Boom or Bust? North Korea and Changes in Liaoning

Since the visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to Pyongyang in October 2009, the People’s Republic of China and North Korea have been engaging in an ever-expanding matrix of trade and exchange deals. The agreements are rarely transparent and their implementation has been uneven, but they clearly are resulting in a deeper web of cross-border trade, if not wholesale change within North Korea itself. Leaving aside Rasun in the northeast (not to mention the problem of border security along the broader frontier) the Sino-Korean juncture at Dandong-Shinuiju is the key node.

Jang Sung Taek recently travelled to China’s Liaoning Province to discuss the Special Economic Zones near Sinuiju/Dandong, and Chinese media have confirmed reports of agreements to import some 20,000 North Korean workers into those zones and Liaoning Province itself. (The other 20,000 North Korean “guest workers” are slated for employment near Hunchun in the Tumen River valley, at the estimated sum of about ?30 per month.)

What would a huge influx of North Korean workers and their culture really look like in Liaoning? And what is the status of the infrastructure that is supposed to allow for this more vigorous series of exchanges? This analyst spent a few days in Dandong in search of answers, and what he found was a pattern of “boom and bust.”


Nine months ago, the ‘Pyongyang Koryo Restaurant’ was the epicenter of Kim Jong Il mourning for North Koreans in Dandong. Today, normal service has been resumed; the doors near the Yalu Riviera are open and the place is busy again with activities for the living. A full complement of Chinese customers sit and admire both the interior, which has been completely refurbished, and the waitresses in their platform shoes. (Heels have gotten higher, while the still-mandatory Kim pins have gotten smaller.) Prices have gotten higher, too; more than double those of last year. The rack of Rodong Shinmun is completely gone, and requests for copies of Korea Today go unheard. Instead, waitresses clutch precious copies of foreign-language textbooks and share newly-published Korean books about China.

Such restaurants are natural meeting places for North Korean cadres, and on cue one does indeed stride in, wearing a vinylon suit with a V-collar and big shoulder pads. In command of the scene at all of about 30 years of age, his four older compatriots respectfully listen as he holds forth while they munch on fish. Tomorrow they have a shipment going through the port of Dandong, it turns out, and one of the men, at least, will sit and watch a couple of large mobile cranes as they work their way through the Chinese customs house before squeezing onto the old colonial bridge to Shinuiju.

Elsewhere, a hulking emporium for minor merchants in Sino-North Korean trade is being demolished in favor of newer digs, while a huge bilateral “trade-culture-tourism” festival is planned for October 12th to 16th. The Chinese have put up an Olympic-style countdown board (“48 days to go!”) for this particular event, as if to assuage fears that the whole thing might end up getting cancelled.

Travelling up the road to Hwanggeumpyong, the sense of boom becomes even more palpable. Having been halted before North Korea’s galling April 13th missile test, the construction of a huge new bridge between China and the North is now back in full swing; including, for the very first time, evidence of real work on the North Korean side. And while cement and steel appear to have come into suddenly plentiful supply there, so a few dozen truckloads of rocks are undergirding North Korea’s development of the island of Wihwa, much closer to Dandong. There, North Koreans have tamped down a few hundred meters of shoreline over which the Chinese plan to erect another big span; that is, if the publicly available architectural drawings are to be believed.


But while there are ample signs of construction, labor, and export on the Chinese side of the border, there are an equal number of signs that all is not well. A combination of North Korean intransigence, predictable dithering and turnover among Liaoning’s interested provincial cadre stock has slowed the pace of development. The “New City District” (Xinchengqu) feels like a ghost town, with high weeds and very little new construction since last year, in spite of being at the terminus of the iconic new bridge. Huge apartment blocs in the city continue to sit empty, and only the city government looms as a viable structure, safely fortified away from the legions of petitioners in the distant urban center they govern.

Although the North Koreans have begun the appearance of upgrades to the berms near the presumptive Chinese bridge to Wihwa, there is little more than a single small metal shack on the North Korean side itself to indicate a commitment to further action. And apart from adding a few new statues about the Chinese People’s Volunteers, the Chinese side has done nothing whatsoever by way of actual construction here. A private golf club continues operations on the Chinese side, absent any indication that Chinese leaders (or the wealthy Dandong golfers who might be persuaded to invest in North Korea) believe a bridge to Wihwa will even appear, much less be necessary.

In major contrast from late 2009, even the Chinese press is sounding out ambivalent notes about investment in the DPRK. New Business Weekly (Xin Shangren Zhoukan), a national magazine, ran a cover story intended to draw attention to opportunities coinciding with Jang Sung Taek’s visit to the border region. However, the magazine’s contents voiced more than a few cautionary notes as well, and included some frankly negative comments made by Chinese reporters who had been harassed by Chosun People’s Army men in Shinuiju.

The imbroglio wherein North Korean partners bilked Liaoning’s Xiyang Group out of tens of millions of dollars is also well known around the region. Regarding Xiyang, however, in some ways what matters most about the story is how the broader Chinese media either picks up and amplifies, or suppresses and minimizes, the narrative of North Korean violent expropriation. It is the former; a story carried by none other than National Defense News (Guofang Shibao) included interviews with company leaders who would not talk to Associated Press. When the People’s Liberation Army, North Korea’s core constituency in China, is asking questions about the justice of North Korean policy, you know things are not going particularly well. And they are simply following directions from above: Premier Wen Jiabao’s comments to Jang Sung Taek in Beijing about “rule of law-based” investments were also a hardly-veiled reference to Xiyang.

Finally, there is the problem of anti-North Korean sentiment among the population in Liaoning, once the agitating heartland of the “Oppose America, Aid Korea” movement. On the mudflats and marshes near Donggang, a relatively poor Chinese fishing port, scarcely a kind word can be heard about the North. This is, after all, the home of a group of fishermen famously captured and detained (one might better use the loaded term “abducted”) by the North Korean navy this past May. Their bruises may have faded, but new government billboards about “frontier people getting rich together” are unlikely to rub out remaining bitterness toward North Korea. Even signs of prosperity can lead to frictions: in a budget hotel in Dandong, a Chinese man complains that all the 60RMB rooms have been booked by North Koreans, leaving nothing affordable for the locals. If North Korean cadres are going to keep swigging Coca-Cola and frequenting massage parlors in the area, a strange new kind of transnational class envy could easily develop.

▲ To boom or to bust; that is the question

As bridges and cities rise out of the marshlands of the Yalu River estuary, there are reasons to anticipate further Chinese-North Korean investment and development of this crucial border hub. But a single bridge (even one replacing the iconic but enormously tired old Dandong span built more than one hundred years ago) does not a friendship forever secure, nor a market open. Jang Sung Taek has returned to the vital work of christening statues and rubbing up revolutionary arcana in Pyongyang, but the future of these Special Economic Zones remains very much in doubt.