Toward understanding North Korean state fears of Dandong

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Borderlands / North Korea / North Korean border region / Sino-North Korean relations

On March 26, the Korean Central News Agency reported at length on a truly remarkable press conference. I say “remarkable” because it dealt with a topic that, if even half of the allegations stated were true, contained more than a few bombshells about a cluster of sensitive subjects. This characterization of sensitivity holds — not only because Dandong is the key conduit for Chinese-North Korean trade — ultimately because the narrative tacitly consists of a North Korean cry that China is not interested in protecting North Korean interests. More than that, the article builds upon a growing narrative within North Korean state media that China, if it is not collaborating actively with South Korean intelligence, is at least allowing Manchuria and Dandong to be used as a staging ground for figurative and actual attacks on the social system and regime of the DPRK.

None of this is stated overtly, but do not expect heavy coverage of this event in the Chinese state media, for it is not a welcome note, particularly at the present historical juncture. Consider the boldness (or, if you prefer, the rank obliviousness) of Pyongyang’s propaganda apparatus releasing this story precisely when a.) Beijing is waiting for Pyongyang’s approval of a new Ambassador, b.) when the city of Dandong is rapidly expanding cooperation with South Korea on the absence of connectivity to North Pyong’an province and c.) coming on the heels of another horrible incident where an armed North Korean soldier entered Chinese territory and took a hostage, doing so from a moribund Special Economic Zone that itself is another can of (easily-flooded) worms.

The main audience for the document, however, is not at all Chinese — which is predictable and understandable insofar as the DPRK state media rarely curtseys to Beijing. Instead, in describing plots being hatched on Chinese territory, the audience appears to be Korean (both South and North). South Korean, in the sense that the document appears to be aimed at ripping the lid off of ROK intelligence work in Dandong. And there is obviously a North Korean audience for the piece, which was also run on state television.

For North Koreans, the messages here are multiple: that Manchuria remains a very dangerous place, that Christianity is a tool of enemy agents and the imperialists, that economic and cultural chaos can be laid at the feet of foreign agents, and that the North Korean security services are doing their best to defuse plots to kill their leader. These are themes that were also present in summer 2012, when state media supposedly uncovered a plot to blow up Kim statues in places within sight of China, like the Pochonbo Monument in Hyesan.

What follows are annotations on the full attached document, which I have complied as a bilingual attachment. (The title is slightly unwieldy, but whatever: KCNA Kim Gukki Dandong Espionage Press Conference, 26 March 2015, AC annotations). Most of the comments that follow are about Kim Guk-ki, who was interviewed first at the press conference.

In the attached document, where there is no English text, no translation exists. In other words, just reading the English version of the transcript is an insufficient means of finding out what was actually said at the press conference. Numbers in brackets (like this: [1]) refer to sections of the press conference.

[1] The introduction to the press conference reminds us that we don’t know under what circumstances these men were arrested, or gave themselves over to North Korean security services.

[2] The statement by Ministry of State Security official is longer in the Korean version; naturally in the last paragraph he describes the importance of Sureyongism and wields the rhetorical power of Paektuism.

[3] The person of Hwang Jae Yong plays a key role in the text, mores in the Korean version. Kim is doing essentially everything at the behest of this ostensible wire-puller, behind whom is standing the US and its intelligence services.

[4] The first “crimes” discussed which Kim has undertaken involve things that tourists regularly do along the Sino-North Korean border: Taking pictures of bridges.

This is considered to be dangerous behavior because Kim is further interested (along with the rest of the international media at the time, including the Chinese whose government would not allow its publication) in the particulars of when Kim Jong-il crossed the border in his trips of 2009 and 2010. He was said to be well-paid for his legwork. (If only we modestly-paid academics could make such money when doing fieldwork, more of us might be tempted to start a sideline. But of ours that would ruin our ability to publish credible scholarship…)

[5] Left out of the English version of the press conference is a trip Kim took in 2007 to the Chinese peninsular hub of Dalian, which handles a huge amount of sea cargo which ends up in North Korea. The omission of Dalian is rather interesting, since similarly, the case of Kenneth Bae involved the city, and might cause us to question the relationship between, say, the Public Scruity Bureauy in Dalian and North Korean State Security. Given that Dalian is far more international and cosmopolitan than growing but still relatively small Dandong, this is not a particularly insignificant question.

