With the COVID-19 pandemic showing no signs of abating, North Korea has intensified its disease control measures, especially for individuals engaging in state-sponsored smuggling activities at the Sino-North Korean border. 

“The authorities are allowing traders to work in the Sino-North Korean border region for a period of one week before they are replaced,” a source in North Korea told Daily NK on Mar. 20. “The government has limited the period because it is worried that anyone who has entered China or made contact with a Chinese person may become infected with the coronavirus.” 

In short, traders involved in state-run smuggling operations are allowed to conduct their activities in North Pyongan Province, Chagang Province, North Hamgyong Province and the Rason Special Economic Zone for a week before being “cycled out” of the area. 

“Teams made up of traders and drivers are being sent to the border region for the week. After the week is up, they are quarantined for one month,” the source further explained. The quarantined traders and drivers are reportedly being placed in accommodations in the Sino-North Korean border region. 

Traders who have “preexisting medical conditions” are reportedly not allowed to join the teams heading to the border region. 

Some of the traders have criticized this rule, comparing the selection process for the trade teams with the 5th Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea – a notoriously selective organization made up of women who tend to the affairs of Kim Jong Un’s family and elite officials.  

In the past, smuggling activities occurred under the supervision of customs officers and Ministry of State Security (MSS) agents; now, however, these activities are being monitored by a total of six different organizations, including a special unit dispatched from the central government, local MSS offices, MSS offices affiliated with customs offices, customs officials, local disease control officials, and government officials affiliated with the Ministry of External Economic Relations. 

“The government has tightened surveillance on state-run smuggling activities because of the focus on disease control and prevention. Normally, however, such a heavy amount of monitoring would be aimed at ensuring transparency in smuggling operations,” one source told Daily NK. 

State-led smuggling had reportedly been shut down following the closure of the Sino-North Korean border in late January, but started up again from early March. North Korean officials appear to have restarted smuggling activities to alleviate the detrimental impact of the closure on the country’s economy.

Daily NK reported last month that North Korean officials had requested a restart in smuggling operations over the border, but had been rebuffed by their Chinese interlocutors. 

North Korea is mainly smuggling in goods specifically requested by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Daily NK sources said. 

“The authorities are prioritizing the import of only the most necessary things,” he added. 

According to Daily NK sources, the goods are disinfected immediately upon arrival in the country. Less urgent items are reportedly stored for a period of two weeks in a storage facility after being disinfected.

*Translated by Violet Kim

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

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