Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

Two Japanese indicted over PC exports

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

Pictured above: Korea Computer Center, Pyongyang (Google Earth)

According to Mainichi Daily News:

Prosecutors indicted two executives of small trading houses in Nagoya and Tokyo on Wednesday on charges of exporting used personal computers to North Korea in violation of Japanese government trade sanctions.

Lee Mun Ryang, 61, in Nagoya, and Kaoru Morino, 44, in Tokyo, allegedly exported used PCs and other items worth a total of 8.2 million yen to North Korea in June and December 2010, according to the Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office.

The exported goods are believed to have been delivered to the Korea Computer Center, North Korea’s governmental information technology research center set up by late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Both Lee and Morino were quoted by prosecutors as saying they knew that the goods would be delivered to the KCC.

Japan has imposed a total ban on exports to North Korea since June 2009 in protest at its nuclear program.

Lee and Morino began exporting daily necessities to North Korea in 2006, according to investigative sources.

Additional Information:

1. Martyn Williams also wrote about this.

2. In 2010 The Japanese also arrested an individual for exporting pianos to the DPRK.

3. The North Koreans just released several Japanese they were holding.

Read the full story here:
2 executives indicted over PC exports to N. Korea
Mainichi Daily News


“Recently” detained Japanese men returned home

Friday, January 20th, 2012

UPDATE 2 (2012-1-20): The DPRK has released two Japanese men recently detained in Rason. According to the Associated Press:

Two Japanese men detained in North Korea 10 months ago have returned home, a minister said Friday, adding it could be a “positive” diplomatic sign from the reclusive state.

The two arrived back in Japan this week, said Jin Matsubara, head of the National Public Safety Commission.

“I think this could be taken as a positive message from North Korea,” he told reporters.

Police declined to comment on whether the two men paid any money or why they were released.

The men, reportedly in their 30s and 40s were detained in a special economic zone near the communist state’s border with Russia. They returned via China.

Three Japanese men had initially been taken into detention in March last year, but one of them, who was in his 80s, was freed and returned to Japan in April, Jiji Press news agency and public broadcaster NHK said.

Reports said the three men were employees of a machine maintenance firm in Tokyo who had visited Rason city near North Korea’s border with Russia in March to check machines at a food manufacturing factory.

They were reportedly detained on charges of hiding drugs in canned goods to be exported to China and currency counterfeiting.

The release of these men was also covered in Bloomberg.

UPDATE 1 (2011-5-4): According to KCNA:

Japanese Detained in DPRK for Their Crimes

Pyongyang, May 4 (KCNA) — The Korean Central News Agency Wednesday issued the following report:

Masaki Furuya, former representative managing director of JP Dairin Co. Ltd., Hidehiko Abe, representative managing director of Realise Co. Ltd, of Japan, and Takumi Hirooka, managing director of Sugita Industrial Co. Ltd, of Japan, were put in custody by a relevant body on charges of drug trafficking and counterfeit after entering Rason City of the DPRK on March 14.

They admitted their crimes and their gravity.

Masaki Furuya had already been expelled from the DPRK and the two Japanese are called to legal accounts.

What they did is a very grave violation of the law of the DPRK and international law and they will, therefore, face proper legal actions.

The Wall Street Journal also reports that the DPRK held a Japanese man for drug smuggling from 2003-2009.

ORIGINAL POST (2011-4-20): According to Yonhap:

North Korea detained three Japanese men on apparent drug smuggling charges in its special economic zone last month, but it later released one man, a news report said Wednesday.

The three Japanese employees of a machine maintenance firm in Tokyo visited the city of Rason, near North Korea’s border with Russia, in March to check machines at a food manufacturing factory, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper said, citing unidentified sources.

They were detained on charges that they hid drugs in canned goods to be exported to China, though the North later allowed one of them to return to Japan, the newspaper said.

The North has demanded a large bail for the two detainees, it said.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs in Seoul, and the pro-North Korean association in Tokyo said they had no information.

The North’s state media have not reported on the case.

North Korea arrested a Japanese man on drug smuggling charges in 2003 before allowing him to return home on humanitarian grounds in 2009.