[5a.] Noteworthy here is the collection by Kim not just of photos and basic information about North Koreans operating in Dandong, but his acquisition of “information about nuclear weapons [and] winning over members of the north side’s missions in China and those on business tour.” This is the first admission that I have ever seen by the North Koreans that they are openly concerned about military intelligence leaking out through Dandong.

Moreover, the acknowledgment that missions into China — which have slowed down significantly since Jang Song-taek’s purge in December 2013 — are targets for foreign intelligence is not at all illogical, but stating it publicly helps to justify for domestic cadre another reason why they may not be going abroad.

Finally, this can be connected to the Al Jazeera story recently about British intelligence going after a North Korean diplomatic target in South Africa, apparently with some — although hardly final — success.

[6] The document now veers into another significant realm — the information war along the Chinese-North Korean frontier. Reports and op-ed pieces about the need to flood North Korea with USBs and tablet computers loaded with possibly subversive information are now commonplace, but obviously the regime isn’t taking such things lying down. The potential for such media to directly target the “supreme dignity” of the top leadership is obviously a cause not just for concern, but for arrest.

[7] The North Korean state can and does frequently handle international pressure on its human rights record, and does so with relative success, if the goal is to keep the enemy off balance and unable to investigate conditions on the ground. (The Commission of Inquiry process has changed a few things, but not this, at least not yet.) However, what this document points out is how dangerous international human rights criticism becomes when it is fed back into the domestic rumor mill, and how quickly it needs to be confused and defused by the state. Note that Kim was not guilty of sneaking into North Korea to interview starving rural dwellers for use in human rights videos abroad, but instead sneaking human rights materials into North Korea itself.

[8] The mention of “a university in Hawaii” should make at least a few people sit up straight. The North Korean state has been rather open in its assertions that academics are very much part of the cabal to collapse the North Korean state and will enter their country on research pretexts, but with the true intent of subverting their system. There is more information here about this particular trip in the Korean version of the document which could be unpacked further.

[9] Does North Korea remember its powerful Protestant past? While clergy were ousted in the years 1945-1949 (most in the first six months of the Soviet occupation, in fact), this document reminds us that missionary activity in North Korea is not entering some tabula rasa. No, according to the document, there is an intentional campaign to revive and reconstitute a “religious state” within the North Korean state (《종교국가》).

[10] Kim concludes his long statement with a teaser about his economic crimes of counterfeiting currency from Dandong and infiltrating it into North Korea, all of which had the intention of “brining people’s mindsets into confusion.” This is also a wonderful inversion of the days of 1946, when Chinese Communist Party members used to print CCP propaganda materials in Sinuiju and smuggle them into KMT-ruled Dandong. When confusion is the goal, cross-border printing plays a big role.

[11] A KCTV reporter’s question gets a long response which is not translated into English.

[12] Rodong Sinmun’s question asking for more specificity in enemy operations in Dandong unleashes a torrent of titles and place names in the Chinese city. If half of these places are still in business, I would be very surprised. Although the document does not say as much, this needs to be thought about from the perspective of a message to a North Korean employer in Dandong, which we might paraphrase as follows:

The city in which you are working is crawling with South Korean agents. They will be coming into our business and filing reports both with Seoul and with their colonial masters in Washington about it, about you. Your movements are being watched by these agents, so it’s better not to move anywhere. Don’t go to these places; much of Dandong is a field of South Korean spies who would be all too happy to abduct you, infect you with Christianity, and give you illegal materials which can only bring trouble to us all. Moreover, their money is probably counterfeit, so be particularly careful when they settle the bill at the restaurant.

