Beijing to Pyongyang and Illicit Goods

September 26th, 2011
23

I’ve been to North Korea six times. I used to only fly, but for the past three years I’ve taken the train.  Because I first visited the DPRK by train in July 2009, all of my train based visits have taken place since the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1874, a resolution that has the partial objective of preventing North Korea from importing military hardware and luxury goods.

As any recent tourist to the DPRK will tell you, the Koreans do a pretty good job of showing off just how easy they find it to import luxury goods.  Fine liquors, flat screen displays and high-end, modern cars can all be found readily in the capital city.  And as Dr. Siegfried Hecker told the world in November 2010, North Korea has apparently been finding it just as easy to it to import state-of-the-art uranium enrichment technology, too.   But just how is Pyongyang managing to outwit so many customs officials and get proscribed goods into the country unhindered?

Well, in May 2011 a leaked UN Panel of Experts Report took a stab at answering this very question.  In their summary on the report, Noland and Haggard noted some of the tactics that North Korea has employed to evade sanctions:

“The report provides a lot of detail about standard evasion techniques: falsified bills of lading; concealment; obscuring, altering or falsifying the ultimate source or destination of goods; shipping of knocked-down kits for reassembly; and extensive use of front company and offshore intermediaries.” 

While undoubtedly part of the DPRK’s strategy to import proscribed goods, I personally found it intriguing that (for the most part) the UN report chose to ignore North Korea’s rail connections with China.  While I’ve only taken travelled three times on the twice-weekly Beijing to Pyongyang service, each time I have taken the train I have witnessed huge quantities of goods being loaded onto the two international cars for dispatch to Pyongyang.  I wrote about this topic initially in early 2010 – here are some notes on what I observed then:

Of perhaps thirty North Korean cabins (each designed to sleep four people), a good twenty were full of goods.  In these cabins the goods consisted mainly of large boxes, covered with strongly attached tarps that obscured their contents completely. 

Other cabins were full of what one could describe only as ‘luxury’ consumer goods; DVD players, flat screen TVs, trouser presses, and even in one case, a huge (a few feet high) presentation brandy glass.  Even the corridors and vestibule areas were rammed full of these boxes, some of which were also stacked amongst passengers in their own cabins.

When the train arrived at the border city of Dandong, Chinese customs officials boarded the North Korean cars to check our passports, visas, and bags.  Although they did speak to the North Korean guards for a few minutes, they soon disembarked our part of the train.  No attempt was made to inspect the cargo of mysterious boxes I mentioned, nor were any concerns raised about the many openly visible ‘luxury goods’ being transported.  

Below is some video of what I saw during that trip, which was also very similar to my 2010 trip.

Fast forward to 2011 and things have changed, slightly.

This year, the international cars of our train had far fewer passengers than in 2009 and between Beijing and Dandong, very few packages using up the free space.  However, upon arriving at Dandong, several men waiting at the platform quickly changed things by loading the train up with goods – all wrapped in the same way as I’d seen in 2009 and 2010.  By the end of loading, most of the cabins were full of goods –  even including the areas supposedly reserved for our tourist group.   But in contrast to 2009 and 2010, this time Chinese customs officials did make some effort to inspect these goods.  However, a North Korean woman who had been helping load the goods prevented them from getting very far, paying them a healthy wad of notes that deterred any real inspection.   Incidentally, she was the only one of the loading group that stayed on the train after its departure, and disembarked at Pyongyang – presumably accompanying the goods.

Upon arrival at Sinuiju (the DPRK border city that faces Dandong), North Korea’s own customs officials handled things completely differently to my previous visits. After goods came through from Dandong in 2009 and 2010, they passed DPRK customs officials with no problems.  However, this year the DPRK customs officials insisted in cutting open a large number of the bags to inspect contents.  As you can see on the left, I tried to take a closer look at these boxes to identify contents but was unable to see much. But note that these goods (that were opened) are all packed in different styles – the goods that shared the same uniform tarpaulin wraps, similar to those I’d seen in 2009 and 2010, were in contrast left completely untouched (see next picture on right).

