Having closed its borders in order to combat the coronavirus outbreak, North Korea has now implemented a large scale operation to track down smugglers bringing South Korean products into the country, Daily NK has learned.

On Mar. 27, a source in North Pyongan Province informed Daily NK that the Ministry of State Security (MSS) has been leading the crackdown, adding that smugglers have been arrested and are currently under investigation.

According to Daily NK sources in the country, there had been a lively trade in South Korean products across the border between Dandong (Liaoning Province, China) and Sinuiju up until the closure of the border at the end of January.

South Korean products could be found on the North Korean markets, with traders able to bypass MSS crackdowns with bribes.

Under the most recent crackdown, however, anyone involved in the trade of South Korean goods – including smugglers, brokers, and dealers – have been pursued, arrested, investigated, and sentenced for their actions.

The new measures have left smugglers disconcerted. “Some smugglers caught a few weeks ago were sentenced to two to three years of hard labor,” another source stated, adding, “This has created a definite sense of unease among smugglers.”

North Korean smugglers taking goods across the Yalu River in August 2019. / Image: Daily NK

The reasons behind the recent crackdown are reportedly two-fold. First, the crackdown is part of the broader “fight against anti-socialism,” which was emphasized in the recent plenary meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK)’s Central Committee. In other words, buying and selling South Korean products have been defined by North Korean authorities as “anti-socialist activity” that must be eliminated.

Secondly, the deterioration in inter-Korean relations may have also played a role in the crackdown. “Kim Yo Jong [Kim Jong Un’s sister and the head of the country’s propaganda machine]’s recent criticism of South Korea and the resulting further deterioration in ties may have contributed to the stricter measures this time around,” one source said. 

South Korean products remain, however, as popular as ever among North Korean consumers. “Due to the virus, the prices of South Korean products at local markets have increased but demand for them remains high,” the source explained.  

“Domestically-produced cosmetics are lower in quality meaning that the donju (North Korea’s entrepreneurial class) and the elite continue to seek out South Korean products despite the high price tag,” he said, adding, “Following the recent crackdown it has become harder to find products such as South Korean TVs and refrigerators. Nonetheless, there are still a significant number of people looking to buy these items.”

*Translated by Kathryn Beaver

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

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