Ambassador Liu Makes a Visit to Rason, North Korea

PRC Ambassador Liu Hongcai in Rason, July 2-4, 2014. Photo via Chinese Embassy, Pyongyang.

PRC Ambassador Liu Hongcai in Rason, July 2-4, 2014. Photo via Chinese Embassy, Pyongyang.

The Chinese-North Korean relationship is hardly in full comradely bloom, but neither is it in a state of total breakdown and acrimony. Rason, the port/SEZ in the extreme northeast of the DPRK and a relatively short drive from China and its Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, is a good case in point.

One month ago, Liu Hongcai, the Chinese Ambassador in Pyongyang, made a trip around the Rason Special Economic Zone which went essentially unremarked upon. Xi Jinping was in Seoul on precisely the same dates. But Xinhua did not report on the Rason visit, and was thus in line with global media outlets (like the Guardian, for whom I wrote a piece on the dominant theme) in emphasizing how Xi’s visit was an explicit rebuff to North Korea and in fact indicated that relations were worsening.

As Choson Exchange has argued in a couple of useful translations from the Chinese media, things in Rason seem to be going just fine. And, spanning further along the border, Hankoryeh points out that the story about some Chinese oil “shut-off” to North Korea is completely overblown when put into its proper economic context. From the North Korean standpoint, trade with China is still huge, and Rason remains an important (if still under-utilized) node in that trade relationship.

Americans in Pyongyang: Detainees, Prisoners, Hostages, and Pawns

An exquisitely rendered photograph of an American apology to the DPRK from 1968 and the USS Pueblo Incident, part of a new exhibition in Pyongyang glorifying the "Songun leadership" of the young Kim Jong-il. Image via Chosun Central Television.

An exquisitely rendered photograph of an American apology to the DPRK from 1968 and the USS Pueblo Incident, part of a new exhibition in Pyongyang intended to glorify the “Songun leadership” of the young Kim Jong-il and drive home the propensity of the United States to relinquish all dignity in its militarized and espionage-heavy dealings with North Korea. Image via Chosun Central Television.

Yesterday, North Korea gave the US media momentary access to three American nationals currently detained in the DPRK. Finding the right terms to capture what function these three unfortunate men are serving at the moment is tricky at the moment. For convenience, let’s just start with nouns: “Detainee” is probably the most neutral designation, though for certain intrepid lawyers even this language has been tainted by post-9/11 practices and the erosion of habeus corpus at home. So we are hamstrung, and left with other choices of noun to describe the three Americans: “hostages” (much to be said for this designation), “prisoners” (though this is not true in the conventional sense of “inmates of a prison,” unless one’s definition of that term is stretched to include those who are unable to leave a North Korean hotel), or “well-coached, likely terrified and pliant Americans serving the opaque goals of North Korean foreign policy” (a bit on the long side, and hardly kind).

Since North Korea keeps minute surveillance on the foreigners within its sovereign boundaries and has the kind of legal system that can carry out a trial and levy a death sentence on someone like Jang Song-taek so quickly that it evokes the Chinese phrase”先判后审” (first the verdict, then the trial), for the sake of simplicity, let’s go with “hostages.”

You have to feel bad for the journalists sent to run this particular errand as well; they’re put in an awful predicament whereby to simply tell the North Koreans “no, we refuse to give you the publicity and amplification you so clearly are demanding” means to turn down what amounts to a major story that might actually justify one’s presence (and the bureau’s expenditure) in a country where all of one’s competitors are trying to figure out how to turn their state-guided tour of a water park and equestrian facility into some kind of compelling narrative about dictatorship.

Far more useful would be more putting of this story into a historical context which might include this, this (and this), and this, although the Wall Street Journal‘s quick analysis and links to the full interview footage is also not bad.

