A North Korean smuggler attempting to move more than 50 kilograms of gold into China was recently arrested near the border along with two officials helping him, Daily NK has learned.

“In early July, a smuggler attempting to move 58 kilograms in gold [across the border] was caught on the banks of the Yalu River in Hyesan along with two border patrol officials who helped him,” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on Monday. “This incident has been relayed all the way to the central government and is being taken very seriously, with even [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un himself weighing in.”

HOW IT PLAYED OUT

On the evening of July 2, the smuggler attempted to contact a Chinese smuggler at an agreed meeting point on the banks of the Yalu River in Hyesan. He flashed a torch three times in the darkness to send a signal to the Chinese smuggler on the other side, then began preparing to load the 58 kilograms of gold into “small tubes” to send across the river. 

One of the border patrol officers who had been paid to look out for trouble suddenly stopped the smuggling operation, however. 

“One of the officials had agreed to be part of the scheme after being told that [the smuggler] was simply looking to send samples of medicinal herbs to China, but the bag felt too heavy for medicinal herbs,” the source told Daily NK. “When the official untied the hastily packed bag, dozens of matchbox-sized chunks of pure gold fell out.”

The official then proceeded to report the operation to local security officials within the border patrol unit and security agents arrived on the scene to arrest everyone. The official who called it in reportedly said that his “patriotic conscience” would not allow him to smuggle the gold, though he apparently would have been fine with smuggling other goods. 

All three people involved in the operation, including the official who made the report, are under investigation and the gold has been confiscated by the state. 

Given the large quantity of gold involved, this incident is being treated as a serious case. Details of the incident were sent all the way up the line to Kim Jong Un, according to the source. 

Kim reportedly handed down an order on July 8 stating, “The embezzlement of gold took place in a situation where foreign currency reserves have been depleted by the purchase of necessary equipment for the construction of Pyongyang General Hospital, a project which the entire party, military and citizenry are striving to complete for the sake of promoting public health. A full investigation must be carried out and those involved must be caught.” 

THE PLOT THICKENS

In reality, the arrested smuggler was effectively an agent commissioned by a gold mine to move gold into China. Ultimately, what this means is that the owner of that gold mine is responsible for attempting to earn foreign currency through the illegal sale of gold. In fact, Kim’s order instructed the authorities to find out where the gold came from and identify the owner of the gold mine.

Within the Ministry of State Security (MSS) there is talk that the gold mine owner likely dispatched another person to oversee the transaction and report back on its success, so apprehending that individual will allow the ministry to delve into the heart of the case. The MSS officials in charge of the investigation are reportedly convinced that the gold mine owner must have sent a trusted advisor and are pressuring the smuggler to reveal his identity – even depriving the man of sleep. 

The smuggler, however, has reportedly refused to talk. The MSS has deemed him a suicide risk, covering his mouth with a cloth and handcuffing his wrists to the steel bars of the cell. The MSS is also monitoring his family and listening in on their phone calls. 

“There is talk that the smuggler will ultimately be executed anyway, whether he is an important thread in the investigation or not,” the source told Daily NK. “One of the border guards involved in the smuggling operation will receive a dishonorable discharge, while the official who turned them all in is likely to receive a lighter punishment such as a demotion or transfer to another unit.” 

The MSS’s search for the gold mine has currently been narrowed down to six possible locations, given that an examination of the gold can help lead investigators to its source. The list reportedly includes mines operated by trading companies under the Central Committee, MSS and Ministry of People’s Armed Forces.

Two mines run by trading companies under the Central Committee and MSS in Hoechang County, South Pyongan Province, are at the top of the list, according to the source. 

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Ha Yoon Ah is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.