The news came days after North Korea confirmed the detention of a Korean-American man on a crime against the North.

The North said it will indict Jun Young-su, who was arrested in November, claiming he admitted his crime in the course of the investigation, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported Thursday.

According to the Korea Times the men were detained in Rason.

Read the Yonhap story here:
N. Korea detains two Japanese men: report


Japan – DPRK football match 2011

Sunday, November 6th, 2011

UPDATE 1 (2011-11-6): According to the Wall Street Journal:

Japanese football fans are scrambling to secure one of the few seats available on an organized spectator tour to watch the national football team’s World Cup qualifying match against North Korea in Pyongyang on Nov. 15.

It is the first time Japan will play against its enigmatic neighbor on the latter’s home soil in 22 years.

The absence of diplomatic ties between Japan and North Korea has turned coordinating plans into a logistical workout for the Japan Football Association. It has also put a high premium on the 150 tickets available to Japanese citizens, according to the limit imposed by North Korea. The JFA said it is still negotiating with North Korea to try to raise that number.

Just 65 tickets are available for the official tour package. Ticket sales opened Tuesday, sold via Tokyo-based Nishitetsu Travel Co. The travel agency was already taking down names for a waiting list by the following morning.

The three-day, two-night excursion is priced at about ¥288,000, or roughly $3,700. Because there are currently no direct flights to Pyongyang, a special charter was arranged.

Even then, the trip was almost called off. The Japanese government only gave its formal approval Tuesday in support of the team, JFA officials and fans visiting the country: Tokyo has strongly discouraged residents from visiting North Korea citing economic sanctions imposed by Tokyo after a missile launch in 2006. (North Koreans are banned from entering Japan)

Meanwhile, another 65 tickets that were available for the trip were sold. Seats for a choice of two packages to Pyongyang sold out last month, according to Serie Co., a Tokyo-based travel company that organizes football tours. While there was more interest in attending this game compared to past qualifying matches, company president Masashi Tokuda said, there was also more anxiety. Following numerous inquiries, Mr. Tokuda and other employees went to North Korea to inspect the destination spots that would be on the tour—Kim Il-Sung Stadium where the match will be held, restaurants, hotel and sightseeing areas. The company posted its findings on its website.

While Japan isn’t alone in its strained relations with North Korea, traces of the two countries’ unique history has materialized on the football field. North Korea’s national team draws a lot of its power from a clutch of players who are ethnically Korean, but were born and raised in Japan and identify themselves as North Korean. Now playing in Japan’s professional football league, they are third- or fourth-generation Koreans who migrated or were forcefully moved to Japan when the Japanese colonized the country from 1910-1945.

As for the match itself, Japan will be a heavy favorite, ranked No. 17 in FIFA’s world rankings to North Korea at No. 124.

And the Samurai Blue most recently defeated North Korea 1-0 in September in Saitama, Japan.

But, as sports fans know all too well, home-team advantage can be a game-changer. North Korea won 2-0 the last time the two countries faced off in Pyongyang in June 1989.

Win, lose or tie, Japan fans making the trip should bear one other thing in mind: Both tour companies said bringing noise makers and team banners to North Korea is prohibited.

ORIGINAL POST (2011-11-2): First of all, Japan is going to allow a delegation to visit the DPRK for a World Cup qulaifying match.  According to the Mainichi Daily News:

Japan will allow supporters of the national soccer team along with accompanying press to visit Pyongyang to watch a World Cup qualifier against North Korea later this month, top government spokesman Osamu Fujimura said Tuesday.

The decision is an exceptional measure to be taken by Japan, which has asked its nationals to refrain from visiting North Korea as part of sanctions imposed following North Korea’s missile launch in July 2006.

The chief Cabinet secretary said at a news conference that the exception will only apply for members of the national team, and accompanying reporters and supporters who register for official tours organized by the Japan Football Association to attend the Nov. 15 qualifier for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Fujimura said the government decided to make an exception for the match because there is “great national interest.” He also said the government believes it should avoid any negative feedback on Japan’s bid to host international competitions such as the Olympics by not having politics interfere in sports activities.

