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Thanks for the memory cards: North Koreans return home from China

DANDONG, China (Reuters) - Tiny memory cards and fluffy teddy bears are among the most popular items for North Koreans shopping in Dandong, China’s gateway city to its impoverished and isolated neighbour.

A vendor stands at a soft toy stall at a wholesale market in Dandong, China's border town with North Korea, November 23, 2016. REUTERS/Sue-Lin Wong

The teddy bears are often the souvenir of choice for young North Korean women returning home from contract work in Chinese restaurants and factories. Their remittances have become an increasing source of revenue for Pyongyang.

North Korean traders are the big buyers for the memory cards - and that could get them into trouble back home.

“We help them copy whatever they want onto microSD cards,” said Yao, who would only give his surname, in his tiny store primarily selling cameras.

“They usually want South Korean TV dramas,” he said, sliding open a display cabinet to reveal a stack of the tiny memory cards, each the size of a fingernail, that slot directly into DVD players and computers.

The flow of information in and out of North Korea is tightly controlled by authorities. Most North Koreans cannot access the internet or foreign media and share content secretly on USB sticks.

But tiny microSD cards are increasingly popular now because North Korea has been cracking down on USBs, Yao said.

“It’s getting harder to bring USBs across the border, customs will check what’s on them. But microSD cards are smaller, easier to slip through,” he said.

Apart from their small size – the cards can be woven into clothes or hidden between the pages of a book – MicroSD cards can often be directly inserted into a “Notel”, a device popular in North Korea which can be powered by a car battery and plays DVDs and media from USB sticks and memory cards.

“MicroSD cards make it easier and safer for North Koreans to smuggle foreign digital media in from China,” said Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), an organisation which works with defectors.

“Once inside, it gets copied onto multiple USB sticks and memory cards, making it difficult for the authorities to effectively block out foreign information that undermines their propaganda and ideologies,” Park said.

Foreign media “is becoming normalised and is even affecting fashion, dating behaviour and teenage North Koreans’ accents,” he added.


Across the street from the wholesale electronics market, it’s the teddy bears in Qian Jiang’s shop that are the main attraction.

“They didn’t used to buy the soft toys. The young women would just come by in groups and look. But that changed a few years ago,” said Qian, surrounded by plush animals in his booth at a shopping mall in Dandong popular among North Koreans.

“I guess they’re allowed to bring back teddy bears now. It’s probably the first soft toy they’ve ever had.”

Estimates of North Korea’s overseas workers vary greatly but a study by South Korea’s state-run Korea Institute for National Unification put the number as high as 150,000, primarily in China and Russia. They send back most of their wages - as much as $900 million annually - through official North Korean channels.

But fewer North Korean workers have been coming to China in recent months, Reuters reported on Tuesday, a trend Qian has witnessed, saying he has been making fewer sales to North Korean overseas workers of late.

The workers earn around 2000 yuan ($295) each month, Qian said, but they only get to keep 400-500 yuan for themselves, with the rest going back to the government through official channels.

At the end of their three-year contracts in China, young women often use their pocket money to buy a soft toy – big teddy bears are the most popular - to bring back as a souvenir, Qian said.

“They don’t like the blonde-haired dolls because to them, that’s an American doll – you know how they don’t like Americans,” he said. “They always ask for dolls with black hair but we don’t stock any. We only stock blondes.”

Reporting by Sue-Lin Wong. Additional reporting by James Pearson in Seoul. Editing by Bill Tarrant.