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Chinese Aid to Flood-Hit Areas in North Korea

The PRC’s National Day (1 October) celebrations were muted in Pyongyang, but they did provide an opportunity for Li Jinjun, the Chinese Ambassador to North Korea, to make a few remarks. Reading the rhetoric for such occasions is often not terribly useful; North Korean speakers are not there to announce a change in bilateral policy, nor is their purpose to reveal much of anything by giving lip service to “the Chinese dream” or stating that “under the spirit of the Seventh Party Congress, the country is engaged in economic development via a ‘200-day struggle campaign,” as Li’s counterpart did at this event.

However, such events sometimes result in small statements from the Chinese side which give a better sense of the texture of bilateral relations, in whatever direction they may be trending, in ways that are more interesting than occurs under the dry klieg lights of the PRC Foreign Ministry press conferences.

Thus, in Pyongyang on 1 October, Li Jinjun’s comments were of interest.  Primarily, his mention Chinese aid to North Korea in light of the ongoing humanitarian struggle in the DPRK’s northeastern border region with China:


Which translates roughly as:

Ambassador Li also expressed consolation for the floods in the northern areas of the DPRK, emphasizing that Chinese saw the floods in the DPRK and sympathetically felt as if it could have happened to them [感同身受]. Out of Sino-North Korean friendship and humanitarianism, China has provided assistance to the DPRK as far as its capabilities extend [力所能及], and wishes that the soldiers and civilians of the DPRK will conquer natural disasters as early as possible and help people in the disaster-hit areas to rebuild their homes in order lead happy and healthy lives.

Not to parse this to death, but in combination with my more detailed analysis of China’s flood response (published in The Diplomat on 27 September 2016), you can see the PRC hedging slightly, while also being overt about the fact that aid has been provided. The idioms used by the Ambassador are particularly piquant; the first almost encapsulates a kind of criticism. In other words, Li could certainly be implying, we inhabited the same Tumen River valley, but because of our superior preparation, we did not suffer the same levels of destruction as you did.

In following North Korea’s evening news reports since the disaster, I have found it interesting that the DPRK’s messaging to its own people about its flood response is entirely about work performed after the fact; there is no discussion of having prepared well for the floods, there is only meant to be joyous thanks to the Party for replacing homes that were destroyed by the waters.

As aid workers will tell you, there is so much more than mortar and bricks that need to be replaced; there are bridges to be rebuilt (another story line, one which both DPRK and China have made nods to of late) and sanitation systems to be restored.

Finally, Li’s somewhat apologetic note that the PRC aided North Korea only “as far as its capabilities extend” might be a reference to the fact that more massive aid was offered in the border region, and turned down by the North Koreans, but that is speculation for another day.

Image: Chinese Ambassador Li Jinjun pays his annual visit to a Sino-North Korean Friendship Cooperative outside of Pyongyang on 21 October 2016. Via PRC Embassy Pyongyang. 


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.

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

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.

Kim Jong Il in China: PRC Media Tropes

If there’s one thing we know about North Korea, it is that the DPRK is intensely mindful of how it is portrayed in foreign media.  Scrutinizing its own international image is something that the North Korean regime does not simply to hunt for materials with which to bludgeon the United States, Japan, and South Korea, but also to keep its nominal “friends” from becoming unrestrained in their complaints about North Korea.

In the recent past, the North Korean Embassy in Beijing has prompted the Chinese government to censor historical journals that asserted Kim Il Sung’s culpability for the Korean War, and earlier this year, China locked up an ethnic-Korean scholar for trafficking in rumors about Kim Jong Il.

At the same time, the Chinese media has become increasingly free to criticize the Kim family, even as references to Kim Jong Eun are now mostly preceded with his full military title and a nice “Vice Chairman.”

Why am I making these points and asking these questions today?  Because the Associated Press reports that Kim Jong Il is on his third trip to China in just over a year’s time.

China is covering this visit in its now-standard way: by second-hand summaries of South Korean media passed along in selected foreign affairs periodicals, namely, the Huanqiu Shibao.  No Chinese journalists have the right to tail Kim Jong Il, to interview anyone about the trip, publish a “scoop,” or get a quote from the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, or from sources in Pyongyang (where, by the way, Xinhua has a bureau).  Thus Chinese readers are left with South Korean speculations about his itinerary.

According to Huanqiu Shibao (whose passing along of South Korea reporting, in this case, indicates an endorsement of accuracy), Kim entered China via the extreme Northeastern DPRK city of Hamyang and went into Tumen, the small city on the frontier of the PRC’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region.  He is probably going further on, then, to Mudanjiang, where, as KCNA reported recently, North Korean tourism officials have been traveling.