According to JFA vice president Kozo Tashima, North Korea plans to only allow up to 150 Japanese supporters to enter the country. The JFA will continue to negotiate with North Korea about increasing the number, Tashima said.

The JFA, after discussing the matter with the government, initially asked the North Korean soccer association to arrange for the entry of 200 to 300 people. But the request was rejected because of limited capacity at hotels and on chartered flights, according to Tashima.

The JFA said the official tour led by Nishitetsu Travel Co. will offer 65 places and its application process will last until Friday. About 10 JFA officials are expected to join the tour.

The government will ban travelers from carrying goods to or from North Korea and ask them to notify the government if they intend to take over 100,000 yen in cash.

In August, Japan allowed the North Korean national team to enter the country for a World Cup qualifying match, in a similar exception to the ban in principle on North Koreans coming to Japan that was imposed in protest at Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons testing in October 2006 among other bilateral issues.

Read the full story here:
Japan to allow supporters to visit N. Korea for World Cup qualifier
Mainichi Daily News


Japan arrests North Korean on charges of illegal export

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

Pictured above: An American-made, petrol-guzzling Hummer H2 (MSRP 2008-$53,286; 10 mpg-US;24 L/100 km; 12 mpg-imp) in the parking lot of (I believe) the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang in September 2010.  The photo comes from here.

UPDATE 2 (2011-10-5): Accoridng to the Mainichi Daily News:

A man standing trial for illegally exporting luxury foreign cars to North Korea was a spy attempting to acquire foreign currency under the guise of a businessman, police allege.

An Sonki, 71, a North Korean resident of Japan, is being tried at the Tokyo District Court on charges of violating the Foreign Exchange Law for exporting three foreign luxury cars to North Korea in 2008.

An traveled to North Korea and China on 40 occasions over the past five years. He is believed to have worked as a broker between North Korea’s state-run companies and foreign firms, while ostensibly working for an electricity-affiliated company in Tokyo almost every day. He managed his own trading company, whose nominal president was a South Korean resident of Japan whom he was acquainted with.

The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD)’s Public Security Bureau had kept track of An since the 1990s because An invited North Korean trade missions to Japan and visited the North Korean passenger-cargo ship Mangyongbong while it was docked at a port in Japan.

The MPD launched a criminal investigation into the illegal export case in June and found that An belonged to a spy agency under the Korean Workers’ Party. An reportedly received instructions from the secretive agency by calling it about once a week from a public telephone.

The MPD also confiscated dozens of contracts and planning documents from locations linked to An. The documents pertained to joint crab and shrimp fishing with Russian companies; the processing and selling of kimchi with Vietnamese companies; scrapping and repairing of ships with Japanese and Chinese companies; cable copper trading with Zambian companies; and importing matsutake mushrooms and snow crabs to Japan.

An’s activities were apparently aimed at brokering joint ventures between North Korean state-run companies and foreign companies, as well as bringing supplies to North Korea. Investigators suspect that An was helping with North Korea’s acquisition of foreign currency and the improvement of power supply in the North.

An was reportedly living a frugal life, renting a six-tatami mat apartment room without a bathroom for 40,000 yen a month. The apartment was not equipped with an air conditioner or television. There was hardly any living ware in the apartment, except for a rice cooker and a compact refrigerator. His lunch box he brought to his company contained only rice and pickled vegetables. He always wore a suit, which was left by a deceased acquaintance. He rarely contacted his separated wife and child.

“I never thought of my own interests but acted in accordance with the agency’s instructions,” An was quoted as telling investigators.

An has not revealed much about the flow of his money. Investigators confiscated 1 million yen in cash and wads of receipts from traveling abroad, but the origin of those funds is unknown.

“His activities are shrouded in mystery. We suspect that the importance of secret agents like him has been increasing in North Korea, which is under economic sanctions,” said a senior MPD official.

During the first hearing of the trial on Sept. 9, An demanded that all charges in the indictments be withheld. How much of his secret activities will be revealed depends on the questioning of the defendant during the ongoing trial.

UPDATE 1 (2011-7-7): According to the Mainichi Daily News:

A North Korean man under arrest for illegally exporting luxury foreign cars to Pyongyang by way of South Korea allegedly disguised the cars as destined for foreign embassies, it has been learned.

