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Border Consolidation in Liaoning: From Chen Yun to Xi Jinping

For presentation at Leiden University lecture series “Borders: Life on the Edge of Area Studies“, 28 February 2017:

For the Chinese Communist Party, the northeastern province of Liaoning today inhabits an odd position on the “One Belt, One Road” strategic line. Stuck with a recalcitrant North Korean neighbour, the CCP is endeavouring to revive the regional economy by reaching beyond various fundamental North Korean blockages and toward Seoul and Incheon, while simultaneously securing the border from drugs and deserters from Sinuiju. Corruption remains a staggering problem in the province, whose economic growth is among the lowest in the People’s Republic in spite of massive improvements in infrastructure, with occasional spectacularly dangerous interfaces with the North Korean economy (as in the case of Hongxiang, a firm targeted by US sanctions as a result). The first section of the paper will draw upon fieldwork in the province to investigate these issues.

In search of continuities, the paper then leaps back in time 70 years, and uses newly published documents to investigate the CCP policy in the border region during the Chinese civil war, or “War of Liberation” (jiefang zhanzheng), followed by the Korean War. Led by the Northeastern Bureau and Chen Yun, the CCP was a party forced to the periphery and a rural strategy in 1945 and 1946, a period when cross-border interactions with occupied Korea were mediated by the Soviet Red Army. Chen Yun and Gao Gang took an activist role in the establishment of base areas in the province, leveraging interactions with North Korean counterparts and ultimately winning the debate over the need to focus on the peripheral border regions over the large industrialized urban trunk of Manchuria. During the Korean War, Dandong was a hub for international socialist interactions as well as supply of the (literally underground and heavily bombed) North Korean economy.

There are striking parallels amid the obvious discontinuities. In both periods, we see the difficult role of CCP leaders in the province, questions of loyalty and corruption amid international interactions in the border region, and the age-old tension between local realities and central needs (be “the Center” in Zhongnanhai, Harbin, or Yan’an). We also see how the Party takes an ambivalent view toward North Korean assistance of Chinese Communist Party goals throughout: Even when North Korean comrades might lend vital assistance, the CCP rarely forces the issue, and looks for solutions within the province and the Party itself. Finally, the paper compares international pressure on the CCP in the border hub of Dandong today with that the Korean War era, noting the focus of the UN in both cases on interactions with North Koreans in the border region, a charged site of interaction, inspection, and potential violence. 

Image: Wind band of the People’s Liberation Army upon victory in Shenyang, 2 November 1948, via Hebei State Television.

New Essay in The Diplomat

Entitled ‘Unraveling China-North Korea Relations,’ this 2000-word essay delves into recent bilateral implications of events in Dandong and Tumen, and argues that taking a broader geographical area into account helps us create a more holistic picture of the relationship.

Corruption, Sanctions, Dandong

In two essays which I anticipate publishing this week (in NK News and CPI Analysis, respectively), I question the connection between Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption activity and the implementation of sanctions on North Korea.

Here are some of the data points I’m dealing with, in no particular order. Sadly, in pulling my research materials together, I found that the Hongxiang firm appears to have wiped its website of most of the good stuff. Likewise, a handful of promising blog entries published in mainland China in the last two weeks have been “harmonized” (i.e., deleted) by Chinese censors.

In a subsequent post on Sino-NK, I hope to discuss what I learned from conversations with Chinese counterparts I met with in Seoul last week, thanks to a small gathering sponsored by the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, a think-tank overseen by the ROK Foreign Ministry. There was some scuttlebutt there about the Hongxiang case, so my ideas were certainly workshopped, and, I think, of interest to Korean counterparts. However, the Hongxiang glimmers of positive collaboration were mainly overshadowed by a bruising US-China-ROK anti-missile debate that nearly got out of control at times. On the whole the ethos was one of healthy discussion and plenty of conversations over meals and drinks which one imagines to be where the real diplomacy actually takes place.

Anyway, a look at what we know about Dandong, the anti-corruption struggle in and around it, and a few related themes which I hope to bring together in my upcoming work:

  • South Korean newspaper interviews trader in Dandong who expresses surprise that PRC has not put tougher customs inspections on North Korea after the 5th nuclear test [“More robust N. Korea-China trade happens after nuclear test,” Dong-A Ilbo, 18 September 2016].
  • People’s Daily in Beijing describes a new wave of officials appointed in Liaoning, including a new Party Secretary for the CCP Party Committee (essentially the top job) in Dandong. [刘兴伟拟任辽宁丹东市委书记 高科拟任盘锦市委书记
    2016年09月19 人民网-地方领导]




Image: A night drive along the Yalu River, moon over the northeastern outskirts of Sinuiju, DPRK. Photo by Adam Cathcart, 2016. 

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.

Dandong Discourse: China-DPRK Trade Fair, and Rumblings in Xinchengqu

Historians have surely seen better days between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kim-centric Workers’ Party of [North] Korea, but business continues apace today in the borderland. The main item seen in the past few weeks (i.e., something “new” that hasn’t yet made it yet into our wonderful Anglophone discourse) is the subject of today’s post. And the news is that the China-DPRK Trade Fair and Culture/Tourism Expo will indeed be held this coming October, and is entering its fourth year. The Chinese website for the event, without much irony, uses the same slogan as in previous years (fairs and slogans analyzed here in an English essay for the Korea Economic Institute), and offers page after page of discussion of the Korean minority in China under headings that actually promise “enter North Korea.”

