North Korean trade officials in China grapple with sanctions

North Korean vehicle in Dandong, China
North Korean vehicle in Dandong, China. Taken in February 2019. Image: Daily NK

Business activities by North Korean trade officers are getting curtailed due to China’s active implementation of UN sanctions. For North Korean trade officers, the business environment is also becoming increasingly difficult because of the “loyalty funds” they are expected to pay to the North Korean regime and heavier surveillance by the Chinese government.

Daily NK met with a North Korean trade officer active in China’s Liaoning Province who was willing to talk about the difficulties he is facing.

Previously, Daily NK reported that North Korean workers were returning home from China en masse and rumors have been circulating that the Chinese authorities plan to send more back to North Korea in June.

According to the trade officer, the number of trade officers in the country has dwindled since the sanctions began and the overall number of North Koreans in Liaoning Province is also decreasing.

He expressed hopes that the sanctions will be lifted as he faces a lack of income due to the sanctions combined with the ever-increasing requirement to pay loyalty funds to Pyongyang.

The following is an excerpt from the interview with the trade officer.

Daily NK: What is the situation like for North Korean trade officers working in China?

North Korean trade official: Whether we receive a work permit or not is no longer important. The more important thing is whether you can make money or not in China. The number of people working in trade is decreasing compared to pre-sanction days. Even if you can make money, you cannot make as much as before.

Before the sanctions, if you built a good relationship with a Chinese trader then you could have a guaranteed income, open up a bank account and operate your business steadily. However, these days, you cannot even open a bank account, and even if you open one using a Chinese person’s name, you’ll be watched. It’s not possible to launch a big project because cash flow is blocked. Recently, China has been cracking down on bank accounts.

Daily NK: You said that the number of North Korean trade officers has decreased, can you tell us more about it?

North Korean trade official: I’m not sure about the rural areas, but the number of people from Pyongyang has reduced a lot, perhaps by a fifth or even a third. The number of trade officers in Dandong and Shenyang has decreased and laborers are continually dwindling as well.

North Korean women exit the customs office in Dandong. Taken in February 2019
North Korean women exit the customs office in Dandong. Taken in February 2019. Image: Daily NK

Daily NK: How is the situation in Pyongyang?

North Korean trade official: After I take a train from Dandong in the morning and arrive in Pyongyang in the afternoon, I don’t stop anywhere else and take a taxi straight home. When people hear that I’ve come back to Pyongyang, so many of them will come to see me. Party executives, state enterprise people, and friends – they all come and bleed me dry. It’s getting worse these days.

I’m afraid of going back because they blatantly ask for money. I tell my wife not to tell anybody that I’m back in Pyongyang. Even when it’s time for me to go back to China, I schedule my time so that I go straight to Pyongyang Station and stay there until the train heading to China comes.

Daily NK: What is the most difficult thing right now?

North Korean trade official: What is the point of telling you everything? There are so many difficulties. I have been out of China for a while but with each year, the amount of money that I have to pay up the ladder doubles. They are testing my limits. I have to meet my quota, so I have to do a lot of side work. However, I cannot do business right now so even the side work is not enough to make money. If I fail to meet my quota, I will be reprimanded and sent back to Pyongyang. It’s scary.

Daily NK How much money do you make per month?

North Korean trade official: To be honest, I make about 3000 RMB (approximately 500,000 KRW). I’m embarrassed. I don’t have a lot of money, but people in Pyongyang think that you come back rich from China […] If I don’t take care of my staff, I cannot operate my business so even if I take a loss, I take care of them first. Therefore, my plans keep getting delayed.

Daily NK: Do you have any final words you’d like to share about the situation?

North Korean trade official: Many of the North Korean trade officers who are working in China are having a tough time. Not many businesses are working out. Even those who are talented will suffer from big losses if they come to China now. It’s not just that the number of workers is declining, but the replacement cycle is also getting shorter, which means that it’s really hard to do business properly. I really wish that the sanctions would be lifted, that’s all I want.

Everybody is thinking about this but they don’t dare to say it out loud — if my family were in China, we would defect right away. However, I cannot do it under these circumstances because my family is held hostage [in North Korea] and if I run away, it will get them killed.”

*Translated by Yongmin Lee