You might also take this little sign as indicating that the CNN “interviews” with the hostages were being actively guided and the specific questions prompted by North Korean officials, even though the Associated Press insists that its subsequent meetings with the men featured “uncensored questions.” While the AP can boast that it is the only American news agency with a bureau in Pyongyang, the fact that the North Koreans effectively gave the scoop to greenhorn CNN reporters indicates that whomever controls North Korea’s international media strategy is well above any feelings of sentimentality. Unless, of course, CNN is here being rewarded for past “good behavior,” i.e., having been pliant in 2009 when it facilitated Pyongyang’s orchestration of a nearly-identical scenario that led to the dispatch of former President Bill Clinton to the DPRK — as documented in two books that did extremely well with people who want their information about North Korea to be endorsed by Oprah Winfrey. In other words, we have been in this nasty little situation before.

Incidentally, I was supposed to have been in the DPRK port cities of Rajin-Sonbong (Rason) yesterday with a delegation from the European Parliament, but I had to cancel my participation in the trip. After yesterday’s distasteful spectacle, and having actually read the US State Department’s updated travel warning to North Korea (which is far more strenuous than it used to be, and highly recommended for readers of any nationality), I can’t say I regret the decision.


Cambridge on the Tumen: A Transnational Workshop

A small group of scholars gathered in Cambridge on Friday, May 23 for a conference centered on the Tumen River and a critical sub- region of Northeast Asia which has seen less critical attention than the issues surrounding it might indicate it deserves. Funded by the Beyond the Korean War Project  and including participants from the North Asian Borders Network, the workshop brought together a number of experts.

Among the issues explored at the workshop included migration, environmental protection, border security, development history, landscape, economic exchange, and artistic expression. Today the region is surrounded by a Chinese Yanbian, North Korean North Hamgyong province, and the Russian Far East. All of these areas represented the expertise of the conference, as follows.

The conference began with Dr. Hyun-Gwi Park of Cambridge University, who gave a pessimistic but fascinating summary of the Tumen River development project. The project had been initiated in 1991 with the help of the United Nations but has essentially been put on hold. Dr. Park said that the Rason project, a central element to the development plan, was in the hands fully of the North Korean leadership, which had chosen to “put it to one side rather than completely abandoning it.” The trilateral border region contains a combination of factors which were still potentially very promising for economic development: a combination of cheap labor provided from China and North Korea, Russian natural resources, investment from South Korea and further investment from “the missing but always potential partner,” Japan.

How does one define “the Tumen triangle region?”: It depends upon which cities are chosen as the endpoints; this lesson in geographical geometry was very much in order.

An interesting element in the presentation was North Korea’s role in it: North Korea was described by Dr. Park as the “enigma of the project…both a stumbling block and an essential participant.” The Long view of Qing provincialism and interprovincial competition was then taken, including a discussion of cross-border mobility wherein economic migrants could explore unknown areas and pursue their own economic opportunities. An example of this was ethnic Koreans from China who could go into North Korea without a visa.

The recalling of Qing imperatives in the region brought me back to an old thought: China’s impetus in supporting the Rason project is largely about frustration with the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689) and feeling almost entitled to sea access from easternmost Jilin.

Russian settlement in the Far East has a long history through which the region can also be profitably investigated. There has ever been a kind of “internal colonization” within Russia; people in the Russian Far East can viewing Moscow through a transnational lens; China is a closer neighbor then Moscow. This world view is, in some ways, a reaction to the central government. Which is not to say that xenophobia does not exist in the Russian Far East, but the notion of Russian nationalism in that region does need to be questioned.

Kim Il-sung embraced the Greater Tumen Intiative in the early 1990s is a means, he thought, of reviving the DPRK’s east coast economy (centered upon Wonsan), but then of course he died in 1994 and this project was set aside again.  Using the west coast of Korea as a transnational counterfoil, it can be seen how goods might thus move from Inchon and up to Dandong and down to Pyongyang, forming kind of a semicircle.

