A Chinese police patrol car on the road near the Amnok River in
Dandong (China) on the night of August 6. The riverside is being monitored day
and night as part of a wider crackdown on smuggling activities. Image: Daily NK
From the night of August 6, several patrol cars from China’s Ministry of Public Security appeared on the road near the Amnok (Yalu) River in Dandong, Liaoning Province (China). The patrol cars remained to monitor the area even after midnight. No fishing boats could be seen on the waters ranging from Dandong to Sinuiju (North Pyongan Province, North Korea), except for a few boats docked by the riverside.
On August 5, the day prior, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2371 on North Korea, prohibiting the export of marine products from North Korea. According to a source, because the Security Council included fisheries products on the list of sanctions for the first time, the Chinese authorities have mobilized patrol cars in an apparent signal of their intent to monitor smuggling activities.
As the strengthened measures are even extending to nighttime, fisheries traders are feeling perplexed. “After the UNSC adopted new resolutions against North Korea, the number of public security patrol vehicles on the road near the Amnok River in Dandong has markedly increased. Traders, who used to smuggle small volumes of fisheries products at night when surveillance is usually loosened, are expressing embarrassment,” a source familiar with North Korean affairs in China told Daily NK on August 7.
Multiple sources have confirmed that Chinese public security officers and border guards have been focusing on the smuggling of maritime products since August 5.
According to the source, smugglers from both the Chinese and North Korean sides normally have to pay 20,000 RMB (about USD$3,000) when caught by the Chinese police. In addition, North Korean fishing boats must immediately return to the North after being detained.
In view of the strengthened crackdowns by the Chinese authorities, smugglers are increasingly worried that Dandong and Sinuiju will both face economic difficulties. The fisheries trade had been active between the two countries until early this year, adding to a sense of confusion amongst traders.
The volume of maritime products North Korea exported to China from January to November last year was estimated at approximately USD$170 million (about 200 billion KPW). The industry accounts for 7% of North Korea’s total exports to China, ranking fourth highest in terms of export volumes.
Some Chinese enterprises even subcontract work out to North Korean traders to expand trade volumes. Voice of America (VOA) reported on January 20 that approximately 60 fisheries processing companies in the Hunchun Border Economic Cooperation Zone are providing subcontract work to North Korean fisheries companies. As the maritime products industry is included on the new list of sanctions, the economic blow to the Chinese Northeastern Provinces (Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang Provinces) is expected to be significant.
North Korea naturally stands to face the greatest economic impact under the new measures. The isolated country has been expanding the export of fisheries products as a new avenue to earn foreign currency after coal and iron ore exports were sanctioned. This is why Kim Jong Un has been emphasizing the fisheries industry since he came to power and has referred to the ‘abundance of the ocean’ recently. Following Kim Jong Un’s orders, fisheries offices in North Korea have been sending fishermen out to sea in droves. However, many of these efforts are now likely to be abandoned as trading opportunities have closed.
The Chinese and North Korean traders whose livelihoods are being threatened by the new sanctions are seeking a new smuggling strategy to remain in business. “Many traders believe that the old methods are insufficient to circumvent sanctions. Some are openly criticizing the Chinese authorities as the intensified crackdowns are shutting down the existing smuggling routes,” the source said.
It remains to be seen how long the Chinese authorities will maintain their heightened monitoring of smuggling routes. The Chinese government is thought to be unlikely to support ongoing sanctions if it harms the regional economies of its three northeastern provinces.
North Korean traders are also likely to adapt, having previously managed to export sanctioned products by disguising the origin of the products and the content of packages. In some cases, products for smuggling have been shipped by North Korean naval patrol boats and traded in common waters near China.
In addition, as Kim Jong Un has emphasized the need to develop the fisheries industry, the North Korean authorities are likely to enact measures to ensure that smuggling activities will continue.
A separate source in China with knowledge of the situation said, “China seems intent on showing the international community that it will actively participate in sanctions against the North. But as the border between China and North Korea from the Tumen River to the Amnok River stretches for 1,300 km, it remains to be seen whether the Chinese government can really block North Korea’s meticulous smuggling efforts.”
*This article was amended on August 18, 2016. It previously stated that the China-North Korea border stretched for 13,300 km; the distance is 1,300 km.