Cross-Border Crackdowns

The latest Good Friends intelligence report contains an intriguing item: North Korean police and security forces are cracking down on DVDs of Chinese movies:

Crackdown on Illegal Video Films in Pyongsung
On September 20, Pyongsung city in South Pyongan Province began a crackdown on illegal video films. In No.24 Unit of Yonbong dong, the investigators raided on two households and confiscated CDs that contained American movies and Chinese movies such as “The Daughter of the Emperor” as well as the CD players. Four residents who watched the illegal videos and a person who purchased the CDs were arrested and put into interrogation. According to No.109 Commanding Office’s investigation report, among the arrestees accused of watching illegal videos this fall, 20 were sent to re-education center, and the rest was sent to the City Discipline Center. Those who are currently under investigation will be sent to re-education center if any suspicious items were found in their homes.

South Korean films are already known to be a problem in the North, but the inclusion of a Chinese film here adds a special kick.  Add this to reports from the Chosun Ilbo, and one gets a picture of a tightening vise which is not very amicable:

North Korean authorities have apparently stepped up regulations and monitoring of Chinese residents there since Beijing backed UN sanctions against the North in June. Sources in China and North Korea say North Korean intelligence officials are increasingly treating Chinese residents who recently visited their home country as spies.

Sources say this has prompted many Chinese residents to avoid visiting China. The number of Chinese residents passing through customs in Rajin has dropped to one-third of the number seen last year after rumors spread that a Chinese resident in Pyongyang who had recently been back to China was hauled off by intelligence agents and charged with espionage.

There are an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 Chinese living in North Korea in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Chongjin. They are better off on average than typical North Koreans since they make a living selling products from China. They had been free from regulations and faced no punishment even if they criticized North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. But they are now said to be subject to the worst repression ever, apparently as a result of North Korean anger at China’s backing for the sanctions.

North Koreans are accusing Chinese residents of selling information about the reclusive country to the U.S. and Chinese governments.

As for the Chinese side of the border, more information is available.  The last few days have seen a crackdown in the Changbaishan / Paektusan region in cross-border trafficking in ginseng.

Jilin Province inspector cracks down on illegal ginseng in Korean region -- photo via Jilin Provincial Govt. website

In the strongly-worded press release linked above, the Jilin provincial government notes its intention to smash illegal ginseng rings and thereby cut down on the tenfold oversupply of the root:



为了防止问题人参业户与执法人员“躲猫猫”和“打游击”,长白山池西区人参产业整顿领导小组对长白山辖区内人参交易市场进行了10 余次的不定期清查。执法人员对市场上出售的人参制品不仅通过直观、气味、口感等方式进行检查,还对有异议的人参制品用仪器做初步的检测,一旦发现在加工工艺或者质量上存在问题,检查组立即予以查封扣留。



Although ginseng isn’t quite as illegal as the marijuana farms the Jilin government busted up this summer, quality is being undercut and prices driven down.  Given that the ginseng market has gone global, China is also taking pains to assure quality control and the business is getting more competitive.  As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal reports:

For most of the last century, Chinese have placed a high premium on Wisconsin-grown ginseng, making it the state’s best-known agricultural export on the mainland. The Chinese value the state’s climate, soil and resulting flavor of Wisconsin’s ginseng over the same root cultivated in China or Korea. On his previous trade missions to China, [Wisconsin’s Governor] Doyle gave wrapped boxes of Wisconsin ginseng to each dignitary he met.

Jilin and Wisconsin thus go toe-to-toe, only Wisconsin doesn’t have to deal with smugglers bringing bags of the stuff over the St. Croix River from Minnesota.  North Korean ginseng undercuts prices and is difficult to submit to the Chinese regulatory impulse.  But there is something more at work here than simple product inspections.  With unit names like 躲猫猫 (“Swift Cat “Hide and Seek”) and 打游击 (“Guerrilla”), it seems more than likely that the Jilin security forces swooping into these ginseng farms are probably also on the hunt for illegal North Korean laborers and smugglers.

And, as was reported yesterday in Seoul, China is eager to put a stop to North Korean cross-border illegalities.

(Hat tip to Sidney Rittenberg.)


  1. Adam,

    It doesn’t surprise me at all that the DPRK is cracking down on DVDs of Chinese movies, after all China has unofficially gone capitalist therefore whatever those Chinese movies depict must not be good for the Worker’s Paradise.

    I think those “Chinese residents” need a little bit of clarification: They are mostly the so-called “hwagyo”, North Korean citizens of Chinese descent.

    The DPRK has been kidnapping Chinese citizens? Wow, that’s astonishing! Adam do you know anything about this? I’d love to hear more on this “brazen” act.

    1. On the movies front, after work (supervised time) it’s typical for NK restaurant workers in China to watch old kung-fu movies from Hong Kong.

      Thanks for the clarification on the hwagyo. Family ties across the border don’t get much reporting; this is a little-understood group. I have spent about a day with their surveillance files in Workers’ Party archives (captured files in DC) but would need a couple of months to get through them all. In other words, I don’t have any publications forthcoming on this issue and there’s more to learn.

      I haven’t got much good data on the kidnapping thing except to point you to an earlier post I did correcting some similarly wild assertions about border security forces by Daily NK:

      Given that Chosun Ilbo tends to be a bit on the reactionary side and that they published an editorial by Kang Chol-hwan about how there were no women washing clothes in the Tumen River any more ON THE DAY I was on the Tumen River _watching women wash clothes_, there’s good reason to be skeptical about this report. But it is interesting, isn’t it?

    1. Thanks Kevin! Will get to that correction here shortly.

      Ach, I misread 躲 duo3 [verb//avoid, go into hiding, of 躲避, 躲藏 的躲]。 Now that I am castigating myself over reading this not-necessarily-common yet still probably-indispensable verb as a mealy adjective, it is time for me to hide myself, which, I think, I can render as 把自己躲避。

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