My own paper presented some new research on the question of Chinese-North Korean relations from 1945 to 1949, focusing on the interconnection of Korean Workers’ Party with the Chinese Communist Party. The question of ethnic and national identities were heavily contested at this time, particularly on the Chinese side of the border. The paper looked at several biographies of lower-level officials in Yanbian in 1945 and 1946, and how several went “back” to Korea (some had never been there before) and ultimately participated the Korean War. Even among communist cadre, the legacies of Japanese imperialism and the Manchukuo experiment remained strong. Finally, there lie hidden in various archives and Chinese-langauge memoirs the possibility of alternate histories: there were, after all, several individuals in the post-liberation Yanbian region with an equal biography to Kim Il-song who ended up carving out their own spheres of charismatic militant influence.

The next paper was by Christopher Green, looking at changes in currency evaluation and foreign currency use in the North Korean economy since the 1990s. Green brandished a volume published in Pyongyang in the 1980s (and which he had recently purchased in Yanbian), dealing with issues not normally associated with Kim il song: Finance and economic management. Green thus sought to contextualize the Currency reevaluation of 2002 by asking a simple question: has this happened before? Kim Il-sung, as it turns out, presided over three previous currency re-evaluations — in 1959, 1979, and 1992. In every case, Green observed, these actions had been prepared by notifying the public in advance, providing people with ample time to exchange money, etc.  Clearly, what this context provides was further confirmation that the currency revaluation in 2009 was hastily planned, poorly executed, and done without much regard for past precedent.

John Swenson-Wright, professor of Japanese history at Cambridge, gave comment on the two papers, combining them and showing how they look at North Korea at a local level, finding alternate stories by digging into the archives or economic data and defector testimonies.  In combination with an earlier comment and synthesis by his Cambridge colleague Heonik Kwon, Dr. Swenson-Wright’s comments helped to cap a spirited exchange of ideas and comparative models, before the conference concluded with a viewing of the bracing film “Dumangang.”


Assessing the Jang Song-taek Effect: The View from Yanbian

North Korean official w/ the national football team in Johannesburg, courtesy Chosun Ilbo

North Korean official w/ the national football team in Johannesburg, courtesy Chosun Ilbo

I spent the month of April in northeast China, and had the opportunity to speak to several knowledgeable interlocutors about Sino-North Korean relations. In particular, the aftereffects of the purge of Jang Song-taek were of interest — at least as much interest as the rare materials I was able to pick up and research in Yanbian. In reviewing my notes for an upcoming talk at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, D.C., I ran across the following two paragraphs from a typed summary of a structured conversation I had with an academic in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. He’ll remain anonymous, but this fellow is very plugged-in and I am inclined to accept his point of view as rather well-grounded in fact.

With respect to Rason, our interviewee saw the Wen Jiabao visit to Pyongyang in October 2009 as key; after this, he asserted, Kim Jong-il personally traveled to Rason for the first time in 18 years. China lay down very clear conditons (成规) for DPRK to follow. But the DPRK was extremely indecisive in following through (朝鲜的不确定性还是很大). Summing up the impact of China’s (and Wen Jiabao’s) gamble on DPRK economic receptivity , he called it “a big loss for China” (大失望). With respect to Jang Song-taek, our interviewee saw him as “a bridge” between the two states, and self-evidently an economic leader in his own right. Jang’s purge created a new “obstacle (障礙)” for relations with China. It isn’t simply that Jang is gone, it is also to recognize the fact that it takes time to pair up with new partners (慢慢搭配) on the DPRK side, and so the recovery can hardly be expected to be instantaneous. The interviewee, noting that it was his personal deduction (推断), said he thought China had already been rather upset with North Korea in 2013 and that the nuclear test angered the CCP leadership and changed their calculus. Choe Ryong-hae’s visit to Beijing in May did little to assuage the Chinese emotion. There was also the matter of China canceling tourist visits in 2013, closing the border, and denying the other side currency, thereby demonstrating a certain level of pique which can be felt more palpably in the borderlands.

New Daily NK Essay: On the Emerging Reality of High-Speed Rail in Eastern Jilin

Eastern Manchuria, for decades a cold and industrially declining region, is now a site of huge infrastructure development. Time and space between the three northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang provinces are shrinking. Meanwhile, North Hamkyung is whittling away with dysfunctional infrastructure and marginal growth at Rason. 

