Eleven market vendors in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province, whose businesses had been suffering from logistics issues following the COVID-19 outbreak, were recently arrested by the Ministry of Social Security (MSS) for selling smuggled goods, Daily NK has learned. 

A source in the province told Daily NK in a phone call last Friday that “eleven market vendors who had been selling seasonings in Chongjin’s Sunam Market were arrested by the MSS on Mar. 11, after they changed their businesses [and started selling smuggled goods instead] due to the lack of supplies caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

According to the source, “the border closure has led to a shortage in seasonings like sugar and pepper and also a sharp increase in the price of goods,” which has led to “market vendors who sold such condiments complaining of difficulties running their businesses.”

Daily NK understands that, when it became impossible for them to make a living selling seasonings, the eleven vendors started engaging in black market trade by selling items such as fertilizers, pesticides, and plastic film products used in farming. 

Chongjin Market (taken in 2017)
An image from Chongjin Market taken by a source in 2017. / Image: Daily NK

The source said that “because no one knows when the border will re-open and seasonings are not being imported, the vendors decided to change what they sell to reflect the start of the farming season, and bought the goods from the smugglers in order to re-sell them [at the market]. 

“The vendors kept the smuggled goods hidden and sold them from their homes [instead of at the market],” the source further noted. “However, after some time, rumors of the merchants conducting wholesale businesses from their homes reached the market managers, who were dissatisfied with the decline in market fees [collected from the merchants] and reported the vendors to a local security official.”

The vendors, who are currently under investigation by the MSS, reportedly testified that the traders who they bought the items from had secretly received smuggled goods from China through Chongjin Port in late February.  

The source said that “the MSS plans to punish the vendors severely for violating state disease control measures due to concerns that the smuggled goods, which had been sold to several people without complying with quarantine rules, may cause problems. 

“The vendors are expected to face two years of forced labor as punishment,” the source further reported, adding, “[Meanwhile], all of the smuggled goods have been placed in state coffers.”

*Translated by Vilde Olaussen

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Jong So Yong is one of Daily NK's freelance reporters. Questions about her articles can be directed to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.