An Sonki, 71, a North Korean resident of Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward, was earlier arrested by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) on charges of violating the Foreign Exchange Law for exporting luxury foreign cars to North Korea from Kobe in 2008 under the instruction of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s undercover agency.

According to the latest revelations, the North’s undercover agency instructed An to make the Indian Embassy in Pyongyang one of the final destinations of the exported cars apparently to prevent South Korean authorities from uncovering irregularities when the cars went through the South. The MPD is trying to work out all the facts of the case.

An is suspected to have exported three fancy foreign cars to Pyongyang on two separate occasions in 2008, ferrying the cars from Kobe Port. The export was undertaken by a Tokyo-based trading company called “Godo Holdings,” which is effectively managed by An. The MPD suspects that An is a North Korean agent.

According to the MPD’s Public Security Bureau, An had declared to Japanese customs that the consignee of the luxury cars was a delivery company in Seoul. However, the vehicles were ultimately shipped to North Korea by way of the South, where the items were re-registered as transit cargo. It is believed that the cars were declared as destined for the embassies when they cleared South Korean customs.

Investigators have confiscated from An’s home documents that described a plan to make the Indian Embassy and a Middle Eastern embassy in Pyongyang the final destinations of the cars.

“I was told to make the embassies the nominal destinations of the cars,” An was quoted as telling investigators.

Investigators have also confiscated a North Korean passport, a seal with the name of the undercover agency engraved, as well as a document describing a plan to establish routes to distribute the North’s agricultural and marine products to Japan, the United States and Europe. It has also emerged that An had traveled to South Africa in order to procure rare metals, according to investigators.

An reportedly belonged to a section of the North’s undercover agency that was in charge of Japan.

More on the interesting business dealings of the North Korean embassy in India below.

ORIGINAL POST (2011-6-21): According to KBS:

Japanese police have arrested a North Korean citizen on charges of selling luxury foreign cars to the North through South Korea.

Japanese media said that the North Korean man, who resides in Tokyo and was identified only by his surname “Ahn,” is charged with violating Japan’s foreign currency law.

Ahn is accused of illegally exporting three used Mercedes-Benz cars to North Korea without the Japanese government’s permission. The cars were shipped to the communist country from Japan’s Kobe port via South Korea’s Busan and Incheon between September and December 2008.

This is the first uncovered illegal export scheme to use South Korea as a stopover between Japan and North Korea. China is generally the popular channel for illegal exports between the two nations.

Japanese police also believe that Ahn is a North Korean spy.

Back in May, the DPRK detained two Japanese men for drug smuggling in Rason, and North Korean Embassy officials in India came under investigation for involvement in a luxury car smuggling case worth W100 billion (US$1=W1,091).

Read the full story here:
Japan Arrests N. Korean on Charges of Illegal Export


Japan launches new satellite to watch DPRK

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

According to Strategy Page:

Japan recently launched another photo reconnaissance satellite, replacing a radar equipped spy satellite that failed last year. A Japanese rocket was used for this launch. Four years ago Japan launched its fourth spy satellite into orbit, also using a Japanese-made rocket. The third bird was launched five years ago. The first two were launched in 2003. The 2006 launch was the second of three optical reconnaissance satellites. The cameras on board can make out objects as small as one meter (39 inches) in diameter. The new photo satellite can detect objects .6 meters (two feet) in size. The best U.S. spy satellites can make out much smaller objects, but for Japan’s needs, .6-1 meter is adequate. At this point, none of the four birds carry radar, to provide all weather coverage. Technically, the satellites are in violation of a 1969 Japanese law, which mandated Japan only use space for non-military purposes. To get around this, these satellites are technically non-military, and are not controlled by the military.

Japan had long refrained from launching military satellites, but this changed when North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan in 1998. Japan promptly set out to get eight surveillance satellites in orbit by 2006, in order to keep an eye on North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missile efforts. This proved impossible to do. While two Japanese satellites were launched in early 2003, another two were destroyed during late 2003, when the rocket malfunctioned.

