Chinese Reportage from Rajin, North Korea

Regarding the Korean peninsula, the Chinese media strategy of the past several days has been, perhaps, a bit opaque. But yesterday, clarity arrived!  The Huanqiu Shibao of December 23 makes rather evident the goal of the recent PRC encouragement of North Korea: just stop the nonsense and make some money.  In other words, the narrative emphasis in the PRC (a theme which the CCP dearly hopes will become self-fulfilling) thus becomes one in which North Korea notches down peninsular tensions (winning praise in Beijing) to concentrate on economic reform (winning cross-border contracts for Chinese companies).

Exhibit #1 is yesterday’s long dispatch from reporter Cheng Gang [程刚] from the Rajin Economic Zone, published in a full page 7 article in Huanqiu Shibao.  Entitled “Feeling the ‘Economic Fever’ in North Korea [在朝鲜感受’经济热’,” the piece, in spite of its minor complaints about North Korean quirks, functions as a call to invest in Rajin.

For those of you who like citations, it goes a little something like this:

程刚[Cheng Gang], “在朝鲜感受经济热’ / Zai Chaoxian shougan ‘jingji re’ / Feeling the ‘Economic Fever’ in North Korea],” Huanqiu Shibao [Global Times Chinese edition], December 23, 2010, p. 7.

[Translation/summary by Adam Cathcart]

The piece begins with an omniscient narrator (not the reporter’s voice) indicating the gravity of recent tensions on the peninsula.  Then, however, noting Cheng’s multiple visits to and interviews in the DPRK in 2010, the piece turns to what it calls a possible “hopeful point: economic development and investment.  Within this big and closed country of North Korea, where foreign policy is strongly military in emphasis, given no relaxation by the United States of its difficult external environment, such [development] is even more logical.”

Cheng, we are told, travelled to Rajin earlier this month, indicating that the story was – like so many good stories in state media – held in reserve to be released after North Korea did something reasonably logical.  People, in other words, with whom we can work.

“Can Rajin Become ‘the North Korean Shenzhen?”

In contrast to the tense situation in the West Sea (Yellow Sea), the northeastern maritime border of the DPRK, the article asserts, Rajin appears to be“ a place where the opening of the national gates to development economic activity side gives a person the feeling that North Korea is really moving in this direction [当地在打开国门开发经济方面的动作让人感到朝鲜真的行动起来了].”

Our intrepid reporter Cheng Gang proceeds crosses over the Tumen River some 60 km east of Yanji city, at the border point of Quanhe, and is processed at a North Korean checkpoint on the other side.  Then something happens which really tells you something a.) about North Korea’s atrocious media strategy, or, if you prefer b.) about China’s inability to have a truly “special/preferential” relationship with North Korea.  Welcoming a Chinese reporter for a major foreign affairs daily paper, whose visit has certainly been coordinated among the respective Foreign Ministries, the North Koreans proceed to take away his cell phone, his digital camera, and all of his electronics for safekeeping at the border.

Yes, this is standard for all visitors to the DPRK…

While Cheng notes that the procedure at the border goes quickly, he does not indicate if the road on the North Korean side of the bridge has in fact been paved.  (It was not paved the last time I was there in July 2009; the problem of Chinese building amazing infrastructure for bilateral trade on their side of the border and waiting, and waiting, and waiting for North Korea to match even partially their capacity, is dealt with in an extensive working paper by Carla Freeman.)

As he sits in the border station in the DPRK, Cheng has a conversation with an unnamed Yanbian businessman and a North Korean customs agent.  The Yanbian businessman notes that the North Korean side “will soon build a big customs house.”  I would put very little stock in this statement, but the fact that it is deemed worthy of being relayed is significant, as the purpose of this piece is to impart a sense of forward momentum on the northeastern border.

Now something more significant is relayed: the bridge 30 km away near the Russian  border is is under construction.  And work is already underway on the high-speed railway between Hunchun, the closest small city (beautifully sandwiched on Chinese territory in between North Korea and Russia) and Changchun.  As anyone knows who has been to the PRC of late, China is on a positive railroad binge, and it seems that North Korea is one of the 17 nations to which the high-speed rail network is ultimately destined to reach.

Does this plan for cross-border rail ties make anyone else think of a certain map in Bruce Cumings’ Origins of the Korean War, Volume I?   E.g., the process of integration of Northeast Asia, attempted but ultimately flubbed by the Japanese, seems now to have fallen to the Chinese to complete.  Chinese critiques of North Korea – a closed state recalcitrant toward the obvious need for modernization — are beginning to sound a bit like Meiji critiques of the Daehan?

