North Korea Eases Restrictions on Sea Smugglers Amid COVID-19 Dangers

North Korean internal government directives point to a renewed policy of leniency for smugglers, who have been out of work since the government began cracking down on crossing the country’s border with China to prevent the spread of coronavirus, traders familiar with the orders told RFA.

A trader in Dandong, on the Chinese side of the Sino-Korean border told RFA’s Korean service, “They’re out here saying that North Korea’s government issued an internal guideline to allow maritime trade again.”

“We heard about the order recently, but it was given last Tuesday [March 17],” said the source.

The source said that although the directive does not mention smuggling directly, it can be implied that smuggling will once again be tolerated.

“It is pretty obvious that ‘maritime trade’ means smuggling, which has been very active since the UN imposed sanctions against North Korea,” said the source.

“Considering that many of the items on the UN sanctions list that are shipped over the sea are things [North Korea needs] like seafood, machinery and general equipment, it can be interpreted that the order to reopen maritime trade means to allow smugglers to get back to work,” said the source.

Smuggling, while technically illegal in North Korea, is a vital part of an economy where people unable to survive on a paltry government salary turn to cottage industries and black market businesses to support themselves.

North Korean authorities have long tolerated the most common form of smuggling in which North Korean traders will travel to China, buy mass quantities of goods that are not easy to get in North Korea, and sneak it back across the border for sale in local markets.

Smuggling kicked into high gear under years of U.N. and U.S. sanctions aimed at depriving Pyongyang of cash and resources that could be diverted to its nuclear and missile programs that banned certain goods from being sold to North Korea.

But once the coronavirus became an epidemic in China early this year, North Korea was quick to shut down all trade, legitimate or otherwise, with its northern neighbor.

Signs are pointing to a decrease in new cases within China, so Chinese trading companies, many of which had temporarily closed up shop during what appears to have been the worst of the epidemic are now resuming activities.

Despite indications on the ground in North Korea suggesting the worst is yet to come, sources say the government’s internal directive implies that the time is right to once again allow smuggling (and the resources it brings into the country) to resume.

But the reopening of the land borders could be dangerous, so authorities are allowing the resumption of smuggling by sea.

While Pyongyang may be willing to reopen its ports, the order was specific about efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus through foreign cargo.

“The orders say that things brought in through the sea should be disinfected after being unloaded at the docks, and must be quarantined for at least two weeks. This is because the coronavirus situation in North Korea does not seem to have improved much.

Though North Korea has yet to report a confirmed case of COVID-19, the government has taken extensive measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, including closing off entire counties near the Chinese border and setting up an isolation center in a large Pyongyang hotel.

Experts believe that it is very unlikely that the virus has not spread within North Korea yet given these measures.

News reaches Chinese traders

The source said that Chinese trading companies are now aware of the directive, and many are jumping on the opportunity to trade with North Koreans again.

“The Chinese companies are already operating normally again, since China’s fight against the coronavirus [has seen success]. The companies are welcoming [North Korea’s] decision because they can make money from trade with North Korea again, even if it is smuggling,” said the source.

“Those companies that had been trading legitimately with North Korea [prior to the epidemic] are also hoping that legitimate trade between the two countries will return to normal. They say that since smuggling is resuming it will only be a short while before legitimate trade [across the land border] resumes.”

The source believes the decision is a concerted effort by Pyongyang to help North Korean traders and trading firms.

“North Korean trading companies are in critical condition after nearly two months of a closed border. This is probably the background reason for allowing maritime smuggling again,” said the source.

Seafood shipments to Yanji

A resident of Yanji, seat of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous prefecture in China’s Jilin province, told RFA that seafood of North Korean origin is once again on sale in markets there.

“North Korean frozen sailfin sandfish, mackerel and king crab are starting to appear in the seafood market. [They] were brought to Yanji by smugglers, but we don’t know when [they arrived],” the second source said.

“As there has been no new confirmed cases [of COVID-19] in Jilin province this month, all the restaurants are operating normally, which is increasing the demand for seafood,” said the second source.

According to the second source, this was a stark contrast from the situation in Dandong.

“Restaurants in Dandong are still closed because they had three confirmed cases earlier this month, so there is low demand for North Korean seafood there, so that’s why all the seafood is coming to Yanji,” the second source said.

“There is speculation that the restaurant business will be allowed to reopen in Dandong sometime this week though,” the second source said.

As of Monday, the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee on North Korea declined to comment when RFA inquired about North Korea’s decision to reopen maritime trade.

Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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