Japan has long relied on commercial photo satellites, and whatever they could get from the Americans. But for high resolution shots, on demand, of North Korea, and electronic eavesdropping from space, they need their own spy satellites. It is believed that the Japanese spy satellites are also being used to watch military developments in China and Russia.

The Japanese program has cost nearly three billion dollars. The optical satellites weigh about a ton, while the radar one weighs about a third more. The United States provided a lot of technical assistance on the design and construction of the satellites. Japan built its own rockets to launch them. Like most spy satellite users, Japan does not report on how effective they are. It is known that Japan could get more detailed photos from commercial satellites. But those are not controlled by the Japanese government.

Read the full story here:
Japan Has Another Eye On North Korea
Strategy Page


Some new Google Earth discoveries for HRNK…

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Last Thursday the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) issued a new report on the DPRK’s history of abducting foreign nationals.  Marcus Noland, who is on the HRNK board, has posted a PDF of the report at his blog here.

Some time ago, HRNK approached me to locate some facilities in the DPRK for this report.  I was sent a hand drawn map that was published in Megumi Yao‘s memoirs as well as two maps from Ahn Myong Jin‘s memoirs.  I used these maps to locate the following facilities in the DPRK:

Kim Jong-il Political Military University (39.138379°, 125.749988°)

Housing for abducted Koreans and Japanese (39.161151°, 125.780365°)

Japanese Revolution Town — Old home of the Japanese Red Army (39.078108°, 125.942814°)

You can read more about these places in the HRNK report.

I had thought I was doing (mostly) original work, but we discovered last week that a Japanese researcher named Osamu Eya located these places (and more) several years ago using these maps.  We both, however, independently identified the same locations.


DPRK donates to Chongryon in wake of Japanese tsunami

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

UPDATE 1 (2011-4-10): According to Yonhap:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il donated more than 165 million yen (US$1.94 million) in educational funds to pro-North Korea residents in Japan on the occasion of his late father’s 99th birthday, the North’s state media said Sunday.

The educational aid was sent to the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, also known as “Chongryon,” to mark the 99th anniversary on April 15 of North Korea founder Kim Il-sung’s birth, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

Here is the Original KCNA story:

General Secretary Kim Jong Il sent education aid fund and stipends amounting to 165,200,000 yen to the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan. It was sent for the democratic national education of children of compatriots in Japan on the occasion of the 99th birth anniversary of President Kim Il Sung.

The aid fund and stipends sent by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il so far total 46 759 450 390 yen on 157 installments.

ORIGINAL POST (2011-3-24): According to Yonhap:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il donated US$500,000 to pro-North Korean residents in Japan to help them recover from a killer quake and tsunami that left thousands dead and missing.

The aid from the cash-strapped country was announced Thursday in a brief dispatch from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

Separately, North Korea’s Red Cross sent relief funds of $100,000 to its Japanese counterpart and expressed deep sympathy to the victims of the catastrophe, the KCNA said in a separate dispatch.

The KCNA did not give any further details on whether there were any casualties among pro-North Korean residents.

An official of the pro-North Korean association in Tokyo told Yonhap News Agency by phone that some of the residents could have been killed during the disaster. He did not elaborate and asked not to be identified as he was not authorized to speak to media.

Currently, hundreds of thousands of Koreans live in Japan, many of them descendants of Koreans forcibly brought to Japan as laborers during Tokyo’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

The ethnic Korean community, however, was later divided into two separate groups, with each supporting South and North Korea, respectively. The two Koreas remain technically at war since their 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a cease-fire.

North Korea and Japan have no diplomatic relations.

Despite Pyongyang’s vitriolic language towards the “Japanese colonialists,” the DPRK and Japan have historically enjoyed a uniquely close relationship.

Up until recent economic sanctions were imposed, Japan was the DPRK’s largest non-socialist trading partner.  This relationship was driven in large part by the Japan-based ethnic Korean association: Chongryon (Chosen Soren).  According to the Daily NK, at its peak, the Chongryon’s patriotic projects enabled the remittance of six to eight hundred million dollars every year.  With dividends like that, $500, 000 does not seem like much of a sacrifice.

Chongryon members are responsible for a number of investments in the country such as the Chosun Bank, Moranbong Company,   and Kim Man-yu Hospital in Pyongyang (39.031294°, 125.784566°).

