North Korea’s Invisible Bridge

In the past couple of months, Kim Jong Eun, the North Korean state media, and foreign reporters have shown the greatest possible interest in a quixotic project in remote Kangwon province: the Masik Pass Ski Resort. Amid the intoxication (either of Kim Jong Eun’s brilliance, or, in the case of foreign reporters, the ostensibly risible yet tragic irony the project seems to spawn), no one seems to have pointed out that Masik has yet to earn a single cent of foreign exchange. Few economists have tendered estimates as to the cost of the project, nor has anyone offered any notion of where the money might be coming from.

It seems, however, that the goal of the North Korean state has been served. With Masik, the West is transfixed by something novel which generates free publicity (not unlike the alcohol-fueled junkets of Dennis Rodman) and a counter-narrative that has very little to do with a genuinely distressing Commission of Inquiry on human rights or the growing united front that opposes North Korean nuclear development. No less, through Masik, the state is allowed to preen itself as modern and even potentially reformist, reminding outsiders of Kim Jong Eun’s Swiss background, without in any way obligating itself to anything resembling structural change.

The Masik Pass resort therefore serves its function: It is loud, it is big, it is unmistakably Kim Jong Eun’s, the Army skitters through any amount of mud upon his hale command, Western reporters given access to the place go home with the scoop they richly deserve, and no one has any clue what its economic impact will be.

What matters is that people are talking about it.

Contrast the above case, then, with an actual instrument of foreign trade, financed by the People’s Republic of China, a long rising ribbon of infrastructure that dwarfs anything yet attributed to Kim Jong Eun. The bridge being built outside of Sinuiju, spanning the Yalu River, is now nearly complete.

A recent trade fair in Dandong (the “second annual” iteration of something that almost didn’t happen in the first place) was the occasion for the PRC Ambassador in Pyongyang, Liu Hongcai, to take a trip to China’s main port of call for North Korean goods and services. The bridge was hardly the focal point of the discussions, but its status will surely aid as a major lever in opening the northwest of the DPRK, and in facilitating North Korean exports to China, in the event that sufficient exports can be manufactured.

The Ambassador’s office put out some astonishingly bullish figures from the trade fair, claiming that “more than 10,000 Chinese and foreign businesspersons” had attended, discussing over 200 specific investment projects, of which 93 “expressed an intention” to go forward at a total investment of $1.6 billion (just over a billion of which would be via trade-related projects).

In keeping with its domestic media propensity to downplay foreign investment, the North Korean news media covered the trade fair without any such specific figures. This shrouded method would be in keeping with the treatment of the Mongolian President’s public visit to DPRK, during which the President’s speech about foreign investment and trade rules was hermetically sealed off at the Yanggakdo Hotel and not conveyed in the least via state media. If unthreatening Mongolia is unable to pose itself at the vanguard of reform and foreign direct investment, then less still is China able to do so within the DPRK’s boundaries.

Therefore North Korea’s state propaganda has been absolutely silent about the bridge, although it might be absolutely central to Kim Jong Eun’s ability to deliver on his promise to build “a rich and powerful country, a country we can be proud of to the world.” Of course the Respected General has yet to so much as travel openly to Sinuiju, much less Rason, and if there is a North Korean personality to whom this project can be attributed, it is his uncle, Jang Song Taek.

Like the clouds of smoke from northern China drifting ever-sulfurous over the Korean peninsula, the bridge from Dandong represents the intrusion of external realities into North Pyong’an province. Development and its dislocations loom; but Koreans, especially those in the north (including on the Chinese side of the border), are accustomed to the idea that movement and opportunity are connected.

The idea of transnational migration over frontiers which once were controlled by Japan brings to mind Kim Il Sung. Today along the banks of the Yalu River, we are witnessing the struggle between Kimist conceptions of what is possible along the frontier. North Korea’s founder despised foreign trade as a necessary evil, and saw North Pyong’an foremost as a granary, arms depot, and “rear area” into which he and his forces could retreat in the event of another invasion from the South.

What Kim Il Sung and son shared was a distrust of the region; a rebellion in Sinuiju in 1945 could have derailed Kimism before it got its feet planted, and Kim Jong Il escaped a train explosion in the northwest in 2004 that was probably an assassination attempt. But Kim Jong Il still pushed, if abortively, for a Sinuiju Special Economic Zone in 2001, even if implementation on the North Korean side has been beyond spotty ever since then.

It is this ambivalence that the Chinese bridge seeks to eradicate. Arriving at the same time as Masik Pass resort, its utility is the ultimate fact. The velocity of interaction may increase mightily thereby, but then again, it might not. As Kim Il Sung said in 1961, “there is nothing more difficult than transforming people.” Perhaps he was right. But things are happening now that might bring long-term change to North Korea, whether they are being trumpeted or not.