It is hard to know why customs procedures on the North Korean side were stricter this year, but the detection of luxury goods would probably be of little concern – for obvious reasons.  In the wake of the Arab Spring, it may be that tighter inspections have been required in order to minimize the quantity of ideologically dangerous materials entering.  Tighter inspections articulated in other areas too, with officials going through the photos of North Korean’s passengers back from China (usually it’s tourists leaving North Korea who undergo this process) and looking through several newspapers on a page-by-page basis.  In addition, one official turned on an iPad and went straight to the Google Maps app – before swiftly confiscating the device in light of its GPS capabilities (banned in North Korea).  Having previously seen customs officials struggle with laptops and other technology at Sinuiju, it was surprising to see an official navigate the iPad so confidently this year.

While there may be a perfectly legitimate reason that so many goods are being transported in these trains (food often forms a fair chunk of the cargoes I’ve seen), it does seem strange that many of the goods are packed in the same way: wrapped extremely tightly in matching tarpaulin bags.  That I’ve witnessed consignments of goods packed like this on three separate journey’s suggests the practice is probably quite common, too.  And the fact so many packages are wrapped in the same material suggests that the packing of some of these goods may well be professionally orchestrated.  It is also noteworthy that these type of bags were the only ones to be left untouched by North Korean customs this year.

It is important to remember that China has not defined a list of luxury goods that are banned from being exported to the DPRK.  Therefore, North Korea can quite easily import “luxury goods” without any real concern for what Chinese customs officials might say – presumably why one can often see flat screen TV’s and laptops being transported amongst luggage quite openly on this train route.  But what may be hidden under these tarpaulin bags and packaged to the point that opening is near impossible for the average tourist, remains a mystery.  Whatever is going on, those responsible for these packages clearly want to hide something – and have the resources to ensure that whatever they are sending can get to Pyongyang unhindered.

While the leaked UN Panel of Experts report undoubtedly highlighted some of tactics that North Korea has been employing to import illicit goods, it seems essential that further attention is paid to this cross border train service in future.

 

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About the Author

Stewart Lee



Join the discussion

  • Sandra

    Illicit goods? or orange squash and instant coffee for an increasing number of thirsty tourists… or perhaps medical material and medecine crucially lacking in the country.

    • Stewart

      Sandra, I don’t dispute there are many food products included – I did point that out. These are transported quite openly.  Its whats in the other boxes that raises concern – and the fact that bribes are clearly being paid at Dandong.  Stewart

      • Sandra

        I like a good debate :) I have also witnessed bribes for medical material and cigarettes.

        • Stewart

          Indeed – but were they wrapped up as superstitiously as the goods on this train?

          • Sandra

            superstitiously? I agree with you there is a lot of dodgy business going on between China and North Korea and  the train route can easily be used for illegal trade but the fact that these boxes were well packed and tidy does not mean that the goodies were illegal. You argue that these boxes are “packaged to the point that opening is near impossible for the average tourist” might be the reason why there are so well wrapped, don’t you think? Anyway great story. I like to play devil’s advocate sometimes, there is enough bad reporting on NK without us adding to it for the sake of sensationalism :)

          • Stewart

            You raise fair points, Sandra.  I don’t know what was in them, but it does seem odd that they have been on every train journey I’ve taken into the DPRK – and they are wrapped the same way each time.  Surely there would be more variation in wrapping if this was just normal cargo being shipped?

          • Sandra

            Well I gues you will have to go again and let us know :)

  • Sandra

    Illicit goods? or orange squash and instant coffee for an increasing number of thirsty tourists… or perhaps medical material and medecine crucially lacking in the country.

    • Stewart

      Sandra, I don’t dispute there are many food products included – I did point that out. These are transported quite openly.  Its whats in the other boxes that raises concern – and the fact that bribes are clearly being paid at Dandong.  Stewart

      • Sandra

        I like a good debate :) I have also witnessed bribes for medical material and cigarettes.

        • Stewart

          Indeed – but were they wrapped up as superstitiously as the goods on this train?