Also worth noting, Ko Yong-hui,  Kim Jong-un’s mother, was from Osaka, Japan.  In fact here are the coordinates of her birthplace:  34.663147°, 135.531080°


DPRK on high alert for radioactive damage from Japan

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

UPDATE (4/6/2011): According to Yonahp:

North Korea’s official media reported on Tuesday that the country detected traces of radioactive materials in major cities following Japan’s nuclear crisis triggered by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

The North said in a report carried by the official Korean Central Broadcasting Station that traces of radioactive iodine and cesium were found in the cities of Pyongyang, Wonsan and Cheongjin, but the report did not disclose detection levels of such materials.

“Radioactivity monitoring stations in Pyongyang, Wonsan and Cheongjin have detected radioactive materials like iodine and cesium, which have not been seen in the past,” an official for North Korea’s meteorological research agency said in the TV report.

The traces were so small that they will not affect public health, the official said, adding that “close attention should be paid to monitoring and forecasting of weather changes.”

The news came as South Korea also reported air detection of radioactive materials after the massive earthquake and tsunami crippled nuclear reactors in Fukushima, sparking concerns of radioactive leaks.

ORIGINAL POST (2011-3-29): According to Yonhap:

North Korea is on high alert for any possible radioactive damage from an unfolding nuclear crisis in neighboring Japan, a senior North Korean scholar said Tuesday during talks with South Korea on a possible volcano in the communist state.

The comment was made by Yoo Yong-geun, head of a North Korean delegation who traveled earlier in the day to this South Korean border town of Munsan to discuss joint ways to respond if Mount Paekdu in the North is found to have an active volcanic core.

“We are actively watching, worrying that radioactive contamination may reach us” from Japan, where firefighters are struggling to contain radioactive leaks from a northeastern nuclear plant hit by a major earthquake and ensuing tsunami.

Yoon did not elaborate on what measures his government was taking to protect its population. Despite the direction of winds that normally blow from west to east, traces of radioactive material have been detected in South Korea, raising alarm here, according to a state nuclear safety agency on Tuesday.

“Due to the proximity, (events in Japan) seem to affect us,” Yoon told four South Korean scholars attending the first-ever inter-Korean volcano talks. Yoon, deputy head of a volcano research institute, added underground water fluctuated and mud seeped from spring water following the 9.0-magnitude earthquake off Japan’s east coast.

Read the full story here:
N. Korea on high alert for radioactive damage from Japan: scholar
Sam Kim


Japanese earthquake disrupts Chongryun web page

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

UPDATE 3 (2011-4-9): After posting the news from April 1-6, the site appears to be out of service again. Here is the statement posted to the web page:


According to Google Translate:

Interference has occurred due to the earthquake East.
You may postpone the delivery of the report for that.

UPDATE 1 (2011-4-6): The web page appears to be fixed today.  So it looks like the site was temporarily down from March 21-April 6.

ORIGINAL POST (2011-4-5): is the premier web destination to watch North Korea’s evening news broadcasts.  It has not been updated for several days (appx. March 21).  Today I noticed a message on the screen:

The message at the bottom reads:


Here is the translation via Google Translate:

Interference has occurred due to the earthquake East. Temporary 見合Wasemasu news delivered for that purpose. Delivery will recover soon.

North Korea’s Uriminzokkiri YouTube account is still being updated with other North Korean television footage, but they are not uploading evening news broadcasts.


Pyongyang’s overseas business agents

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

According to the Asahi Shimbun:

Although they feel responsible for the future of their country, they generally work alone in a foreign land. Their family members are kept “hostage,” and they must resort to secretive tactics to bypass international sanctions to feed their leaders’ voracious appetite for Japanese products.

Yet being a trade agent is a favored occupation among North Koreans.

The job allows individuals to live a fairly free life outside of North Korea and can lead to the accumulation of wealth. That is, if everything goes well.

“In the past, the symbol of the wealthy were those Korean nationals who returned from Japan,” a trade agent said. “However, with the suspension of travel by the Man Gyong Bong-92 (cargo-passenger ship that sailed between Japan and North Korea), it has now become the time for trade agents.”

