Five a.m. in Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market: A Setagaya Ward sushi chef chooses a 4,800 yen box of sea urchin from North Korea over a 6,500 yen box shipped from Hokkaido.

“I usually choose the Hokkaido produce,” he said. “But the North Korean fare looks good today.

“I have a group of young people coming in, and for them, price is more important. Plus they’re less likely to know the difference.”

Unfazed by political ill-will between the two countries, North Korean sea urchins brought into Japanese ports rose 32.2 percent in volume to 840,385 kg in 2004 from 635,918 kg the year before. In terms of yen, the rise was 17 percent to 1.06 billion yen in 2004. And these figures tell only half the story.

Because North Korea is rapidly expanding trade with China, South Korea and Russia, acquiring varied routes for its exports, imposing effective economic sanctions on Pyongyang would be impossible without active cooperation from these countries, trading company officials say.

According to a Finance Ministry figure released last week, overall commercial trade between Japan and North Korea amounted to about 27.2 billion yen in 2004, the lowest since 1977, when the annual figure was first made public by the ministry.

Presumably, the decline was due to tighter export controls and stricter ship inspections imposed by Japan, because of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens.

But “as soon as one door closes, another opens,” as a seafood wholesaler in Sapporo put it. North Korean sea urchins, for example, sometimes come to port through Russia and are then repackaged, or “processed” in Japan. This way, the packages are labeled as Hokkaido produce, which helps prevent questions from consumer activists, he said.

The true volume of sea urchin coming into Japan is probably in the ballpark of the 1.02 million kg recorded in 2002 or the 1.51 million kg in 2001, he said.

Of course, in the case of sushi bars, there is no telling where the produce comes from, as chefs are not obligated to label the origins of their fare once it is displayed in glass cases at the counter.

Reported bilateral trade in 2004 was down for the second straight year, and stood at about 20 percent of the record 125.9 billion yen posted in 1980 and around half the figure in 2000. The number of North Korean port calls in Japan has also been dropping, to 1,071 last year from 1,415 in 2002.

But although North Korean labels may be dwindling, that doesn’t mean the produce isn’t coming in.

South Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency statistics show increasing trade among North Korea, South Korea and China, suggesting North Korean goods have even more routes to reach Japanese consumers.

Trade between North and South Korea in 2003 amounted to some $724 million, up 70 percent from 2000. Trade between China and North Korea almost doubled in three years to $1.023 billion.

“The Asian economy is becoming more interdependent, and that economy, to a small but growing degree, includes North Korea,” said Lee Young Hwa, a Kansai University professor.

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