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.
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.