*Read the rest of the essay, co-authored with Steven Denney, at The Daily NK.

Chronicling the History of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in the PRC: 1990 Edition

Ambassador Jim Hoare has written a delightful and very informative essay for, the website for which I serve as chief editor. When based in Beijing in 1990, Ambassador Hoare took a trip up to Yanji with Warwick Morris (who, unbeknownst to him at the time, was another future UK Ambassador to North Korea). Their photographs and recollections are included in a newly released (and free) e-journal, entitled The Tumen Triangle Documentation Project, Vol. 2, which all are invited to peruse and enjoy, via

There are also essays in this issue of TTDP about traveling from China to Rason, the China-DPRK drug problem, interviews with refugees from the border city of Hyesan, and even a look at Kim Il-song and the history of North Korean potato cultivation in the northern provinces. Chris Green, the international managing editor of DailyNK in Seoul, has written an excellent piece on the topic of the “yuanization” of North Korea, surely something scholars at Yanbian University have shown great interest in.

I was unable to shoehorn my own new writing about the Hyesan-Changbai juncture into the text, but the pdf. only shines all the better for the self-initiated exclusion. Do have a read; you won’t regret spending the time.


Yalu River Notes: On Dandong

North Korea's Hong Kong? Perhaps. Image courtesy Shijie Zhishi, linked well below.

An empty optics firm looms on the horizon on the dirt-torn and perpetually expanding fringes of Xinchengqu, the new city being built southwest of Dandong. Photo by Adam Cathcart; click on the photo for more pictures.

The following is a cross-post from  And King Tubby (a regular commenter on both this site and David Bandurski’s essential China Media Project) points out a new Los Angeles Times article that deals with the matter of North Korean capitalism from a different angle. 

Along the frontier between North Korea’s North Hamgyong province and the PRC’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region, journalists, according to Chosun Ilbo, have been encountered problems with Chinese police.

Not so for Jeremy Page of the Wall Street Journal, who files a report which, amid all the other often completely baseless bloviating about rumors in Pyongyang, actually points the way forward to change of a sort in North Korea.

Entitled “Trade Binds North Korea to China,” Page’s dispatch virtually lays out a blueprint for further research and observation.

Among the questions prompted by Page’s work: Are North Korean cross-border traders an effective and powerful interest group in the DPRK today?  Is their relationship to provincial officials in North Hamgyong and North Pyong’an adversarial or symbiotic?  Does Jang Song-taek represent the interests of the trading elite, or an otherwise “pro-China” or “China-leaning” faction in Pyongyang? And, to be just a bit insouciant, why do the North Korean officials in or passing through Yanji prefer the Liujiang Hotel (which does not have a DPRK state-affiliated restaurant) when they could stay at the Rason Hotel (which assuredly does)?

To answer the question about Jang Song-Taek and the “new” (in the sense of “newly emergent”) Pyongyang elite and their relationship with China, it behooves us to look at the players on the Chinese side.

Dandong Leadership Watch (Part I) 

Last week at SinoNK, we discussed the role of the past Vice-Director for Public Security in Yanbian, and today, the provincial official in focus is the Secretary of the Dandong CCP Committee, Dai Yulin.

Dai Yulin / 戴玉林, CCP Party Secretary in Dandong

The highest-ranking CCP provincial and city leaders, or the most successful ones at least, are technocrats, and they tend toil away in provinces distant from their personal power bases.  Dai Yulin, born in 1959, is indeed a technocrat — with a doctorate in finance and two subsequent professorships in the same field — but he has been firmly entrenched in Liaoning province since at least the late 1980s, operating primarily within the tri-cornered circuit between Shenyang, Dalian, and Dandong.

In other words, he is a peninsular creature — that is to say, of the Liaoning peninsula, that economic counterweight to Kyonggi-do, which has the western part of North Korea caught in a kind of inevitable pincer of economic ties.