Darkness and Light in Rajin

Noting that at the northern latitude, darkness falls early, Cheng recalls his visit to Rajin in spring of 2010, calling Rajin “a black city [黑城]” where no lights were on after dark.  Today the situation has changed and electricity appears to be more plentiful.  Depending on your point of view, the following sentence might be considered cause for hope, or just tragic:  “Someone said that now there is a new point of view among the locals in which businesses open at night should have their lights on.”  “Of course,” Cheng continues, “this has something to do with the local government’s special policy; inside of North Korea an electrical plant exclusively supplies Rajin.”

(Here two parenthetical comments may be apropos.  The first is by way of contrast: Last year Hyesan, a major city perched up against the Yalu River, had, by my count, at least 45 lights on after dark, not including the huge spotlights on the iconic “Battle of Pochonbo” monument, which is to say that not every city was totally without light at night, but that even in major cities electricity was hard to come by.  Secondly, in picking up G.W. Bush’s memoir one learns that he needed to be given Defense Department satellite photos of the Korean peninsula at night to understand how parsimonious the DPRK was with its electricity usage.  The rest of us who pay even glancing attention to North Korea have seen and heard about similar images time and again; it is testimony to Don Rumsfeld’s grip on the former President’s cranium that he would give the man photos that basically anyone could download online and blow his mind that way.)

The next section of the Huanqiu Shibao piece is clearly meant to reassure Chinese investors of how easy the process can be for working in North Korea.  “Rajin’s Department for Economic Cooperation very closely resembles China’s local government Departments and Committees for Foreign Investment,” Cheng writes.  Moreover, says Cheng, a Yanji city construction company “has many projects in North Korea, and has been working here for more than 20 years.”  According to Cheng’s interview with an anonymous high-ranking manager in this company, Rajin “has basically agreed to allow foreign companies to build factories in Rajin,” and the rights to export goods directly from Rajin.  Chinese companies have benefit from the “great clarity” of Rajin’s (again nameless) economic leaders, and now there are about 4000 Chinese businessmen working (though not, it seems, continuously?) in the special economic zone.

Sitting at night in a restaurant opened by a North Korean of Japanese ancestry, Cheng hears that Rajin has essentially been elevated to provincial status by the leaders in Pyongyang, that “high-ranking Secretaries have come from Pyongyang” and that many departments from Pyongyang have sent delegates, that multilingual university graduates have been sent to Rajin to become the new leaders in overseas trade.

By day, Cheng observes, more changes in Rajin become evident.  A great deal of what were once single-story buildings have now been razed: the ubiquitous Chinese character for destroy (“chai”) is here applied to North Korea.  Trusting that this will become the site of nine new factories, Cheng pronounces this as a sign of forward motion.  Yes indeed, to a Chinese reporter, when a field once full of people and small buildings looks like a moonscape, progress is arriving.

Invest in Rajin: The Korean People’s Army Will Not Shoot You

Cheng goes on to describe “the deepest change of all: soldiers and military vehicles, unlike in other North Korean cities, are seldom seen, particularly soldiers carrying guns.”  In the aftermath of the KPA border shooting of three cross-border (illegal) traders near Dandong this past summer, and given the knowledge of the KPA shooting of a South Korean tourist at a beach near Mt. Kumgang in the prior summer, this statement isn’t without its uses.  “According to my understanding,” says Cheng, “Rajin has gotten a large number of soldiers and other special agents [特别部门] to adjust and go back to their cities, so that a more unified foreign investment can be made.”  (Feel free to quibble with me on “special agents,” I take the phrase to imply to a Chinese audience that they will be spied on less in Rajin than they might otherwise have been before; for use of a similar phrase [特种部队] to connote North Korean special agents going to kill Park Chung Hee in 1968, see the December 23 2010 Nanfang Zhoumou, p. B11).

Later in the article, Cheng goes on to explain that everywhere he goes outside of Rajin, including the outskirts of Pyongyang, he sees soldiers drilling, including doing target practice.  On a tour of Kaesong and the DMZ on a weekend, he notices a large number of KPA (Korean People’s Army / inmingun) relaxing and walking around.  He asks his guide, Ms. Choi, about the military drills: she notes that everyone still wants to marry a solider then says that ever since the late 1990s and the implementation of Kim Jong Il’s ‘military-first’ policy, things have been this way.  When a state of war is normalized, recent flare-ups such as the Yeonpyeong Island incident may not stir North Korean public much at all, filled as it is with soldiers all the time anyway.  Rendering Rajin particularly unique.

Since it might lead readers to recall the failure of the planned “special economic zone” in Sinuiju, that city is almost entirely omitted from the article, but Cheng’s wild train ride from Sinuiju to Pyongyang is recalled in detail.


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