[14] This is a fabulous statement of a well-coached witness, delivered in the best tradition of Japanese and American POWs in Chinese Communist custody during the Korean War: “We have realized the gravity of our crimes against your just and human system and demand nothing less than the death penalty. But because the state and its leaders are endlessly benevolent, we will have to settle with going before the cameras and demanding that the imperialist media get the story right and deliver our message word-for-word, except the words which our media choses not to translate.”

On Northern Ireland and Hong Kong

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China / EU-East Asia relations / Hong Kong
Macartney in Peking 1793

Telling the story of Hong Kong from 1840-now, Northern Ireland — or the six counties of Ulster — may seem an odd place to begin. What, after all, could be further away from Hong Kong’s density, its economic fecundity, its almost magnetic international capital and trade flows, its apparently successful blending of Asian and Western traditions, sitting perpetually as it does within the nook — or was it a suffocating embrace? — of the Chinese mainland, that distinctly configured leviathan just beyond Hong Kong’s rocky shores?

And of course, Northern Ireland is a wee place in terms of population (half a million in greater Belfast to over 7 million in Hong Kong), but, like Hong Kong, Ulster’s six counties and their multifarious inhabitants do know something about the longing for, and resistance to, the British monarchy and metropole. In modern Hong Kong, as in Northern Ireland, one can feel the pangs of an emerging mutation, of  distinctive identities or dual identities, one can undergo border controls both lax and incisive, and one can gather a deep sensitivity to symbols of dominance and of protest and their meaning — be they flags, songs, or colours. And finally, one can harbor, like the inhabitants of long years, a certain instinctive distrust of words which float down like cheap promises from somewhere beyond the barricades, words like autonomy, self-governance, freedom of speech and assembly, impartial justice, cultural expression, and “one country, two systems.”

But begin in Ulster we must, for it is the home of the Antrim estate of Lord George Macartney, with whom our tale begins. The 1780s and 90s were a period of great ferment in Great Britain and within the British Empire — there was war in the American colonies, a revolt in Ireland, and the struggle for men like Edmund Burke, an Englishman educated at Trinity College Dublin, to interpret the bloody goings-on in France.

Thanks in no small measure to Robert Clive, the British East India Co. had established a large foothold in South Asia which was gradually gathering mass and profit. In the 1790s, Britain was nearly two centuries beyond the initial consciousness of China, or Cathay, symbolized in the 1692 ‘The Fairie Queen,’ Henry Purcell’s operatic treatment of Shakespeare’s ‘A midsummer night’s dream,’ in which the monarch procures orange tea preserved in china….

This was the introduction to a lecture I gave yesterday in Leeds, on the subject of UK-Hong Kong-China relations from 1840-present. The discussion of symbols (a clear lead-in to the Occupy Central demonstrations) was taken up again at the conclusion.

Old Chapters, New Chapters: The Memory Wars in East Asia

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China / EU-East Asia relations / history and memory / Japan / Sino-Japanese Relations / World War II
Shenyang Trials Case File for Fujita

From the very beginning of the so-called ‘post war,’ the territorial and temporal parameters of the memory wars between China and Japan were never drawn particularly cleanly. The war ended formally in Tokyo Harbour on 3 September 1945, but it took nearly another week for Okamura Yasuji to formally surrender to General He Yingqin at Nanjing. It then took months (in some rare cases, years) for Japanese troops to disengage themselves from the mainland.

After 1949, China’s dissatisfaction with the optics of the Nanjing surrender ceremony occasionally surfaced, with accusations that the Guomindang were in bed with General Okamura (they were). Since 2005, the Beijing government has sponsored huge oil paintings and wax statues constructed to emphasize the ahistorical servility of the Japanese general to the representative of the Chinese nation.