As for Kim Jong Eun,  Huanqiu Shibao indicates that he may be studying the old “reform and opening up” techniques in Shanghai.  How detailed is this speculation?  Well, Kim Jong Eun’s name is not on the guest list at a guarded hotel in Mudanjiang, site of some anti-Japanese, pro-Korean resistance monuments.

Does this trip and the way that China is covering it testify, then, to a blossoming Sino-North Korean relationship where China pledges to continue to the flow of aid and back up the DPRK with its full military support?

Not quite: Witness this very unusual report which was released yesterday (two days ago in Chinese time) on Huanqiu TV, asserting that North Korea has 30,000 hackers in a special school whose purpose is to combat the United States. What is this all about?  Why does a Chinese Communist Party which is tightly controlling discourse about North Korea, and is certainly aware that the Kims are coming to town, release this report on the eve of that visit?  Is it possible they want to yell at someone?  Or is it fodder for China’s internet hawks, giving them another implement of proof that North Korea is a strategic asset for China because they can cause problems for the United States?

Perhaps the May 18 Global Times editorial, entitled “Dark Undertones of US Internet Diplomacy,” testifies that North Korea’s hacker army has its uses, so long as so long as it its ministrations are aimed Eastward and away from Beijing.  Now that unmanned aerial drones are reported (by both Huanqiu Shibao and KCNA) in the Sino-North Korean border region, it seems that cyberwarfare is more important than ever.

Of course, being ever “a shrimp between whales,” Kim Jong Il is again outflanked by other, larger, events: the  Chinese commentariat, as well as the netizens, seem  far more transfixed today on President Obama’s new Middle East speech than on the obscure itinerary of North Korean “politicians,” men who, after all, probably have far more in common with Mubarak and Qaddafi and than with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao.  At the end of the day, even as Chinese leaders encourage or berate Kim to open up his economy, the preamble must surely be one wherein the lessons of past collapses are taken into account.

Releasing Robert, and Economic Development in Tumen

One Free Korea, channeling Reuters and a fascinating KCNA-published “confession” of the border-hopping misssionary, reports that Robert Park will be released from captivity in North Korea.

Meanwhile, Chinese media outlets have yet to pick up the story, but might do so eventually.  Given their druthers, the Chinese would rather not give mainland readers the idea that foreigners are running willy-nilly in the Northeast, as the CCP would rather itself control the pace and tone of discussions around the more general issues of refugees and human rights in North Korea that the Park case exposes.

Instead, the CCP media is trumpeting recent meetings for economic cooperation in Changchun.  Jilin province, the major bordering body along the North Korean frontier, is in the midst of a major push to attract more foreign investment.  As we can learn from the process that led to PRC recognition of South Korea in 1992, provincial pressures should never be minimized when understanding Chinese policy toward the Koreas.  Jilin cadre desperately want to see North Korean economic ties with their province, and have a further interest in economic integration of the Koreas that could lead to an overland route for provincial goods to the rich markets of South Korea.  This is just something to keep in mind when discussing the issues of sanctions on North Korea and the Chinese role in enforcing or not enforcing those sanctions.

Tumen City center for economic cooperation

Meanwhile, Yanbian is pumping up the effectiveness of its police forces (links in Chinese) here and here, and, since Euna Lee and Laura Ling (as well as Mike Kim) are no longer reporting on the issue, the city appears to be doing more crackdowns on prostitution fronts as well.

All Roads Lead to Chongjin

Back in October 2009 I wrote about new tourism agreements put into place between North Korea’s North Hamgyong province and Chinese counterparts in Tumen city.  In spite of North Korea putting the brakes on foreign travel in North Korea last December, the trend toward cooperation resumes.  Today North Korea Economy Watch conveys news that Tumen-Chongjin rail travel will soon be possible. Here is the Korea Herald report:

China to renew border rail link with N.K.

China will mend a rail link between one of its border cities and a North Korean port, a source familiar with North Korean affairs said Sunday, a move that indicates stronger economic ties between the two allies, according to Yonhap News.

North Korea and the municipal government of the Chinese city of Tumen, which borders the North, have recently agreed to repair the railway linking the city with North Korea’s northeastern port of Chongjin, the source said.

The source, requesting not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, added Tumen will lend Pyongyang $10 million, which will partly fund the restoration of the 170-kilometer-long railroad. Construction is due to begin in April this year, he said.

“The agreement on repairing the railway indicates North Korea has also agreed on letting China use the Chongjin Port, which will give it better access to the East Sea,” another source said.