          • Sandra

            superstitiously? I agree with you there is a lot of dodgy business going on between China and North Korea and  the train route can easily be used for illegal trade but the fact that these boxes were well packed and tidy does not mean that the goodies were illegal. You argue that these boxes are “packaged to the point that opening is near impossible for the average tourist” might be the reason why there are so well wrapped, don’t you think? Anyway great story. I like to play devil’s advocate sometimes, there is enough bad reporting on NK without us adding to it for the sake of sensationalism :)

          • Stewart

            You raise fair points, Sandra.  I don’t know what was in them, but it does seem odd that they have been on every train journey I’ve taken into the DPRK – and they are wrapped the same way each time.  Surely there would be more variation in wrapping if this was just normal cargo being shipped?

          • Sandra

            Well I gues you will have to go again and let us know :)

  • Ndkr

    An iPad being confiscated? That’s a bit of a concern…! I’m considering a trip to China and the DPRK next year, and I’d be taking my iPad for reading e-books and doing general online stuff in China when wi-fi is accessible. However, mine doesn’t have a SIM card slot, hence it requires a wireless network to operate any kind of Google Maps function… given that wi-fi isn’t exactly prolific in the DPRK, I would’ve thought it’d be no problem?

    • Stewart

      Technically, no wifi capable hardware is allowed in the DPRK!

    • PC

      Wifi isn’t a problem – I took my laptop there as a tourist as did others in my group.

      GPS and mobile phones are a problem for them. At entry they looked for GPS capable devices and were very proficient at finding them – one guy had his gps camera confiscated (returned when he left).

      My mobile wasn’t confiscated until customs so I was able to scan and see the one DPRK network at the airport.

      We left via train and they took all our cameras at their exit port opposite Dandong. They went through over 40 cameras in 10 mins so must have a team of people in the station. They dont do this if you leave by air so I think they are sensitive about some of the exit rail route. We knew it would happen so just backed up our photos to laptops just before the inspection. The whole process is a joke.

      • PC

        iPads are dubious to take in as the 3G model obviously has mobile Internet and GPS. The wifi only one has neither. I’m sure I can remember someone taking an iPad in, but you may have hassles.

        They don’t want people using GPS. They also don’t want locals being able to use mobile phones on the Chinese network. Someone in our group had a 3G Kindle which wasnt confiscated (my wifi only one wasn’t either). Anyway, he was browsing the web using Chinese networks from within DPRK (near Dandong). I’m guessing they don’t want their citizens getting hold of Internet devices like that.

  • Ndkr

    An iPad being confiscated? That’s a bit of a concern…! I’m considering a trip to China and the DPRK next year, and I’d be taking my iPad for reading e-books and doing general online stuff in China when wi-fi is accessible. However, mine doesn’t have a SIM card slot, hence it requires a wireless network to operate any kind of Google Maps function… given that wi-fi isn’t exactly prolific in the DPRK, I would’ve thought it’d be no problem?

    • Stewart

      Technically, no wifi capable hardware is allowed in the DPRK!

    • PC

      Wifi isn’t a problem – I took my laptop there as a tourist as did others in my group.

      GPS and mobile phones are a problem for them. At entry they looked for GPS capable devices and were very proficient at finding them – one guy had his gps camera confiscated (returned when he left).

      My mobile wasn’t confiscated until customs so I was able to scan and see the one DPRK network at the airport.

      We left via train and they took all our cameras at their exit port opposite Dandong. They went through over 40 cameras in 10 mins so must have a team of people in the station. They dont do this if you leave by air so I think they are sensitive about some of the exit rail route. We knew it would happen so just backed up our photos to laptops just before the inspection. The whole process is a joke.

      • PC

        iPads are dubious to take in as the 3G model obviously has mobile Internet and GPS. The wifi only one has neither. I’m sure I can remember someone taking an iPad in, but you may have hassles.

        They don’t want people using GPS. They also don’t want locals being able to use mobile phones on the Chinese network. Someone in our group had a 3G Kindle which wasnt confiscated (my wifi only one wasn’t either). Anyway, he was browsing the web using Chinese networks from within DPRK (near Dandong). I’m guessing they don’t want their citizens getting hold of Internet devices like that.

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