Smugglers’ Paradise

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

When I was looking at the narrow and shallow Tumen River which delineates the eastern part of border between China and Korea, I can not help but think that this area is very conducive for smuggling.

Indeed, the river can be waded over at many spots, the area is sparsely populated (by the Chinese standard, that is), the border is almost unguarded from the Chinese side and a large number of the locals have families on the other side of the border.

Indeed the area is frequented by North Korean traders, who until few years ago were mostly illegal border-crossers, essentially smugglers. In most cases they did not cross the river by stealth, hiding under the cover of darkness, but preferred to bribe the border guards instead.

North Korea is a very corrupt place these days, so the guards are ready to receive a hundred dollars, an equivalent of their small annual salaries, from a professional smuggler and then allow him or her to move bulky merchandise almost openly.

From around 2003 North Koreans could also apply for special permission, which allows them to visit China regularly and come back with merchandise. Only people with politically sound background are issued such permits, and in most cases the procedure includes heavy bribing.

Nonetheless, legal travel has become possible. On the other hand, all ethnic Korean residents of the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture, an ethnic home of Chinese Koreans, can visit North Korea. There are no problems with obtaining a special travel pass from the Chinese authorities even it involves some payments (official, in this case).

In most cases the travel is of purely commercial nature: the visitors bring with them sacks of merchandise. Needless to say, customs officials expect their fair share of both legal fees and bribes. A local Korean, who occasionally goes to visit his relatives, described his usual experience.

“They are so greedy. Officials take bribes in China, too. But perhaps nowhere in the world are the officials so hungry for bribes as they are in North Korea. At the customs, they slowly go through the luggage and sometimes put aside a few things they like, and then they say that those things are not allowed into North Korea.

This is the hint, and I have no choice but to tell them to take those things, some dress or small items. And it is a tradition that everybody who checks you should be given some foreign cigarettes. Last time I took five cartons of cigarettes with me, and only one reached my relatives.

All others I had to give away to the officials.” A particular role is played by the so-called “chogyo,” those North Korean citizens, who permanently reside in China. This is a small group, numbering from 5,000-10,000 people, but their economic and social role is out of proportion to their modest numbers.

Their unusual legal standing allows movement between China and North Korea almost at will, and this means that they have great opportunities for very profitable trade. In the past, chogyo were often feared and distrusted since they were widely believed to be North Korean espionage agents.

This might have been the case, since their families in North Korea were indeed hostages to the Pyongyang authorities. Nowadays, however, these people came to understand that they are unlikely to earn much by serving as loyal soldiers of the “Dear Leader,” and switched to business instead.

They still are said to maintain special relations with North Korean secret agencies, but these agencies are also being increasingly driven by profit-seeking. A similar group, known as “hwagyo,” consists of Chinese citizens who are allowed to live permanently in North Korea.

The hwagyo also number just a few thousands, and in North Korea they enjoy a number of privileges, including the right to go overseas with relative ease. Nowadays, as my interlocutors never fail to stress, the hwagyo have become the most prosperous social group in North Korea.

From the Chinese side, the consumption goods are largely sold. The trade items include home appliances, footwear and garments. Used fridges are often sold, being seen in North Korea as an important status symbol. The VCRs and DVD players are also highly demanded, as well as tapes and DVDs of South Korean movies, dramas and shows.

Such items are prohibited, but bribes and ingenuity help to smuggle the subversive material across the border. The North Korean traders sell a rather limited number of items, since North Korea is not capable of producing a large array of products. The North Korean private export seems to be dominated by seafood. Dried squid, pollack and the like sell well in landlocked parts of China.

Some traders dare to deal in more dangerous items, such as gold or antiquities, secretly (and illegally) dug up by North Korean grave robbers. The recent decade was a time when capitalism began to spread to the North, and most of the capital, ideas and markets which made this quiet transformation possible, came from China.

In a sense, the North Korean grassroots capitalism of black markets, old trucks, female traders with huge and unwieldy sacks on their back was conceived in China, in the vast mountainous areas of Yanbian or on the plains of Southern Manchuria which stretch along the Yalu.


Comments are closed.