In recent months, the Chinese Communist Party has gone beyond expressing verbal frustration with Abe Shinzo’s revisionism and turned again to wax (and online) artworks of inverted national humiliation. Xinhua praised the wax reconstruction of an orchestrated event in Shenyang 1956 — the trial of Japanese war criminals during a period of Sino-Japanese diplomatic warming. The two years’ worth of written confessions of these men ranged from the banal — intelligence collection in northeast China in 1913 — to plentifully grotesque instances of rape, plunder, and bacteriological weapons research.

Read the rest of the essay (published on 16 March 2015) at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute Blog.

On Reincarnation

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China / Chinese communist party / Tibet

As everyone knows, the Chinese Communist Party is fully committed to reincarnating itself as the Qing dynasty, but with more aircraft carriers and a Communist Dalai Lama who tells choking city dwellers to be less materialistic. In today’s lead editorial, Huanqiu Shibao puts it this way: “众所周知,中国藏传佛教的活佛转世有一整套历史定制和宗教仪轨,持续三百多年,从清朝开始,新达赖的确定必须得到中央政府的批准。达赖这几年不断抛出人们闻所未闻的异端邪说,称他可以转世为外国人、女人等等。最近又干脆说他可以不转世了.”

In other news, women who believe in stopping sexual harassment on public transport in China have been targeted and detained by the state. It’s almost as if the Standing Committee of the CCP (where women hold 2 of the 25 posts) believes that Chinese women should take a cue from their North Korean counterparts and spend International Women’s Day busying themselves with statements about their good fortune to live in the glow of a brilliant patriarch.

As the agile voice of Barbara Hannigan recently wrote about conducting, another quasi-mystical field of leadership: “It is neither male nor female. Convention has kept the field dominated by men.” Maybe the next Dalai Lama will appear in female form, after all.

Angela Merkel and Japan’s Wartime Past

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EU-East Asia relations / German / German-Japanese Relations / history and memory / Japan / Sino-Japanese Relations / War Crimes / World War II
Comfort Women in Java

The German Chancellor was in Tokyo for a couple of eventful days. Although Merkel sees Abe Shinzo regularly, she noted before leaving  that she has not been to Japan, the country that she tactfully calls “Germany’s second-biggest trading partner in Asia” (after China, naturally), since 2008.

There cannot be a great deal of desire on Merkel’s part to talk about World War II amid the rest of this massive bilateral agenda — mainly the Chancellor wants to talk up trade, nuclear energy, and get help in pressuring Russia on Ukraine, not get caught in the middle of Japan’s historical controversies.

As the AFP put it, this was not meant to be:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Japan on Tuesday to resolve the “comfort women” issue in her second foray into the delicate issue of East Asian history following her comment Monday that settling the wartime past is a prerequisite for reconciliation.

Winding up a whirlwind visit to Japan, Merkel met Katsuya Okada, head of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, and said Tokyo should “go ahead with reconciliation” with South Korea over the comfort women issue.

“Japan and South Korea share values,” Merkel reportedly told Okada. “It’s better to resolve the . . . issue properly.”

On the first day of her visit, Merkel weighed in on Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung:

In a speech at the start of her first visit to Japan since 2008, Merkel referred to a 1985 speech by the late German President Richard von Weizsaecker in which he called the end of World War II in Europe a “day of liberation” and said those who closed their eyes to the past were “blind to the present”.

Asked how Germany was able to reconcile with its one-time enemies after the war, Merkel said: “Without big gestures by our neighbors that would not have been possible. . . . But there was the acceptance in Germany to call things by their name.”

Naturally, the Chinese news media was very eager to amplify this particular message, as it elided nicely with Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s vigorous remarks directed at Japan at the NPC in Beijing.  History is nothing if not a cudgel in northeast Asia.

