North Korea’s military police force, which operates outside of the control of the normal authorities, is the driving force behind smuggling in the country, despite a nationwide crackdown on the practice, according to sources inside the hermit kingdom.
Sources said that as a result of North Korea’s “military first” policy, the military police wield a vast amount of influence over a far-reaching network of contacts in the nation, which allows them to facilitate smuggling by soldiers along the border with China.
“Most smuggling has been carried out by soldiers, and it’s particularly difficult to smuggle in massive quantities without the help of the military police,” a source in North Hamgyong province on the border with China recently told RFA’s Korean Service.
“The military police smuggle precious metals, such as gold, silver, copper, nickel, industrial diamonds and molybdenum. They also smuggle resources belonging to the nation, and plants and animals, as well as historical items, cultural artifacts, drugs, and medicinal herbs,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Military police help smuggle the goods into China in return for consumer goods, such as food, fertilizer and daily necessities, which are then peddled inside of North Korea, he said.
North Korea’s military police force is divided into the Pyongyang Military Police under the direct control of the military’s central General Staff Department, the Mobile Military Police, the Garrison Military Police serving each provincial branch of the military, and the Train Crew Military Police, the source said.
The Garrison and Train Crew divisions are those most directly involved in smuggling, he said.
A second source living in Yanggang province, which also borders China, confirmed that the Garrison Military Police have been particularly helpful in furthering the work of the nation’s smugglers.
“There’s no problem using trains and cars [to smuggle] with the help of the Garrison Military Police, and people say, no matter how severe the crackdown is, all paths lie open if you have pull with that division,” said the source, who is a resident of Yanggang’s capital Hyesan.
“A few days ago in Hyesan, a military policeman stopped a vehicle and forced the people to get out and load [smuggled] goods sent for a military camp, but driver and passengers couldn’t say a word [in protest].”
Likewise, he said, smuggling has been carried out systematically by members of the Garrison Military Police along the border with China.
Sources in North Korea agreed that as long as the economy remains in shambles and the “military first” policy remains in effect, not only resources belonging to the nation, but historical items and cultural artifacts, will continue to flood out of the country into China.
In March, sources told RFA that authorities in North Korea were offering a variety of incentives, including increased food rations and Workers’ Party membership, to informants on would-be smugglers who try to cross the frozen Tumen River into China during the lean months of the winter season.
The sources said the rewards appeared to have been ordered by the Kim Jong Un regime as part of a bid to crackdown on the country’s pervasive smuggling problem.
In January, sources said that demands by North Korean border guards for a greater share of the profits of smuggling had slowed the movement of commodities across the border with China, causing hardships for North Koreans who earn a living by trafficking in goods.
They said at the time that because of tightened security measures put in place over the last year, the fees charged by guards delivering goods across the border had risen as high as 30 to 40 percent of the smugglers’ profit compared to 11 percent previously.