Sanctions galvanize train smuggling operations

Cross-border trains are currently one of the most durable conduits for contraband goods in the face of heightened global sanctions targeting North Korea. For this reason, train attendants are actively leveraging their position within the current political climate to accumulate massive profits by turning a blind eye to smuggled products.

“The Pyongyang-Beijing cross-border trains, which make stops in Sinuiju and Dandong, have emerged as an extremely reliable vehicle for the distribution of smuggled goods, thereby conferring a corresponding degree of influence to train attendants,” a source from North Pyongan Province told Daily NK in a telephone conversation.

The attendants typically charge traders anywhere from 300 to 600 RMB (390,000 to 780,000 KPW) per box of goods, tailoring the price points to reflect the cargo’s significance. “Sometimes this means traders find themselves paying hundreds of dollars,” she explained. 

Certainly, train attendants were engaged in smuggling operations long before the UN adopted the strongest-ever sanctions against North Korea followed by standalone packages levied by individual nations. Such pressure has merely motivated them to build on their past experience ushering in forbidden imports for significant financial rewards.

The higher stakes and therefore bigger gains means competition to land a railroad attendant position is heated; many are rejected in spite of the significant sums of money they offer high-ranking managerial cadres to bring them into the fold. 
And business is booming. As the list of banned products grows longer, so do the number of trade workers scrambling to sidestep the regulations by lining the pockets of train attendants, who grow “bolder by the day,” according to the source.

“Now they’ll pocket fees offered up by middlemen to distributing dollar notes, top-shelf liquor, and other restricted items,” she said, explaining that this process is enabled by the fact that often times these ‘customers’ include cadres, the most powerful of whom are said to use intimidation to bypass fees altogether.

Team managers stand to make the most from these illicit transactions, the source asserted, noting, “Attendants must get the green light from managers on which goods to let slide through and then kick back a portion of the profits.” 

However, the profit window for attendants is limited. These coveted positions are swapped out every two to three years to hedge against losing well-oiled smuggling systems to a law enforcement clampdown. 
Nevertheless, the duration is “sufficient enough to provide them with enough money to live on for the rest of their lives,” said a source privy to North Korean affairs in China. 
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