North Korean border patrol catches smuggling ring transferring five kilograms of gold to Chinese trader

North Korean smugglers unloading goods in Dandong
North Korean smugglers unloading goods in Dandong, China in 2017. Image: Daily NK

Members of a smuggling ring who tried to transfer five kilograms of gold to a Chinese trader near Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, in late March were arrested by North Korea’s border patrol.

“The smuggling ring tried to hand over gold obtained from a mine in Ongjin to a Chinese trader but was arrested by border patrol officers,” a Ryanggang Province-based source told the Daily NK. “Five people were arrested, including two military officers.”

Three members of the smuggling ring are from Ongjin-gun, in South Hwanghae Province. The other two members are soldiers stationed in Ongjin who helped the other three get close to the border with China.

According to the source, the smugglers believed that they could transport the gold across land from Hyesan after finding that making the transfer by boat would be difficult. They asked a Hyesan-based smuggler for assistance in the hand-over.

“The Chinese trader didn’t have the money ready for the hand-over, but the smugglers gave him three kilograms the first day and were caught trying to hand him two more kilograms the next day,” said the source.

“The smugglers gave the border officials money to turn a blind eye to what they had done, but when the officials realized that the smugglers were transferring large amounts of money they reported the smugglers to their superiors and made the arrest.”

The price for five kilograms of pure gold is around 200 million South Korean won. Smuggled gold doesn’t go for as much money, but is nonetheless a lot of money in North Korea.

Gold-related transactions are only permitted among government officials. The production, sale and even smuggling of gold is controlled by the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK)’s Office 39, which manages the Kim family’s coffers and has frequently used North Korean diplomats to smuggle gold bars.

A first-secretary at the North Korean embassy in Bangladesh tried to smuggle in gold bars worth 1.5 billion won in 2015, but was caught. Anyone who purchases or sells gold without the government knowing about it faces punishment akin to that of a “traitor to the nation.” This is because they are considered to have taken the gold away from the Kim clan’s coffers.

“The border patrol officials believed that the smuggling ring was transporting a lot of gold. Rather than just receive a paltry sum of money from the smugglers to turn a blind eye, they likely wanted to receive accolades for themselves and even Party membership,” a source in South Hwanghae Province said.

“The smugglers face severe punishment. The military officers who left their posts in Ongjin to help with the smuggling of the gold may even face the death penalty.”

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