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North Korea Returns Shipment of High-Quality Facemasks to China Amid Crackdown on South Korean Goods

2020-09-15 -- Authorities in North Korea have returned a large shipment of medical-grade facemasks to a Chinese seller, after the masks were suspected to have been manufactured in rival South Korea, sources in a Chinese city on the North Korean border told RFA.

The rejection of the KF94 masks comes amid an apparent crackdown on South Korean products amid deteriorating relations between Seoul and Pyongyang,. Sources said the rejection was perplexing, considering that smuggled Southern goods sell openly in North Korean marketplaces, and the masks are in high demand amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Products from South Korea are illegal in North Korea, and Pyongyang has mandated a ban on Chinese products made in cooperation with non-Chinese companies, specifically to prevent South Korea from profiting off of the exchange.

A trader in Dandong, China, across the Yalu river from North Korea's Sinuiju, told RFA's Korean Service last week that the shipment of KF94 masks sat for a month in North Korea before they were rejected and returned.

"The Chinese trader received an order from the North Korean company to send high-quality masks even if they were a little expensive, so the Chinese trader sent 15,000 KF94 masks, which are considered to be high-quality even in South Korea," said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

"Oddly, the masks were returned. The North Korean company's reason for rejecting the order is that there is suspicion that the masks are not from China," the source said.

In recent years, the trade in smuggled goods has become more and more common under North Korea's nascent market economy. Still, sellers take precautions to hide the origin of South Korean products, to pass them off as Chinese.

"There were no labels or trademarks on the masks that could identify them as South Korean, but the North Korean authorities judged them as South Korean because of their apparent difference in quality from Chinese masks," the source said.

"The reason why the Chinese trader sent in South Korean masks instead of Chinese ones was because of the request to 'send good quality ones, even if they are expensive,'"said the source.

"Hoping to continue its trading arrangement with the North Korean company, the trader supplied high-end South Korean masks at a price so low, it was making profit of one yuan (U.S. $0.15) per mask. This caused a big stir," the source said.

Another Dandong trader told RFA the cancelled order put Chinese traders in a bind.

"Chinese traders are reacting as if they don't know what to do, as the North Korean companies try to negotiate for lower prices because Chinese products are thought of as lower quality. But if the quality of the products is too good, they start to suspect they come from South Korea," said the second source, who declined to be named.

"North Korean authorities' ban on imports of Chinese products produced jointly with foreign companies, even if they are made entirely in China, was aimed at blocking the import of South Korean goods," the second source said.

The second source said that the traders used to hide the origin of South Korean products, but the act of hiding the origin now gives them away.

"In the past, South Korean products could be sent to North Korea if their labels or any written materials on the packaging were removed. But now it is difficult to bring in such items, because the absence of labels is a dead giveaway that the product is South Korean," the second source said.

"Until recently, South Korean products imported by smugglers have been sold widely in local marketplaces, and North Korean residents have been using them with no problems," the second source said.

"Even though the relationship between North and South Korea has gotten worse over the past year, it's hard to understand why North Korea wants to crack down on South Korean products with all that's going on these days."

North Korea has still not reported a single confirmed case of the coronavirus. Though the country maintains outwardly that it is virus-free, the government has announced in public lectures to citizens that the virus was in April spreading in three areas of the country, including the capital Pyongyang.

Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA's Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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