Blueprints and Rumors in Sinuiju and Dandong

Last week Christopher Green and I assessed the outlook for concerted Chinese-North Korean development in the critical corridor for trade between Dandong (PRC) and Sinuiju (DPRK). Using the October bilateral trade fair in Dandong as the test case and a number of Chinese-language press releases as sources, we argued that the trade fair should not be interpreted as evidence of a new receptivity by North Korea to Chinese investment. In a subsequent post piquantly entitled “We’ll Always Have Dandong,” Marcus Noland saw the trade fair (and North Korea’s refusal to open the road to a $300 million bridge) within a historical continuity where “the economic development that we have observed in North Korea over the past 25 years has, for the most part, come in spite of the state, not because of it.”

To summarize the bad news: The Hwanggumpyeong Island SEZ (once the crown jewel in the plans for joint economic management and development) is more or less withering, the North Korean side refuses to open the magnificent existing bridge over the Yalu, the delegations sent to Dandong are more or less the same as they have been in the past, and Jang Song-taek is dead. The baseline ambition for the Dandong-Sinuiju corridor as laid out by Premier Wen Jiabao in Pyongyang exactly six years ago seems to have been unfulfilled, and is languishing alongside a Liaoning province which itself could very much use more investment.

Given the lack of coordination between North Korea and China, it seems rather odd, then, that a new blueprint for massive Chinese investment in infrastructure in Sinuiju would surface at this moment. The JoongAng Ilbo (中央日报) in Seoul reports that it has gotten its hands on a comprehensive plan which would, if implemented, in the next 5-10 years, lead to all sorts of changes in the border region. 

One object of interest in the plans is Ryucho-do [柳草岛/유초도], or Ryucho Island. If the emerging South Korean narrative of possible development on Ryucho as a signal for a broader opening-up and reform of the North Korean economy sounds familiar, it’s because an essentially similar story was circulating in 2009, after which time essentially nothing was done.

Chinese state media is hardly some oracle of absolute correctness when it comes to confirming or denying this story. There has been precisely one mention of it which I have been able to find in print state media today, in the China Daily, which essentially repeats the JoongAng content without any comment or inference — other than to mention Yang Bin, the unfortunate tycoon handpicked by Kim Jong-il to put forward a similarly unilaterally-considered plan back in 2001-02, before his arrest by Chinese authorities.

In short, the Liu Yunshan visit to Pyongyang did not appear to break the logjam of overlapping plans, agendas, and North Korean strategic passivity and resistance in Sinuiju. The Dandong trade fair had been in the planning for over a year, and was itself not symbolic of anything other than an ongoing lack of coordination on existing problematic issues in and near Dandong such as the Hwanggumpyeong Island SEZ and the unopened modern bridge.

Perhaps in allowing word of this rumored plan to spread, China is simply playing along with what may be a South Korean misinformation campaign intended to prod North Korean development across the river from Dandong. As ever, the plans — assuming they actually exist — may be beautiful, but there is already no lack of plans for this region. In the meantime, optimists can take comfort in the announcement of more tourist routes from Dandong to Sinuiju, something which is announced every year after the trade fair, and which the government in Pyongyang can shut off at a moment’s notice.

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