Legal fuel imports beyond the reach of most North Koreans
According to recent statistics, fuel exports from China to North Korea have ground to a halt. Until 2013, fuel was one of the main commodities in Sino-North Korean trade.
However, fuel prices in North Korea have remained at similar levels as in 2013, without much fluctuation, according to our sources as of late January this year. This naturally raises the question of what sufficient supply there was to keep prices from soaring, according to the steep decline reported in import statistics.
The picture that emerges is a manifestation of where the fuel economy of the markets (for the populace) does and does not integrate with that of the state (for institutional consumption).
Ja Cheol-Hyuk was a goods driver in North Korea before he escaped to the South last year. He described his surprise about the seemingly inexhaustible availability of fuel that ordinary South Koreans take for granted.
But fuel consumed by North Korean individuals almost always has its origins in being smuggled from China, rather than coming through official trade channels. “The fuel imported by the North Korean authorities from China is not for ordinary people,” Ja said. “All of that fuel is allocated to institutions under Central Party control, to its cadres, and part of it transferred to military supplies for training purposes”.
“Ordinary people can’t dream of benefiting from official supplies. Even when official imports continue, cadres require students and their families to hand their own stocks of fuel over to the authorities in winter, on the pretext that it will be used for transporting firewood to schools. Parents have no choice but to buy smuggled fuel from private markets or vendors in order to make the offerings.”
The demand for fuel on the part of ordinary citizens is seasonal, with smuggling routes concentrated particularly in the regions of Hyesan, Hoochang, and Musan. In winter, the need for fuel surges as urban residents come to buy fuel and hire trucks from factories, in order to gather firewood from the rural areas as stockpile for the cold season.
In this way, residents are not so much affected by official imports of fuel as much as they are by crackdowns on smuggling.
It is when the authorities tighten border controls that there are noticeable rises in fuel prices. As fuel for individual consumption comes from border smuggling channels, it is only after border surveillance operations are loosened that prices fall again.
Those North Koreans who can afford it like to stock up on fuel in summer, when the demand is less and prices tend to be lower. But one problem in storing gasoline is that it evaporates easily, which makes storing a risky gamble.
Autumn and winter is also the period when State Security and People’s Security agents intensify their surveillance visits to villages in the Sino-North Korean border areas. Although they patrol the area for the premise of border security, their motive often lies elsewhere – in an urgent need for their own fuel, to transport their own grain and firewood supplies.
It is therefore not uncommon to find security agents in the border regions dressed in uniform and patrolling during the day, while at night they transport fuel smuggled from across the border.
The default mode of bribery and corruption allow border smuggling to continue to fuel the lives of ordinary North Koreans. Smugglers bribe security agents with fuel to turn a blind eye, and will bear the losses because there is no other way for any of them to keep their own fuel supplies flowing.
Reporting by Park Sun-hwa
Read in Korean
Translated by Kim Ok-dang