Institute for Far Eastern studies (IFES)
On October 15, 2014 Chinese media reported that smuggling along the China-North Korea border, which responds sensitively to North Korea’s situation, is still prevalent and that no particular changes have been detected internally within North Korea.
According to Huanqiu, the website of the Chinese nationalistic tabloid The Global Times, smuggling along the borders of the Liaoning and Dandong provinces has continued to persist in spite of recent flurry of rumors over Kim Jong Un’s whereabouts.
A source familiar with the smuggling situation on the border was quoted as saying, “If tensions were truly rising within North Korea, the very first thing to react would be the border guards, quickly followed by the suspension of smuggling activities.” The source continued, “However, smuggling has so far been unaffected.”
The newspaper captures the scene of a smuggling operation which took place on the night of the 13th near Wollyang Island, a small island on the Yalu (Amnok) River between Dandong and the North Korean city of Sinuiju. North Korean residents send signals to the Chinese on the other side of the river with a red light, to which the Chinese fishing boat responds with a green light. After exchanging signals back and forth, the two parties meet and the deal is finished quickly.
Smuggling along the China-North Korea border has been occurring for quite some time. Besides the smuggling of drugs, which the Chinese government punishes severely, trade products such as food and other daily necessities dear to the North Korean lifestyle have been overlooked for the most part.
Previously, commonly smuggled goods consisted of cooking oil, rice, clothes, and used electronics. However, according to the Huanqiu news, products such as cellphones, PCs, washing machines and refrigerators are also being traded for.
Local sources explained that high ranking “level 1” officials at the provincial and county levels are mainly responsible for ordering these types of products, and that many of the tablet PCs used by high level executives in Pyongyang have been smuggled in through China.
Huanqiu news also introduced another source, who was quoted as saying, “Pyongyang officials are involved in all large scale trade operations along the border. We have connections to high officials in North Korea’s State Security Department, but without them, we cannot do anything.”
Despite the fact that smuggling has been occurring for quite some time, there was a brief slowdown after border security was strengthened immediately following the execution of Jang Song Thaek, former vice chairman of the National Defense Commission in late 2013.
Meanwhile, Huanqiu news also reported that the Third Annual North Korea-China Economic, Trade, Culture and Tourism Expo opened as planned from October 16 – 20 in China’s Dandong province. It was also reported that both legal trade between the two nations and Chinese tourism to North Korea are progressing normally, regardless of recent speculations.