North Korea sanctions

The fishy side of China’s ban on North Korean imports

Tonnes of North Korean crabs are being smuggled into the country each night

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 August, 2017, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 August, 2017, 11:23pm

Tonnes of North Korean seafood are being smuggled into China every night despite the imposition of new UN sanctions a fortnight ago and a resulting Chinese crackdown on the trade, sources on the border have told the South China Morning Post.

“We’ve been experiencing an unprecedented, extremely harsh time since the marine police started to bar us from importing seafood from the North Korean side as a result of the sanctions on seafood trading,” said the boss of one trading firm based in Dandong, Liaoning, which is separated from North Korea by the Yalu River. The boss, surnamed Li, said his company had been importing marine products caught by North Korean fishermen for years and could not afford to stop.

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Beijing backed new, more severe UN sanctions imposed on North Korea on August 15 which banned North Korean exports of seafood, iron and iron ore in retaliation for Pyongyang’s repeated nuclear weapon and intercontinental ballistic missile tests.

Li, a tanned fisherman-turned-trader in his 50s, told the Post that Chinese marine police patrols in the waters traversed by the small Chinese cargo ships on four-hour voyages to and from a North Korean trade zone had stopped 90 per cent of local imports of North Korean seafood.

“But rather than patrolling the waters around the clock, the [Chinese] marine police get off duty in the evening, giving up to 10 ships from a similar number of trading companies ways to sneak to the North Korean trade zone during the evening high tide and load up with seafood before returning to Dandong in the small hours,” he said.

Li said that in past years, between 80 and 100 ships would make the trip each day in the peak season around the Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls on October 4 this year, each carrying dozens of tonnes of North Korean seafood. That was when traders could make lucrative profits, he said, with larger crabs loaded with eggs able to be sold to wholesalers for up to 280 yuan (US$42) a kilogram. At present, they were paying the North Koreans 20 yuan a kilogram and selling them to wholesalers for 60 yuan.

Dandong, in eastern Liaoning, previously accounted for about 70 per cent of the trade between China and North Korea.

Li said the traders were facing huge losses because they had already paid 100,000 yuan in bribes to North Korean police for each ship and also paid the ship captain 70,000 yuan a year and each of his five crewmen 50,000 yuan a year. He said some had even spent tens of thousands of yuan buying fishing vessels for North Korean partners, who repaid them in seafood.

“Apart from that, we give large amounts of clean water, wine, cigarettes, lighters, playing cards and batteries to the North Korean fishermen for free, although we pay them with US dollars each time,” Li said.

Because it was a low season for cross-border trade at the moment, Li said each ship was currently loaded with no more than 1,800 kilograms of crabs, along with hundreds of kilograms of clams and conches.

In a wet market in Dandong’s central Baoshan district, vendors selling crabs for 80 yuan a kilogram said they had bought them from wholesalers in Donggang, 40km downstream.

On Tuesday afternoon, many barrels of crabs could be seen being unloaded from a truck at the Donggang wholesale seafood market.

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When asked where were the seafood had come from, a middle-aged woman busy marking down the weight of each basket of crabs said: “Some of the seafood sold here is raised by farming. Others by catching. As all Chinese fishermen are banned from fishing before September, all the crabs and clams and the like are imported from North Korea for the time being.”

Li said almost all the seafood in Chinese waters had been exhausted as a result of overfishing, while the relatively cold and less salty water in the North Korean part of the Yellow Sea meant crabs, clams and conches caught there tasted better than those from other waters, and that was why they were so popular in China.