Unfortunately, the Abe government’s eagerness to ostracize the liberal newspaper which hosted one forum for Merkel (the Asahi Shimbun) and to deal aggressively with rolling back even the slightest criticisms of the “comfort women problem / ianfu mondai” meant that her very indirect critiques of the insolubility of Japan’s wartime past went largely unnoticed in Japan itself.

NHK, the state broadcaster, “packed the issue in wool” during its coverage of the Merkel visit, not so much as mentioning the venue of the Asahi speech, and omitting any mention of Merkel’s admonition that a country ultimately has to look itself in the mirror of history. As the Sueddeutsche Zeitung put it (in an article which was translated into Japanese and is making the rounds on Japanese social media as a small corrective):

Wie Japan sogar mit einer derart in Watte gepackten indirekten Kritik umgeht, zeigt die Berichterstattung des öffentlich-rechtlichen Fernsehsenders NHK über den Merkel-Auftritt. Den Veranstaltungsort, die verfemte Asahi Shimbun, verschweigt der Sender am Montag. Und von Merkels Redebeitrag bringt er nur den Ausschnitt, in dem die Kanzlerin das Glück beschreibt, das Deutschland mit dem Versöhnungswillen seiner Nachbarn gehabt habe. Von Merkels Diktum, man müsse sich selbst der eigenen Verantwortung stellen, ist nichts zu hören. Auch Abe geht auf Merkels Einlassungen in der gemeinsamen Abschlusspressekonferenz nicht ein.

Yet, reading the German-language press just prior to the Merkel visit, one is reminded how complex the issue of war victimization is, and how difficult it is to keep the story sorted into a simple binary of Japanese war guilt and intentional amnesia vs. presumably unblemished Western/Chinese/Korean justified vigilance. March 10, after all, was the 70th anniversary of the US firebombing of Tokyo, an attack which killed an estimated 100,000 civilians in a single night. Patrick Zoll, the correspondent for Neue Zuercher Zeitung in Tokyo, interviewed a survivor of that bombing and published an extensive article on 7 March about it.

Reading the Tokyo section of Volume 10 of The United States Strategic Bombing Survey (as I did this morning), it quickly becomes clear that mass killings of civilians in World War II in Asia was an activity anything but monopolized by the Japanese imperial army. The authors of the survey describe “Incendiary Zone 1″ in Tokyo, an area “which included one of the most densely populated areas in the world — Asakusa Ku with a population of more than 135,000 persons per square mile…there was probably no other residential area in the world of a comparable size which equaled the built-upness of Zone 1.” (p. 70). The report goes on:

The combustibility of Japanese dwellings was well illustrated by tests made in this country…Those constructed in “typical Japanese fashion” burned to the ground in 12 minutes; those constructed in accordance with Tokyo fire regulations were consumed in 32 minutes (p. 70).

Shelters for the general public were meager or lacking entirely. Many of those in Zone 1 were built in the sidewalks and consisted of little more than shallow trenches with bamboo or light wood roofs covered with a few inches of earth. These shelters were so close to buildings that they were worthless and were not used to any great extent. The fire susceptibility of Zone 1 was probably greater than that of any other similar area in the world (p. 87).

The 28-mile-per-hour wind during the course of the attack which increased in velocity as the fires merged, contributed considerably to the intensity and further spread of the conflagration. The highly combustible nature of the city resulted in an intense fire of short duration. Observers stated that the heat was so intense that entire block fronts burst into flames before the main body of the fire reached them (p. 84).

There is little space amid this specific memory, the inferno, to look outward at Japan’s wartime empire and the far less technological, yet no less real, suffering of victims of wartime rape by Japanese soldiers operating within a structured system of Army-run brothels. The photo that prefaces this essay speaks to that system. It is from the Australian War Memorial, is of former “comfort women” on Java watching Japanese soldiers unload their belongings after the 1945 surrender.

Chancellor Merkel has no need to become entangled in such local controversies as the construction of “Hiroshima Plaza” in Potsdam, but looking back on what the “comfort women” system really was, and the recognition that it spans well beyond Japanese-Korean parameters, one can understand why she may have felt the need to mention it.

