North Korea chaos: Military exploits desperate traders with $500 blackmail

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Haeyang port, which is the largest port in North Pyongan province and according to one trade source was established after the inauguration of the Kim Jong-un regime in 2011, is located in Ryongchon county in North Korea. It was among a number of maritime ports forced to close operations at the start of the coronavirus outbreak in January. The closure of all trade with China blew a huge hole in the local economy but business North Korea and China has now reopened.

But a source working in the trade industry told RFA’s Korean Service said only companies with ties to the country’s military can use the port.

And even they must pay $500 to access the port.

The source said: “Since the end of April, the seaport in Ryongchon has been reopened.

“This means that trade between North Korea and China has resumed after a long hiatus due to the coronavirus crisis.

“It is the largest seaport in the province, and only the military has the rights to it.

“The port is currently being used by trade companies affiliated with the military to earn foreign currency.”

But the insider said traders are being forced to pay £500 to the military to dock their boats at the port, adding those using the port include military fishing boats and ordinary boats hauling rice.

The source said: “Trade by sea has resumed, but the general ports in Dongyang and Unpasan, near the border area of North Pyongan province remain blocked,” said the source.

“Authorities resumed trade in Ryongchon port first in preparation for a worsening food shortage among military units.

“They are allowing foreign currency-making companies to trade over the sea with China, so they can procure food for the military.

“Since we’re trading again, trade vessels that had been waiting the trade freeze out in general ports such as those in Dongyang and Unpasan are now flocking to [Ryongchon],” the source said.

“But each vessel must contribute US$500 to the military to use the port here.”

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Another trader in North Pyongan Province also told RFA the border command mainly focuses on shipping costs and will not thoroughly check on what is being shipped.

They said: “I can bring in anything, but the shipping cost per ton is 3,500 Chinese yuan ($494).

“If we pay that, we can bring in everything, including agricultural machinery and cranes, in all sorts of ways through Dongyang or Unpasan.

The insider added that since the coronavirus outbreak in the country, trading companies, including those owned by the military, are struggling to survive as trade has stopped.

They said: “The coronavirus crisis has caused the military to suffer serious financial difficulties as maritime port trade had been suspended altogether,” said the second source.

“To overcome this, military trading companies have been engaging in smuggling since mid-March using the port of Unpasan, where the border command is stationed.

“The smuggling of trade companies belonging to the military was possible because the authorities tacitly allowed it.”

But the source claimed regular traders are furious the government is giving preferential treatment to the military trading companies, forcing them to continue taking risks by smuggling.

The insider said: “In April, smuggling by the military and some of the other national foreign currency making companies was rampant. The authorities were concerned about coronavirus coming in, so they started controlling it more strictly.

“But now that the port at Ryongchon has been reopened and only the military-affiliated trading companies are allowed to go try to make foreign currency, the general trading companies are protesting.

“Why do they give only preferential treatment to the military?”

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