In particular, Dai is a Dalian man, having arrived there in 2001 and being promoted to vice mayor to the gregarious Bo Xilai [son of Bo Yibo], China’s most famous “princeling” and now in charge of Chongqing, in 2008.  Dai’s success in Dalian — a city which, in spite of three massive oil spills and a major chemical spill in the past 14 months of so, foreign columnists like Thomas Friedman still like to depict as a kind of ecotopia worthy of emulation by American mayors — resulted in his being thrown into Dandong at the unique historical juncture of August 2010, as plans began to materialize for accelerated ties with North Korea.  He was re-upped for the position by the CCP Party Congress in Beijing in July 2011.

Dai’s new office is in Xinchengqu; the entire city government has been moved out there.  The famous Yalu River bridge, as was pointed out by Tang Longwen in a very nice Shijie Zhishi article earlier this year, is a relic of Japanese imperialism, and hardly has the capacity for the kind of extensive mega-city and multi-national trade that China ultimately has planned to flow via Liaoning and North Pyong’an and onward to Pyongyang and points well south and east.  In other words, Dai’s new office is near the new $250 million bridge to Korea, which was reported on by the present author in dispatches from Dandong in June (here) and August of 2011.

(More photos of the construction in Xinchengqu are here, and then subsequently with more documents, thanks to Curtis, at NK Economy Watch).

By way of closing the argument about local ties and the relation of Chinese provincial officials to Pyongyang,  this analysis from September 2011 bears repeating in full:

At first I wondered: even in the midst of North Korea’s biggest wave of Chinese aid and investment since 1958, isn’t it a little bit unusual for the mayor of Dandong to go to Pyongyang?  And for KCNA to throw down not one, but three stories about the friendly visit?

And then I read a new piece in the Daily NK (which unlike so many DailyNK stories has much more than a just single source breathing rumors into a borderland cell phone) which describes a major purge going on in Sinuiju and surrounding North Pyong’an province.

…Occasionally one’s cross-border counterparts will simply disappear, and with them the claims to capacity or access of various kinds.

For Chinese officials in the northeastern provinces, the lesson is clear: always have friends in Pyongyang (preferably a handshake away from the Dear Leader), because the provincial cadre (even the ones you took out to karaoke, warbling away on the Dandong riviera) may not have your back after all.

And regardless of what North Korea does, money in the meantime is still flowing in Dandong, the little city with international ambitions. Not to veer into boosterism, but the city has indeed created an attractive investment environment for electronics and flat-screen manufacturers; a recent visit to the city of a representative from Philips was a focal point for Dai Yulin on December 15.

The interest in Sinuiju and the new Special Economic Zone — passed into law by the DPRK only on December 9 — is properly the subject of another post, one which will probably introduce SinoNK’s new Economic Analyst, Alan Ferrie.


North Korean Lorry Watch

Chosun Ilbo reports from Dandong about a supposed influx of Chinese military equipment into the DPRK.  I was all over that bridge 5-7 days ago and there were indeed quite a few trucks coming back from the North, but then again, there were a few bare-handed swimmers as well, and the Sinuiju riviera has not yet calcified completely.

One Free Korea, who is normally superbly on top of aggragating border-related news, is going into minor remission these days.

Both of these things make me a little nervous, much as Kim Jong Il —  he rolling towards the Urals as if deployed by a Pasternakian plot — regards Operation ‘Ulchi Guardian’ obliquely from his flatscreened armored train command post.

And thus one turns to questions of “free trade (within a command economy)” in Rason via Curtis Melvin, and gets an eyeful of nigh-retroactive North Korean-Russian relations on Sergei Witte’s great Eastern rail spur, a look at Kim Jong Il in Russia by NK Leadership Watch.

Some people think the Chinese bridle at having Kim reach out to Russia for aid and support (some even say he is “reviving Kim Il Song’s policy of playing Beijing off of Moscow”), but this is precisely wrong: Huanqiu Shibao at multiple points in its initial analytical page 2 Kim-in-Russia story, a story which I read in its entirely for precisely the length of time it takes to get through the border at LAX from Shanghai, emphasizes precisely that Russian help will reduce North Korean dependency on China, and by implication this is a good thing.