Lisa Yoneyama in Toronto; Readings on the ‘Comfort Women’ System

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history and memory / Japan / US-Japan relations / War Crimes / World War II
US Army photo of comfort women, via Truthout

Yesterday I had a chance to meet briefly in Toronto with Lisa Yoneyama, who is one of the most prevalent scholars working today on issues of transnational war memory politics and World War II in Asia. We both had good things to say about new work by Barak Kusher (University of Cambridge, head of the War Crimes and Empire project) and Nicola Henry (a scholar at LaTrobe University who has been extremely productive  in placing the “comfort women” system within a larger investigative frame of wartime sexual violence). Yoneyama herself is concluding a new project on World War II memory which her page at University of Toronto describes as follows:

Yoneyama is currently working on a third single-authored book project, tentatively titled, Cold War Ruins: Feminism, Colonialism, and the Americanization of Justice, in which she critically explores Cold War management of knowledge and the questions of justice, transnational feminism, anti-colonialism, and the location of Asian America.

My students in Leeds will be reading a couple of Yoneyama’s previous article, but the new project sounds particularly promising. Consequently, I spent some time yesterday getting re-aquainted with some of the present literature on the “comfort women” system generally, a list of recommended readings for which are included below.

Books and Reports

Sarah Soh. The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

Nicola Henry, War and Rape: Law, Memory and Justice (Routledge: 2011).

Margaret Stetz and Bonnie B.C. Oh, Legacies of the Comfort Women of World War II (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2001).

Radhika Coomaraswamy, Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequent, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy; Report on the mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Republic of Korea and Japan on the issue of military sexual slavery in wartime, United Nations Economic and Social Council, E/CN.4/1996/53/Add.1, 4 January 1996.

Sarah C. Kovner, Occupying power : sex workers and servicemen in postwar Japan (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2012). [Not about the ‘comfort women’ system per se, but a fabulously-thought through and presented book about the postwar.]

Journal Articles

Carmen M. Abigay, ‘Sexual Slavery and the Comfort Women of World War II,’ Berkeley Journal of International Law, Vol. 21, no. 2 (2003), 375-389.

Nicola Henry, ‘Memory of an Injustice: The “Comfort Women” and the Legacy of the Tokyo Trial,’ Asian Studies Review vol. 37 no. 3 (2013), 362-380.

Nicola Henry, ‘The Fixation on Wartime Rape: Feminist Critique and International Criminal Law,’ Social and Legal Studies, vol. 23 no. 1 (2013), 93-111.

Sue R. Lee, ‘Comforting the Comfort Women,’ University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law (2003).

Shellie K. Park, ‘Broken Silence: Redressing the Mass Rape and Sexual Enslavement of Asian Women by the Japanese Government in an Appropriate Forum,’ Asian-Pacific Law and Policy Journal, vol. 3. no 2 (Winter 2002), 23-55.

Joshua D. Pilzer, ‘Music and Dance in the Japanese Military “Comfort Women” System: A Case Study in the Performing Arts, War, and Sexual Violence,’ Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture, Vol. 18 (2014), 1-23.

Sarah Soh, ‘In/fertility among Korea’s “comfort women” survivors: A comparative perspective,’ Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 29 (2006), 67-80.

Lisa Yoneyama, ‘Politicizing Justice: Post-Cold War Redress and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,’ Critical Asian Studies 42:4 (2010), 653-671.

Online resources

Erik Ropers, ‘Life on the Front Lines: Testimonies by Two Japanese “Comfort Women”,Writing the War in Asia – A Documentary History (University of Konstanz), accessed 7 March 2015.

Satoko Oka Norimatsu, ‘Reexamining the “Comfort Women” Issue: An Interview With Yoshimi Yoshiaki,’ Asia-Pacific Journal (via Truthout), 11 January 2015.