Discussing the Dandong Trade Fair puts one into the zone of perpetual risk. After all, it is tempting to engage in overreading any single piece of data which may confirm or deny an assumption that the North Korean regime is tending toward economic reform and opening up.

Dandong: Is Kim Jong-un the great modernizer, each moment of exchange with China an irrevocable step forward toward North Korean marketization? Or, is any North Korean participation in an event like the trade fair in Dandong just a feint toward outside public opinion, so that South Korean companies will at least openly consider moving to Hunchun to get around sanctions, so that Chinese comrades will not stop completely the clotted spigots of present investment and aid, so that Beijing will be somewhat less angry the next time a cruise missile nearly knocks down a regional jet flying from Shenyang to Japan, or a North Korean border guard goes AWOLWW (Absent without Leave, with a Weapon) into Chinese rural border communities of Yanbian whose youth have all already cleared out for the bright lights of South Korean’s labour markets?

Goodness knows these debates matter, because North Korea’s actual direction, and the methods used by China to harness, encourage, engage, and exploit North Korean participation in the Chinese economy and beyond are (or arguably should be) a huge part of the overall picture.

But enough of the framing; stuff has actually happened.

The going-forward of the 2015 fair was announced in Dandong at a hotel by the city’s vice-mayor; no North Koreans were listed as attending. Nor were any DPRK officials in attendance (you know, like a vice-mayor of Sinuiju, or perhaps even a governor or Party Secretary from North Pyong’an province, the kind of people Jang Song-taek used to bring with him.)

So this may yet another fine example of North Korea ducking anything remotely public to bang the drum for investors or domestic exporters, leaving the stage to Chinese officials who then do the heavy lifting — to the extent that such events require anything more than showing up, reading a bland statement of friendship or economic aspiration.

However, aspiration may be the wrong phrase; and local Liaoning officials trying too hard to create maximum change in the shortest possible time might attract distrust. What do I mean by that? The event will be held in the Xincheng district of Dandong, which itself is undergoing a bit of a scandal having to do with government mismanagement. Just across from the rather dead North Korean Special Economic Zone of Hwanggumpyeong, construction moved very quickly after Wen Jiabao’s pioneering visit to North Korea in October 2009. Since then, the pace has slowed significantly as it has become clear that the white elephant of a bridge stretching from the district into the wet and rural outskirts of Sinuiju would not be opening.

The present dilapidated state of a property in Xinchengqu in Dandong, near the new bridge to North Korea. Below is an architectural drawing for how the property was planned to look. Source: People's Daily, Beijing.

The present dilapidated state of a property in Xinchengqu in Dandong, near the new bridge to North Korea. Below is an architectural drawing for how the property was planned to look. Source: People’s Daily, Beijing.

In a rather clear signal that the almighty Central Government in Beijing is unhappy with the administration of the new development district of Xincheng, Zhongguo Jingji Zhoukan (China Economic Weekly) magazine has put out a rather extensive look at land appropriation which really ought to be read by anyone worth their salt whose professional habits include deciphering Chinese receptivity to North Korea’s erratic economic strategy and China’s receptivity to it amid the unpredictable muddy tempests of the Yalu River estuary.

Toward understanding North Korean state fears of Dandong

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.”

The Dandong Trade Fair

As the rest of the world gets accustomed to seeing Kim Jong-un walk with a cane, we might do well to figure out what, if anything, is changing about the way that the broader North Korean state engages with the economic powerhouses that engulf its southern and northern peripheries. KEI’s Director of Research recently assessed the outlook for improved inter-Korean economic relations in the aftermath of the surprising visit of a high-level North Korean troika to the closing day of the Asian Games in Incheon. And while there have been no equally high-level trips to Beijing from Pyongyang, North Korea’s economic relations with China, particularly developments along the shared frontier, are arguably as important to the future of the DPRK economy.

There has been an awful lot of ammunition provided lately to proponents of the point of view that Chinese-North Korean relations are in a downward spiral. The North Korean hijacking of a Chinese vessel from a small port outside of Dalian in September certainly did not help matters. But to point only to the problems and disputes — while they are many — should not blind us to the ongoing daily interactions and transactions that fuel the North Korean consumer economy and keep the DPRK afloat.

This past June, I prepared a research paper for KEI that showed that North Korea’s strategy for Special Economic Zones with China was changing rapidly, and argued that the power struggle around Jang Song-taek was intimately tied to the lack of progress on the Yalu River showcase SEZs at Hwanggumpyeong and Wihwa Islands. The new Economic Development Zones that Pyongyang proposed in lieu of these Chinese-financed zones have since made very little headway. In the meantime, the North Korean government has welcomed a University of British Columbia professor again to Pyongyang to lecture on SEZ law, small-scale training programs are going forward (often off-site, in places like Singapore), and the Rason Special Economic Zone has hosted very small seminars on SEZ set-up. In general, however, SEZs remain extremely peripheral to the broader economy and in many cases are nascent and conceptual at best.

The upcoming Sino-DPRK trade fair in Dandong, scheduled for October 16-20, thus should serve as an ideal test case for a number of things. (The formal title of the event is ‘The Third China-North Korea Trade, Culture and Tourism Exhibition Fair / 第三届中朝经贸文化旅游博览会.)

Read the rest of the essay at The Peninsulathe Korean Economic Institute blog.