North Korean smuggling operations along the Chinese border are tacitly approved by the state. Activity is now thriving, with an expanding array of products sent over the border into Chinese hands. Although Chinese customs procedures have been strengthened in recent months, the cash-hungry Kim regime is taking a hands-off approach in regulating the smugglers and is even organizing some of the operations.
The most popular smuggled items include cigarettes, pet dogs, and wild edible greens like wormwood and Siberian gooseberry. These items are being smuggled in increasing quantities from bases in Ryanggang Province’s Pochon County and Hyesan City.
“I recently traveled to Pochon County, and was surprised to see adults and children heading to the mountains on a daily basis,” said a source from Chagang Province. “They were all mobilized to collect wild greens to be sold via smuggling.”
“The more powerful Party cadres are encouraging residents to go to the mountains and collect wild greens,” she said. “So the number of smugglers has risen. Residents are eager to earn a bit of profit by contributing, and even children are involved.”
A source in Ryanggang Province added, “Puppy smuggling is now becoming popular as well, and mainly happens in Hyesan City. I met one smuggler at an inn who said, ‘I came to the city with a yellow puppy, and the profit I made from the sale was more than I expected, so things are going well. I think I can even earn money if I head to the countryside and start selling more dogs.'”
For years, cigarettes produced in Pyongyang have been smuggled into China for sale. This year, activity seems to be increasing. The increase in exports has dented domestic supply and pushed up cigarette prices.
Ryanggang County has been a hub for smuggling with China since the food shortage crisis in the 1990s. Kim Jong Un sought to crack down on smuggling operations for a short period of time. But facing pressure and the threat of declining revenues as a result of international sanctions, the regime has now changed course, with even senior authorities now directly involved in smuggling efforts.
“The hills around Hyesan’s Yonbong-dong are packed with adults and children picking wild greens. The adults are paying their workplaces in return for receiving time off. Some children are even skipping school so that they can help their family earn money,” the Ryanggang-based source said.
Despite participating in the back-breaking labor, the activity is not very profitable for most ordinary residents. It presents enough of a financial lure for parents to tell their children to skip class, but remains insufficient to break out of the poverty cycle.
“When residents pick all day without rest, they can earn about 10,000 KPW (about 1.25 USD), which is enough for two kilos of rice. But after they pay their workplaces for permission to take the day off, there isn’t much left over,” she explained.
Daily NK previously reported that since May last year, many residents have been involved in harvesting and selling reed leaves that grow near the Amrok (Yalu) River in North Pyongan Province. Reeds have become popular in China as a health food, and are primarily exported to China by smuggling.