Fireworks from the Bunker: North Korea’s Role in Borderless Tourist Zone Revealed

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Borderlands / China / North Korea / North Korean border region / Propaganda / Sino-North Korean relations / Yanbian
Kim Jong Un anti tank drill January 2015

Everything about this Reuters piece about a possible breakthrough in Chinese-North Korean cross-border tourism is great, until: “The [tri-national] zone is the latest push by North Korea to transform itself into a tourist attraction.” While it is true that North Korea has spent a huge amount of money on tourism prestige projects (i.e., Masik Pass Ski Resort) since Kim Jong-un came to power, it is far too early to attribute them with any agency whatsoever with respect to a new tourist project which appears to be, in point of fact, very much a “Chinese dream” (TM) of provincial officials in Jilin.

But let’s not minimize what the DPRK — a country whose Foreign Minister recently threatened the US with pre-emptive nuclear war, after all — is capable of. So what exactly has North Korea contributed to this project? According to this starry-eyed press release from the Yanbian provincial government (conveniently titled 延边州政府 中国珲春市 俄罗斯哈桑镇 朝鲜豆满江市三国三地友好互动迎接2015), North Korea has done precisely two things thus far to support the project:

First, they appear to have erected some kind of tourist welcome center at the foot of the Victory Monument in Namyang, the small city directly across from Tumen, PRC. While this was probably done back in April/May 2014, it makes sense to cite the progress now, when the perception of progress is needed, even if this facility in its totality consists of a tent and a desk which can be rolled up and stored easily the next time a quarantine is announced.

Fireworks at 'Jong-il Peak' for the Dear (deceased) Leader's birthday in 2012.

Fireworks at ‘Jong-il Peak’ for the Dear (deceased) Leader’s birthday in 2012.

The second North Korean contribution to the project was the launching of a few fireworks from Namyang  at about 7 a.m. on New Years’ Day 2015. Fireworks! What could be more exciting? Besides enough electricity for the evening news, consistent attendance at regional fora, and a link to China’s roaring new high-speed rail (arriving this year in Yanji, Tumen and Hunchun), it’s hard to imagine of anything more exciting or worth the outlay of huge emotional and financial investment than fireworks. Well, besides ice sculptures for child pilgrims.

Everything still suggests the following: a.) the Tumen River tri-national borderless tourism zone scheme is purely in the planning stages, sort of like the Greater Tumen Initiative has been for about the past 25 years, and, b.) it has been more or less put forward by the folks in Jilin/PRC without North Korean participation. I think that by releasing this information about the proposed zone, Chinese state actors are trying to build some momentum for a project that got momentarily derailed by the Jang Song-taek purge (if this unpleasant event can be mentioned; it is occasionally relevant still).

Naturally, it is good to keep recent perspective in mind when viewing these things, or to be more precise, to recall how short-lived optimism can be with respect to cross-border tourism in precisely this area. 

Barbara Demick’s June 2011 article for the Los Angeles Times about a then-exciting joint project between Dandong and Sinuiju is also very instructive when revisited today. An imbalance of publicity about such an event can indicate varying levels of commitment. And it goes without saying that North Korean state media did not say a word about the fireworks along the Chinese border, just as North Korean state media ignores a hulking bridge which is, factually speaking, by far the most impressive visible piece of infrastructure work achieved in the Kim Jong-un era. 

When I was in Tumen last April, a once-weekly passenger train was finally allowed over the border — which then abruptly closed not all that long thereafter to Chinese tourism on account of North Korea’s hyper-intense Ebola quarantine.

This is not to say that the publicized project could never happen, or will not happen anytime soon, but the present reality suggests that North Korea’s primary contribution to the project thus far literally vanished in a puff of smoke on New Year’s morning. As February turns to March and the southern border of the DPRK becomes thunderous with tank fire and anti-tank fire, we would do well to keep our eyes peeled for puffs of rather more promising smoke on the northern border.