A marker delineating the border between China and North Korea (Wikimedia Commons)

North Korea has sentenced a security official accused of smuggling in the China-North Korea border region to 15 years in a forced labor camp, Daily NK has learned.  

The punishment comes as North Korea appears to be doing all it can to block anything that could import COVID-19 or destabilize the regime, even as it carefully moves to restart trade with renewed freight train service between North Korea and China.

In a telephone conversation with Daily NK on Friday, a source in North Pyongan Province said two security officials were busted for smuggling at the mouth of the Yalu River in Sinuiju on Mar. 1. He said one of the individuals was caught at the scene, while another fled but later turned himself in.

The source said the fugitive who turned himself in was angling to lessen his punishment after he heard his accomplice was caught.

North Korea is currently operating a so-called “super-class quarantine system” to combat COVID-19. Under this system, the country strongly punishes border hopping and smuggling as acts that disturb order at the border and violate the emergency quarantine system.

However, North Korean authorities continue to try to entice people who commit infractions to turn themselves in, claiming they will forgive them. 

The fugitive who turned himself in ostensibly figured that with his accomplice arrested at the scene, it was only a matter of time before the law caught up with him.

The source said the accomplice nabbed at the scene got 15 years in a labor camp. The authorities are still deliberating over what to do with the person who turned himself in, but in all likelihood he will receive a lighter sentence.

The culprits were nabbed during their smuggling operation by officials lying in wait who learned of the operation ahead of time thanks to a wiretap. 

The source said the Ministry of State Security’s Transmission Surveillance Bureau bugged their phones, learning when, where and what time the duo planned to commit their crime. 

North Korea is intensifying social controls amid economic difficulties due to COVID-19. One measure being implemented is intensive crackdowns on people using the phone to communicate with the outside world. These crackdowns are being led by the Ministry of State Security’s Transmission Surveillance Bureau.

North Korean authorities are sweeping up smugglers in their “mop up operation” against users of Chinese-made mobile phones, employing a so-called “fine-tooth comb strategy.”

Despite the controls, border controls have eased and state-led smuggling has accelerated as freight trains have gone back and forth across the border through Sinuiju. The source said the two men had gotten themselves arrested by being too hasty amid changes in the trading climate between China and North Korea. 

This suggests that the authorities are concerned that smuggling will grow rife as the country moves to restart trade, and are taking measures to stop such acts before they get out of control. 

Meanwhile, North Korea recently warned its traders in China that they face severe punishment if they are caught smuggling.

Daily NK reported in February that smuggling was mentioned during a meeting for cadres working at North Korean trade missions in Dandong and Shenyang.

During the meeting, North Korean authorities reportedly slammed unsanctioned unofficial trade, warning that cadres will “immediately lose everything” if they take part in smuggling or other illegal activities.

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.
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Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.