Lighter traffic, little sign of customs crackdown at North Korea border

Reuters

Hours after the United Nations imposed tough new sanctions on North Korea, vehicle traffic on the bridge linking the isolated country with the Chinese border city of Dandong was lighter than usual, but drivers reported no increase in cargo inspections.

A representative from a Dandong-based company that facilitates cross-border trade said local authorities had this week restricted how many vehicles could cross into North Korea each day, from 300-400 earlier to about 100, a sign that sanctions are having some early impact.

The sanctions, described by the United States as the harshest imposed by the U.N. against any country in two decades, are aimed at starving North Korea of funding for its nuclear weapons program.

Their effectiveness falls largely on implementation by China, North Korea’s neighbor and main ally, which has a spotty record of enforcing previous sanctions.

China accounts for roughly 90 percent of trade with North Korea, much of it passing through bustling Dandong, facing North Korea across the Yalu river, and trucks carrying pipes, timber and sacks of food rumbled across the bridge on Thursday.

However, shopkeepers working on the Chinese side of the border said the number of trucks carrying goods between the two sides had fallen in the past three days.

“Who knows why? Lately the international situation has become tense,” said a woman selling souvenirs beneath a bridge linking the two countries.

The U.N. Security Council resolution, drafted by the United States and China and voted into effect on Wednesday, calls for the inspection of all cargo coming in or out of North Korea.

At a customs inspection lot in Dandong on Thursday, the drivers of three vehicles with North Korean license plates returning home — a Mercedes, a BMW and a Lexus minivan — went inside to show their passports. A customs inspector asked the Lexus driver what was in the packages loaded in the minivan but did not look inside them.

China said it consistently carries out its responsibilities as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

“We will abide by the resolution and hope all parties will comprehensively implement the resolution,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular briefing in Beijing.

Among other provisions, the sanctions include a ban on imports of luxury goods including expensive watches, lead crystal and snowmobiles.

The sanctions also ban North Korean exports of coal and iron ore other than for “livelihood purposes” and if proceeds do not go to fund the North’s weapons programs — wording that leaves room for interpretation and continued trade.

“The seemingly key part of the sanctions is framed in such wording as ‘livelihood’ that it is virtually impossible to verify,” said Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

“Also, China’s central government does not have complete control over mineral trade with North Korea. A lot of it is up to the three northeastern provinces, which means there are going to be even more ways to get around the sanctions,” he said.

China imported $1 billion worth of North Korean coal last year, according to Chinese data.

“It is difficult to foresee broad and consistent implementation of the new resolution, especially from players such as China, to create barriers that North Korea cannot find its way around,” Andrea Berger wrote in an analysis for 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea monitoring project.