavy fine and the organizer of the North Korean exports, a national security agent, was known to have committed suicide.


Digging up the Past

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

Since the mid-1990s antique dealers in Seoul have uncovered a new source of quality items: North Korea. Indeed, around that time, antiques secretly excavated in North Korea began to arrive in Seoul in ever increasing quantities.

By the late 1980s, the antique trade in South Korea was going through hard times. Most of the important sources had been used up, and the state had established a fairly efficient control over excavations. Supply was shrinking, and prices kept growing. This was just when the antique items from North Korea hit the market.

This was a result of three important transformations. First, the famine and near collapse of the state bureaucracy in the North meant that many people were ready to do whatever it took to earn some money, and that officials, if given sufficient bribes, would not interfere much, if at all.

Second, the same combination of corruption and collapsing border controls essentially opened the Chinese border with North Korea.

Third, the adjacent areas of China became popular with Korean tourists who frequented the areas, and were on occasion ready to do some small and profitable, if illegal, business.

The major attractions are the Goryeo-era tombs which have been intensively excavated in the last decade (the major centers of the Goryeo Kingdom were located in what is now North Korea). These illegal diggings produced a flood of Goryeo items on the Seoul antique markets. Actually, the amount of antiques that have appeared makes archaeologists wonder about the scale of damage inflicted on the Goryeo sites in recent years. If rumors are to be believed, tomb raiding usually involves North Korean officials, people whose job would be to protect the historical site.

Apart from Goryeo “grave goods,’’ smuggled items include Buddhist images of all kinds, old books, furniture and stoneware. Some of these items originate from the Unified Silla Kingdom (7-10th century) while others are relatively new and can be dated to the early 20th century.

In most cases, the items are “mined’’ on the spot, but there have been a number of confirmed or nearly confirmed instances of books and other works which clearly have been stolen from museums and libraries in the North.

Then the items are transported to the border and smuggled into China. This might require bribing customs and immigration officials, but for a few hundred dollars one can purchase an uncontrolled passage (and, as a merchant told a South Korean journalist in an interview, well-paid custom officials can even help to move heavier items across the border).

The border city of Dandong plays the role of the major illegal market for the smuggled North Korean antique items. In China, some antiques go to the local buyers, but far more frequently the items are smuggled again, this time to Seoul, to appear in the antique shops in the Korean capital.

Some items are bought by rich collectors, while others end up in private museums. However, the Kookmin Ilbo journalists, who investigated the trade in 2005, discovered that museums are very secretive about such acquisitions, being uneasy about the legal implications of provenance, and the likely influence on relations between the two Koreas.

A major role in the business networks is done by two ethnic groups: the Joseonjok, or ethnic Koreans in China, and the hwagyo (huaqiao), the ethnic Chinese in Korea. Members of both groups have ample opportunities for legal cross-border travel, have money and connections, and are fluent in both languages.

They transport the booty, and also provide the North Korean diggers (not exactly experts in Goryeo celadon or early Joseon books) with instructions regarding the most preferable items at any given moment.

This is a risky business, and in the late 1990s the North Korean authorities attempted a number of crackdowns, with few high-level officials arrested for involvement in antique smuggling. However, people take risks.

A good piece of Goryeo-era ware would easily sell for tens of thousands of dollars in Seoul. Only a fraction of this money will go to the grave robbers, of course, with intermediaries and bribe-taking officials along the route pocketing the lion’s share of the profit.

Still, we can presume that a good piece would bring a successful digger a few hundred dollars. In a country where the average salary has fluctuated between one and five dollars a month, this is still a fortune, even for a minor official, and the more high-ranking policemen and security guys are making good living out of this.

It is somewhat difficult to judge these people too harshly, especially those who are driven to tomb raiding by the real threat of starvation, but there is no doubt that extensive and chaotic diggings are wiping out an important historical heritage. When archeologists arrive at the sites, sooner or later as they will, they will have to deal with the havoc produced by the illegal diggers, and many important traces of the past will be lost forever.

In tandem with the antiques, the forgery industry has also developed, with North Korean artisans learning the techniques used by South Korean experts. They know how to make a vase of a bottle from a few small pieces, how to imitate the old patterns on the ceramics, as well as many other tricks of an experienced forger. It seems that the North Korean forgers enjoy some competitive advantages over their South Korean colleagues. At any rate, the boom is not yet over.


N Korea makes World Heritage List

Thursday, July 1st, 2004


A complex of ancient tombs across North Korea and China has been recognised by the UN’s World Heritage List.

Two sites from the Koguryo dynasty – one in each country – are recognised for their special cultural value. It is North Korea’s first entry on the list.

The UN’s cultural body, Unesco, says it is trying to balance the bias towards Western sites on the list so far.

Forty-eight sites are being considered for the list by the World Heritage Committee at a meeting in China.

Political agenda

The annual meeting, where the sites are being discussed, is taking place Suzhou and will last until 7 July.

An official said the final choice should be limited to 30, but political considerations may mean it exceeds that.