The answer, then, is to count cars and points of patronage as if they were bars of music, in successsion and separate ictus.  The Chinese now drape the bridge in Dandong with gently-colored lights; the old Japanese command post gun slots are each filled with a soft purple bulb.  This invitation to commerce, to parting with one’s currency in exchange for the novel, brings with it a weird wind, coughing with seraphims from the North.

Hat tip to the ever-brilliant Tor in Stockholm for the post title.

Image courtesy Noko Jeans, Stockholm-Pyongyang

Scoping North Korea’s Emerging Trade Zones with China

This is what a Party looks like -- reminiscent, perhaps, of Pu Yi's heavily policed enthronement ceremony in February 1932 -- photo near Dandong, courtesy Al Jazeera news

Leaving the thrall of Hong Kong behind (and not even by boat!), I’ll be moving up into Dalian and the Liaodong peninsula for the next several days.  Not being a wealthy Chinese investor with a Hummer in Changchun, there’s no way I can make it to distant Rason, but I will certainly be spending some good time checking things out in Dandong and near the border trade zone which the North Koreans and the Chinese cadre announced this past week.

Thus, it’s more than appropriate to pose a framework kind of question that is going to drive my own research this week:  Is the Chinese Model Taking Hold in North Korea? 

Here, for your delectation, is some background reading and analysis.

I. On the Yalu Island Trade Zones: 黄金坪, etc.

This story is now all over the news wires, but if you need a good basic primer on the subject, I recommend this piece from the Chosun Ilbo  or the following article from a Korean reporter working for Al Jazeera.

Barbara Demick, the Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a perceptive piece on the subject from her office which is also well worth reading by way of introduction.

I would respectfully disagree with Demick that the Chinese were low-key about these developments.  Sure, the CCP could have gone double-barrel with its propaganda (there’s no mistaking when they do that — witness the orgiastic self-regard and millions of yuan spent on the Party’s 90th birthday coming up), but with Huanqiu Shibao headlines that describe the Yalu River developments as having the potential to become the “Hong Kong of DPRK”, it doesn’t strike me that the Chinese are in some way trying to hide what they’re doing.

On the other hand, if I’m banned from looking around the islands this week, then maybe they are trying to hide something.  I will keep this space posted as possible.

In North Korean media, KCNA is also bullish on the project, describing how the Sinuiju economic zone has been enlarged in a northeastern direction to include Uiju.  Joshua Stanton seems to have a lock on the analysis of how much of this area will be surrounded by barbed wire on the Korean side, so I will leave that to him.

One interesting (and perhaps predictable note) is how the North Koreans have been so careful to emphasize DPRK sovereignty in talking about this issue.  Besides the whole tensile strength of the trope in North Korean critiques of quisling states slathered in the rotten butter of sadaejuui or flunkeyism –
South Korea and Japan, both of whom are much more freaked about about Rason –why is this emphasis significant?

Recall, if you hadn’t yet passed out from the moutai or the pollen from all the floral bocquets, what Kim Jong Il said to Hu Jintao in his dinner-table speech:

[ ]

The Chinese party and government are greatly contributing to rejecting high-handedness and dominationism and ensuring world peace and stability by pursuing a foreign policy sovereign and independent, under the banner of peace, development and cooperation.

There have been a few signs of disagreement.  For instance, KCNA plainly notes that is was “basically agreed to develop Hwanggumphyong by the joint efforts of the DPRK and China” Basically agreed?  Chosun Ilbo is way to the right of the Wall Street Journal (a paper which, to correct Aidan Foster-Carter in his brilliant essay on Kim Jong Il in China, is still to the left of Attila the Hun), and it loves to traffic in evil-communists-conspiring-behind-evil-doors kind of stories, but here it seems their assertion is correct: the ceremony for the island joint opening was likely delayed due to disagreements.

A lot of groundwork for this was done at the “14th Pyongyang Int’l Trade Fair,” which functioned as a networking gathering for more than 100 Sino-North Korean trade (贸易) officials [ ].

