Evaded States: Security and Control in the Sino-North Korean Border Region

Adam Cathcart, Evaded States: Security and Control in the Sino-North Korean Border Region,” in Routledge Handbook of Asian Borderlands, Alexander Horstmann, Martin Saxer, Alessandro Rippa, eds., (Routledge: December 2017), forthcoming.

The Chinese-Korean border county of Changbai comprises part of the easternmost frontier of the People’s Republic of China, and of Jilin province. Changbai means “ever-white,” a nod to Chanbaishan (“ever-white mountain”), the symbolically loaded and active volcanic peak a few rural hours’ drive to the north and east from the county centre. Here, the waters of the Yalu River are cold and narrow, and North Korea is a stone’s throw, or a lusty shout, away. While there are certain spiritual energies shared with the Koreans across the river, on its northern bank the Chinese do not appear to acknowledge that the Koreans have different names for the mountain (Paektu) and the river (Amnok) than do the Chinese. Such overlapping linguistic maps can play to the advantage of local tourism officials in Changbai, who would prefer the county to be known best as a launching-point for expensive junkets by South Korean tourists up to Changbaishan (Mount Paektu). But Changbai’s placement on the mental map of most external observers is decidedly more dark, due to its twin city across the river – Hyesan, a city known best for its export of methamphetamines, illegal border-crossers, and rogue North Korean border guards.

Hyesan is on the physical periphery of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Ryanggang province. But in the North Korean context, Hyesan is more powerful than its geography might indicate: it is the political, cultural, and economic centre of Ryanggang province (Kim Jong-il 1968). It therefore is the focal point of state security, trade relations, and is a hub of Korean People’s Army (KPA) activity. There may not be a great deal of trust in Chinese comrades across the Yalu River, and there is certainly official encouragement from Pyongyang to inculcate perceptions of the danger posed by China as a source of ideological and cultural contamination of North Korean youth (Korean Central News Agency 2017).

More measurably, there may also be a dearth of food for the KPA and border guards around the city. On 18 September 2015, reports emerged of a Chinese smuggler or individual shot at from across the border by a KPA guard (Green 2015). The next summer, North Korean soldiers were said to have physically crossed the border into Changbai to maraud around looking for food (Kim Kwang-tae and Choi Kyong-ae 2016). And again, reports in spring 2017 asserted the same (Yonhap 2017). There is no visible border wall between the two states, and the river is the effective boundary, so the ability of North Korean soldiers to vault into Chinese territory and cause distress to locals there is clear and present. However, such events are never covered in North Korea’s state media, and only occasionally confirmed in China. Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s otherwise ubiquitous leader, has never visited the city.

This essay seeks to illustrate the centrality of evasion to life and work in the border region. For refugees and temporary economic migrants from North Korea, the modes of evasion are well-known. Border guards are to be avoided or bribed, as are the Chinese Public Security Bureaus (PSBs) and border guards (bianfang) on the other side. The respective states also engage in acts of evasion, by avoiding the key issues in their respective media discourses about the border, allowing bribes and smuggling through the net, and in allowing ostensibly illegal currency trading and market activities to flourish in a kind of grey zone (Roitman 2005).

References (limited to the above introduction)

Green, Christopher (2015). ‘From the Borderland to Beijing: Chinese Civilian Shot in Changbai,’ SinoNK, 20 September.

Kim Jong-il (1968). “Let Us Develop Ryanggang Province into a Firm Base for Education in Revolutionary Traditions: A Talk to Senior Officials of Ryanggang Province and Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighters,” July 21, 1968, Kim Jong Il Selected Works, Volume 1, 1964-1969 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Press, 1992), 364-379.

Kim Kwang-tae and Choi Kyong-ae (2016). ‘Two N. Korean armed deserters arrested after shootout with Chinese security sources: source,’ Yonhap News Agency, 29 July.

Korean Central News Agency (2017). ‘ Rodong Sinmun Calls for Intensifying Anti-Imperialist and Class Education,’ 6 March. 

Roitman, Janet (2005). Fiscal Disobedience: An Anthropology of Economic Regulation in Central Africa (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

Yonhap (2017). ‘Six armed North Korean soldiers enter China,’ JoongAng Daily, 3 March.

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