North Korean trade agents in China are under the strict control of Pyongyang.

To be chosen as a trade agent, individuals must have the right background, including not having any family link to the old capitalist class or relatives who are considered anti-state.

They must have also worked for a government institution or major state-run company.

Prospective agents are scouted by trading companies and are only approved by the government after a rigorous background check by state security, Foreign Ministry and other authorities.

Many seeking to become trade agents use their personal connections or even bribes, according to sources.

Trade agents allowed to work in China must leave behind at least one family member in North Korea to deter the agents from defecting.

One trade agent from Pyongyang established a base in a condominium in the central part of a Chinese city. At the start of every day, the agent bows to portraits on the walls of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, and his son, Kim Jong Il, to pray for successful business.

“We have the burden of the nation on our shoulders. We have to use any means possible to turn a profit,” the agent said.

About 300 North Korean trading companies have been confirmed. They are all affiliated with North Korean government agencies or the military.

Sources said Pyongyang has dispatched nearly 1,000 trade agents to Beijing and 600 or so to Shanghai. Major regional cities are also home to between 100 and 200 North Korean trade agents.

Every night, the trade agents must contact supervisors dispatched by the North Korean government to offices in various cities in China. The agents report on their business activities as well as on their personal movements. Those reports are then transmitted to the headquarters of the trading company that dispatched the agents and to related government agencies.

Every Saturday, the agents must gather at the regional offices for study sessions on the instructions and policies of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

Depending on the experience of each agent and the size of the operation, between $5,000 (412,000 yen) and $60,000 from profits are transferred to North Korea. The trade agent has to use whatever is left over for future business and daily life.

Many agents barely eke out a living, and those who cannot fulfill the government-set quotas are recalled.

The trade agents sell North Korean mining resources, such as coal and iron ore, lumber and seafood. They buy foodstuffs, pharmaceutical drugs, daily necessities and equipment from China.

According to Chinese government statistics, North Korea’s total trade with China in 2009 reached about $2.68 billion, an increase of 5.5 times over 2000. As North Korea becomes more isolated, its trade dependence on China has soared to 73 percent.

The more elite trade agents are dispatched by state-run trading companies to major Chinese cities, such as Beijing, on long-term commercial visas.

Although they are company employees, the North Koreans are unlike the agents working for Japanese trading companies, who may have a large support staff.

The elite North Korean agents often work alone and handle large projects with huge piles of money handed to them by Pyongyang.

After North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, Japan banned exports of luxury items, such as expensive foods, cars and precious metals, from November 2006. After Pyongyang’s second nuclear test in 2009, Japan banned all exports to North Korea.

Despite the sanctions, high-quality Japanese products remain very popular in North Korea. That means the elite trade agents must find ways around the strict sanctions to buy Japanese products and secretly transport them to North Korea.

Generally, the agents make it look like the Japanese products have been purchased by a Chinese entity.

According to sources, the agents often have Japanese products transported to a bonded district in a Chinese port where duties do not have to be paid. Those products are then loaded onto another ship bound for North Korea.

Another method is to have Japanese products pass Chinese customs and traded among a number of Chinese companies before being purchased for shipment to North Korea.

“Japanese companies have become much more cautious because of the total export ban, so it has become harder to obtain Japanese products. Still, there are ways to purchase such products,” said a Chinese worker who trades with North Korea.

Sources said North Korean demand is particularly strong for Japanese-made pharmaceutical drugs, medical equipment, cars and cosmetics.

“Although Chinese products are cheap and readily available, their reputation is not good because the quality is bad,” a Chinese source said. “There is strong demand among the affluent for Japanese-made drugs and foods.”

The North Korean leadership understands the importance of the traders and their roles.

Sources said that when Kim Jong Il visited China last year, he heard about complaints from Chinese companies that they were not receiving payments from North Korean trade agents.

After returning to North Korea, Kim Jong Il is said to have ordered trade officials to settle the unpaid accounts to restore trust in North Korea.

The sources said sudden payments of such unsettled accounts became more frequent from late last year.

Read the full story here:
Trade agents do the dirty work for Pyongyang
Asahi Shimbun
Daisuke Nishimura