Did North Korea Recycle Your Laptop?

Did Kim Jong-Un recycle your old laptop? That's the question hovering over last week’s news that Chinese authorities had recently broken up an e-waste smuggling ring responsible for delivering 72,000 metric tons of prohibited junk via North Korea to China’s shores in 2013.
Chinese workers taking apart old televisions for parts in a recycling workshop in Linyi, China. Photographer: Adam Minter/Bloomberg View

Did Kim Jong-Un recycle your old laptop?

That's the question hovering over last week's news that Chinese authorities had recently broken up an e-waste smuggling ring responsible for delivering 72,000 metric tons of prohibited junk via North Korea to China's shores in 2013. Chinese news accounts hailed the bust as the biggest in recent e-waste history, requiring a four-month investigation involving 500 police officers. Most of the goods originated in Japan, with some also coming from the United States and the European Union.

How did North Korea become the conduit by which thousands of tons of old junk moved from the developed world into China's bustling e-waste recycling industry?

As with any smuggling story, the tale starts with a prohibition. In this case, Chinese laws and regulations prohibit e-waste -- most commonly understood as old, non-working electronics like laptops, monitors and mobile phones -- from being imported into the country. The reasons are several, including a government interest in keeping used foreign goods from competing against new ones, and environmental concerns about how some of those goods are recycled. Nevertheless, China's national-level environmental and customs authorities have long struggled to maintain those prohibitions against local ports and authorities -- especially in south China -- who view e-waste recycling as a good source of jobs, tax revenue, and used components to drive local industry. Of the several conduits through which e-waste has traditionally been smuggled, the most common and long-standing was over the Hong Kong-China border.

That all changed in February 2013 when -- for reasons that are still unclear -- Beijing announced "Green Fence," a high-level crackdown on the import of prohibited waste and recycling exports, including old electronics. Nonetheless, here and there, imported old electronics still turned up in Chinese recycling facilities (I personally saw them).

The likely means, as described in state media after the North Korea bust, was convoluted. A Hong Kong "gang" allegedly received containers of used electronics from abroad. They arranged for them to be placed them on smaller ships bound for a "country in Northeast Asia." The culprit's identity is clear from the awkward phrasing. Criticism of North Korea in the Chinese press is exceedingly rare and -- needless to say -- connecting the country to an e-waste smuggling ring qualifies as criticism. Were the country Japan, or even South Korea, it would have been named.

In fact, North Korea has long been rumored to be an e-waste recycling center. Since January 2008 a Chinese company based in Liaoning Province along the border has advertised for scrap to feed its e-waste recycling operations in North Korea itself. The facilities are located, according to the ad, in the port of Nanpo, and "take advantage of North Korea's environmental policies and inexpensive labor resources." There, the ad promises, prohibited e-waste can be dismantled and transformed into a product acceptable for export to China.

The smuggling ring was allegedly doing something similar, although its "transformed" e-waste clearly did not meet environmental standards. In North Korea the bulky e-waste was dismantled (steel cases would be removed from old desktop PCs, for example), segregated into marketable components like computer chips for re-use, and then sent to Dandong, a Chinese city and port on the Yalu River, directly across from North Korea. From there, the goods were trucked south, to recycling and re-use centers in Guangdong Province, a straight-line distance of roughly 1,800 miles.

In some ways what's most remarkable about this elaborate smuggling chain is just how little e-waste was funneled through it. Indeed, if as the Chinese media claim, 72,000 metric tons of e-waste traveled via North Korea into China in 2013, that would only amount to 0.15 percent of the 48.89 million tons of e-waste generated globally in 2012, according to the Solving the E-Waste Problem, or StEP, a United Nations program based in Bonn, Germany. In other words, for those concerned that the developing world, and China in particular, remain a dumping ground for the globe's digital refuse, this scandal -- exposed during the harshest smuggling crackdown in recent Chinese history -- suggests that China, at least, is less and less a part of the global e-waste chain.

Indeed, e-waste might be the least of China's smuggling problems when it comes to North Korea. After all, if this gang could manage to move 2,800 containers of e-waste into China, it stands to reason that they could also smuggle in goods far less benign than old laptops.

(Adam Minter is a regular contributor to Bloomberg View based in Shanghai and the author of "Junkyard Planet," a book on the global recycling industry. Followhim on Twitter at @AdamMinter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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