China — which views North Korea as underdeveloped in terms of technology, but a convenient source of minerals and natural resources — has been increasing its North Korea investment in recent years, reaching deals on mines, railways and leasing a North Korean port to a Chinese company.

Pyongyang has also been optimistic on forging economic pacts with China, apparently hoping more investment will help enhance its underdeveloped heavy industries sector. Border trade in consumer items, from televisions to beer, has been booming between the two countries since the 1990s, but industrial ties have been formed only recently.

Recall that on October 4, the day after he arrived in Pyongyang, Wen Jiabao’s delegate Wang Zhifa [王志发], the vice-minister of tourism in the PRC, signed an agreement with his DPRK counterpart [ 康哲洙 – Kang Choesu?] on tourism exchanges:

Signing Tourism Agreements, Oct. 4, 2009, Pyongyang -- via National Tourism Admin. of the PRC

While it is certainly appropriate for Wen Jiabao to bring a big posse to Pyongyang to discuss multiple levels of issues, something about this particular photo reminds me of Mao standing in the background holding his breath while Zhou Enlai sits down to ink the Sino-Soviet Alliance in 1950.  If something goes wrong, let the signatory take the fall, while Premier Wen can walk away unblemished if North Korea does something nuts, like, say, shoots a 53-year-old female tourist in the back.

But Vice-Minister Kang is a known entity to the Chinese, having attended conferences at the behest of the Jilin tourism bureau in 2007, as this data-rich report from China Economic Weekly reports; Kang also spent some time that year in Yanji.

Jiamusi, destination for North Hamgyong tourism officials -- via Wikipedia

Cross-provincial, trans-national linkages always get short shrift in Western analyses of North Korea and the Sino-North Korean relationship, which is too bad.  Why, for instance, isn’t it news when a North Hamgyong tourism delegation is traveling to Jiamusi, one of the most peripheral regions of Heilongjiang province, looking to increase Chinese tourism (and perhaps investment) in the DPRK?  (More info here.)

But all of this recent activity could also be seen in a rather ominous light.  Recent reports from within the DPRK note speculation among North Korean officials that the regime in Pyongyang is holding out a more-open Rajin as compensation for heightened — and deeply necessary — Chinese aid (see Good Friends Report No. 324: “”The Only Option is Full Collaboration with China,” Central Party Official says.”)

Rumblings on the Tumen

China has approved, yet again, an international development zone in the Tumen Delta.  Global Times reports (in English), as does CCTV.

The Chinese government has approved a border development zone in the Tumen River Delta to boost cross-border cooperation in the Northeast Asian region, the provincial government of Jilin announced on Monday.

The information office of the government said the pilot zone covering 73,000 square kilometers involved the cities of Changchun and Jilin as well as the Tumen River area.

Han Changbin, governor of Jilin, said the Changchun-Jilin-Tumen pilot zone was China’s first border development zone.

It is expected to push forward cross-border cooperation in the Tumen River Delta.

Jilin Provincial Government set out this status report in July 2009,   and now the economic zone is front-page news in the overseas People’s Daily.  The unveiling seemed to start on November 16 with this meeting convened by the Jilin Provincial Governor, Han Zhangfu [韩长赋]  whose name with a different spelling might mean “Sweaty Husband” instead of “Han Who Is Well Endowed,” which it does!

In the meantime, everyone in Yanji is supposed to study how to develop the economy, stupid.

Although a large part of the impetus here is local and provincial, in a small way, this economic zone might be being announced during Obama’s visit to China as a way to reinforce Chinese independence on the North Korean front.  On the other hand, while the DPRK has a lot to gain from participating in such a zone, their harassment of Chinese businessmen at Rajin and failed attempts in the past don’t bode well.

But based on my own observations, Chinese business in Hunchun and Fangchuang is far, far more oriented toward Russia than the DPRK.  And more South Korean and Japanese companies setting up shop on the lip of North Hamgyong province will very likely be a good thing.

Click here for some very revealing Google Earth imagery of Hunchun, and to see where this economic zone is nestled in between North Korea, China, and Russia.

Advertisement for North Korean-Russian Goods near Hunchun, Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture -- photo by Adam Cathcart

Border Crossing and North Korean customs house (with dirt road), North Hamgyong Province, DPRK -- photo by Adam Cathcart

Chinese technicians fixing North Korean trucks, Hunchun, Yanbian Automomous Prefecture, PRC -- photo by Adam Cathcart

Typical trilingual confusion in Hunchun -- photo by Adam Cathcart