Military items smuggled through Chinese customs despite sanctions

Although inspections at border customs offices have
officially intensified as China takes measures to abide by international
sanctions targeting North Korea (UNSCR 2270), it is being been reported that
Chinese companies and their North Korean counterparts have been disguising
military supplies as everyday merchandise in order to smuggle them through
customs checkpoints.

“There is a lot of talk about how the new sanctions are
harsher than those adopted in years past, but illegal smuggling through border
customs is continuing relatively unimpeded,” a source in North Hamgyong
Province told Daily NK on April 1.

This is because the North Korean Ministry of People’s Armed
Forces operates a number of entities acting under the pretense of ordinary
trading companies, trading entities and mobilization offices that are tasked
with bringing banned items into North Korea.

“In particular, the Kumunsan Trade Company and a munitions
branch called ‘Sung Kang Office,’ are using bribery and illicit methods to
smuggle supplies despite the sanctions. These items include tires, stainless
steel, machine components, acetone, industrial lubricant, and raw materials
needed for gunpowder production. The items are labeled as normal goods in order
to get them past the customs guards,” the source added.      

The merchandise flows through the customs office straddling
Sinuiju and Dandong, as well as the Onsong-Namyang Customs House, and the
Sonbong-Wonjong Customs Office. On the customs declaration, the smugglers
either provide documents falsely declaring that the dual-use goods and military
items are actually different merchandise that is not subject to sanctions, or
simply leave the sheet blank. “When receiving blank documents on the North
Korean side of the border, the message is received loud and clear,” the source
said, adding that the goods are subsequently loaded up into vehicles and taken
directly to the relevant offices.

The details and quantities of the smuggled items are
carefully logged, but strict orders from the central authorities prohibit anyone
from inspecting these special items as they come through the customs office.
Instead, section heads from Pyongyang are present at the Sung Kang Office to
sort through the items before loading them onto trains or distributing them to
the appropriate munitions factory.

These section heads from Pyongyang are also responsible for
making backroom deals with Chinese companies. They set a date and are always
present at the border customs office at the designated time. Secrecy is
paramount for the operation: the hired Chinese drivers cannot read or
understand Korean, and the arrival date, item name, and quantity of the goods
are kept secret. These strict standards have enabled North Korea to continue
importing military goods.

Specifically, these items, said to come in from all
over the world (including Europe and Southeast Asia) are purchased by what
appear to be private Chinese companies and brought into China. Disguised as
regular trading companies operating in China, they are in reality under the direct
control of the North Korean government  and they repackage the military
goods before transporting them to the border together with ordinary items. In
the final steps, bribes are paid to the Chinese customs agents when the export
declaration card is submitted, which averts detection and arrest.

“Chinese customs agents are given regular payments of US
dollars [as bribes], so these vehicles passing through receive selective
treatment,” a separate source in North Pyongan Province reported. “The relevant
vehicles will only receive a few superficial pokes with an iron stick by a
Chinese customs officer before being sent right through. Even though sanctions
are more restrictive this time around, there has been little change on the
ground at the border.”

Accordingly, the department heads who are successfully
managing the continued import of sanctioned military items are wryly noting
China’s participation and saying, ‘Is there anything money can’t accomplish?’
and, ‘The local workers mobilized to work with us rely on trade for their
living. They receive money, sugar, rice, and soybean oil when it’s business as
usual, so they’re happy too.’”