Bullet Trains and Wood-Burning Trucks

Eastern Manchuria, for decades a cold and industrially
declining region, is now a site of huge infrastructure development. Time and
space between the three northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and
Heilongjiang provinces are shrinking. Meanwhile, North Hamkyung is whittling
away with dysfunctional infrastructure and marginal growth at Rason. 

A recent trip to the border region reveals two things.
One, North Korean business in the northeastern provinces has hardly atrophied
since the fall of Jang Song Taek. There is plenty of business activity taking
place: North Korean run restaurants and joint venture hotels remain busy
collecting valuable foreign currency and are poised for potential growth. Two,
China is flexing its infrastructural muscles, radically altering the status quo
of development in the region. Foremost, a high-speed train project is bursting
through mountainsides in eastern Jilin, with tunnels perfectly rounded,
apertures indicating progress. Alongside this development, smoke from small
fires of Chinese peasants mingles with the ubiquitous dust raised by the
construction.

North Korean consciousness of Manchuria is strong, but it is
so heavily focused on the past so as to obfuscate present realities. The old
train lines laid by the Japanese and tended by the CCP after a hard-fought
civil war, twist around and through woods and fields, triggering imagination of
the past anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle. The new train line, by contrast,
punches through an irresistibly straight line, shortening the distance between
the North Korean border and the urbanized spine of Manchuria. A North Korean
entrepreneur could, hypothetically, board a train in Hunchun and navigate to
any number of international trade hubs with ease. Kim Jong Ils
slow train trips in 2010 and 2011 hinted that North Korean media might take
note of such opportunities in the Northeast, thus allowing North Koreans to see
the region as something more than a cesspool of defectors, Christians, and
special agents.

If the North Korean state, out of whatever motivation,
wishes to connect with this aspect of the Chinese industrial behemoth, it has
every opportunity to do so. The western line from Pyongyang has recently been
discussed as the first priority for any possible connection; but the eastern
line, which would potentially connect North Hamkyung to China, bears watching
and is in some ways as important. As it stands domestically, even privileged
party officials can barely traverse Chongjin to Pyongyang in a span of 24
hours.

If inter-Korean business competition can be said to exist in
the Northeast, the DPRK is losing badly. The ubiquity of South Korean culture
and business ties in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture is palpable.
South Korean remittances into Yanji, for example, play a vital role in the citys
ongoing development. By contrast, North Korea offers a couple of decent hotels
and the potential for importing low-skilled labor into the prefecture.

North Koreans are capable of owning, maintaining, and
profiting from business activity in the Northeast. Moreover, there is a subtle
undercurrent of affinity between ethnic Koreans residing in the region and
North Korea. We would hardly expect North Korean state media to sing the
praises of the Chinese Communist Party and its full embrace of state-led market
capitalism. Pyongyang is, however, more than willing and in fact hungry to
accept remittances from North Korean businesses aboard. But they need to treat
their human capital with the same level of intensity that China treats its
infrastructure. Otherwise, North Korea will stay on the slow train to the end
of the line.

The views expressed in
Guest Columns are not necessarily those of Daily NK
This
Guest Column was made possible in part by an Academy of Korean
Studies grant, of which Daily NK Manager of International Affairs Chris Green is also a part.
 

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