From bricks to smuggled wigs: China's border trade with North Korea

DANDONG, China (Reuters) - China’s main border post with reclusive North Korea was packed with trucks carrying everything from bricks to exhaust pipes on Monday, as it re-opened for business for the first time since Pyongyang angered the world with its fifth nuclear test.

Trucks are parked in the yard of the customs office in China's Dandong, Liaoning province, as their drivers wait to cross Friendship Bridge to North Korea's Sinuiju September 12, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

China, North Korea’s most important diplomatic ally, condemned the test - the North’s largest nuclear explosion to date - but has been ambivalent about whether it will support further sanctions against its impoverished neighbor.

In Dandong, though which about three-quarters of the country’s trade with North Korea flows, some truck drivers said routine checks had been stepped up since Friday’s test, although others said it was pretty much business as usual.

“I bring across all kinds of things, products for ordinary people,” said a truck driver who gave his family name as Wang, hauling a cargo of vehicle exhaust pipes. “Business hasn’t been bad, we’re pretty busy.”

Wang was among the Chinese drivers waiting to cross the narrow “Friendship Bridge” across the Yalu River into North Korea as it re-opened to traffic following the weekend and the North’s National Day holiday on Friday.

Trucks loaded with wooden frames, construction materials, steel, aluminum, rubber, machinery, bricks and even small bulldozers queued in line at the single-lane border checkpoint.

China has signed up to tough UN sanctions on North Korea designed to stymie its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, but has long been wary of cutting off trade completely lest it harm ordinary North Koreans and precipitate a collapse of its neighbor.

Driver Ying Ren, 54, said everything taken across the Dandong border would be inspected.

“They check us for everything, they can even tell if we have two bottles of beer. They don’t care if we have beer, but they can tell that we have it,” he said.

Slideshow ( 6 images )

“After they imposed sanctions goods like chemicals were banned from being taken across because they might be used for the nuclear bomb.”


Current U.N. sanctions target luxury goods and materials that could be used for North Korea’s banned nuclear and ballistic missile programs. They also aim to restrict the North’s access to hard currency to fund those programs.

Another driver, also surnamed Wang, said border checks appeared slower after the latest nuclear test.

“The checks really stepped up after the sanctions were introduced earlier this year,” he said, referring to a further round of sanctions approved after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January.

“Now they check when we load the trucks and they check again when we go through customs. They give me a list so I can see that they know everything I have on board. But trade in goods for ordinary people will continue indefinitely. How can it not? We don’t want North Korean refugees flooding into China.”

While South Korea and the United States are pushing for further sanctions after Friday’s latest test, backed by Britain and France, the remaining veto powers on the U.N. Security Council, China and Russia, have been less clear.

Much of the economic development that has raised living standards for ordinary North Koreans in recent years is derived from cheap, Chinese imports sold in semi-legal private markets that have sprung up around the country.

Even Western nations are reluctant to impose sanctions that interfere with this day-to-day trade, say analysts, because they hope the emergence of a growing consumer class in North Korea will ultimately undermine leader Kim Jong-un’s government.

Driver Liang Hengshun said he preferred not to linger in North Korea.

“They’re a very closed society, we aren’t allowed to use our phones, we can’t listen to the radio, they’ll take away anything that isn’t written in Korean script like Chinese newspapers in our trucks,” he said.

Smuggling was still quite common, he added, although much of it had more to do with turning a profit than beating sanctions.

“The tour buses smuggle in wigs, eyelash extensions, small things like that won’t be caught,” Liang said.

“If you want to buy a wig through formal channels it costs 1,000 yuan ($150) or so, but if you get one of these black market ones it’ll only be 2-300 yuan and the driver is happy because he can make some money too,” he said.

“We don’t usually smuggle those kinds of things on our big trucks, we leave that for the tour buses.”

($1 = 6.6789 Chinese yuan renminbi)

Reporting by Sue-Lin Wong in Dandong, China; Additional reporting by James Pearson in Seoul; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Alex Richardson