And as I’ll point out in a later post, the Chinese are fairly realistic about the limitations they are up against.  In holding up the positive example of a single Sino-North Korean joint venture, a bicycle manufacturer with offices in based in Tianjin, the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang admits that Chinese companies can’t even advertise in North Korea and end up giving away large percentages of their product.

II. The Case of Rason

The only logical place to start with this story, short of crossing the border at Hunchun, is to read Curtis Melvin’s excellent compilation of developing memes.

A few days ago, in hyping up interest in extreme northeast of the Korean peninsula in the port of Rajin/Sonbong (known as Rason) the Chinese Global Times tweeted “First China to N. Korea self-drive tour begins” [ ], a fascinating story which had first appeared the day before on page 3 of the Huanqiu Shibao.  Chinese television coverage of this story in Changchun and the Rason border zone can be seen here.  Huanqiu had been doing propaganda preparation for this move since at least last October, if not before.

A (to my mind) rather significant story from last December in the Chinese Huanqiu Shibao in which a Chinese reporter goes to Rason and characterizes the situation for Chinese capitalists is translated/summarized in English.

Chinese BBS boards are hardly unanimous in their support for the efforts. If anything, Beijing has been somewhat tone deaf to international criticism of its economic cooperation with North Korea. 

Beijing’s moves in North Korean border zones have a bit of the pedagogical/patriarchal whiff, spiced w extraterritoriality, as in these 2008 photos of the “Harmony Cup,” Chinese diplomats golfing in Pyongyang.  The global image of PRC capitalists tied to the CCP isn’t currently particularly savory, and the North Koreans don’t have much love lost.  As Harper’s and The Economist picked up on in an essay I wrote back in 2009, there is quite a strong foundation for anti-Chinese sentiment in North Korea in the Works of the DPRK’s founding god, Kim Il Song.

There is much, much more to say about the geopolitics and regional meaning of the Chinese move into Rason, but I recommend this Chosun Ilbo article,

which prompted this almost gloating Huanqiu analysis of South Korean nervousness about the Rason project,

which is connected to this KCNA weigh-in on Chinese mining companies and Rason port,

which was followed by this significant analysis in KCNA about Chinese investment in Rason.

In discussing all of this action on Saturday with a colleague in Hong Kong who has spent two decades as a correspondent in China; he conveyed to me what he was hearing from all of his diplomat connections Beijing: “The North Koreans despise the Chinese,” he confirmed.

III.  Both sides are pairing friendly economic development with a renewed emphasis on border security

A few final points:

Everyone missed this, but Chinese border patrols were drilling with “anti-terrorist” machine guns near Dandong/Sinuiju and promising to shoot drug traffickers (photos)

June 4 is also the anniversary of a North Korean border guard shooting 3 Chinese near Dandong

And China is probably using drones in border areas [China Daily =  HT to quelquefois  


The keynote on security is emphasized in more subtly, historical ways.  Why else would the Huanqiu Shibao release a compilations of photos surrounding the explosive 1948 accusations of espionage against the top American diplomat in Shengyang, Angus Ward?

Reference Readings

North Korea Leadership Watch is back online with a post on Yalu River island joint ventures

Netizen reactions to Sino-NK border trade zone (

Relatively well-off North Koreans floating in the Yalu River -- note the wrist watches; photo courtesy Huanqiu Shibao, 2010

Kim Jong Il in China: 28 Things You May Have Missed

Cross-Border Economic Development

1. Indeed, the Rodong Sinmun [劳动新闻/Worker's Daily], North Korea’s key ideological mouthpiece, has said nothing of Kim Jong Il’s since his junket to a Hamgyong fruityard. But what has flowered in place of news of Kim?  The halls of Pyongyang, at least the ones with lighting, are suddenly again flush with economic optimism.

The phrases present in this Rodong Sinmun, May 20, editorial had gone into deep remission.  The North Korean leadership, we can only assume, feels confident that Chinese aid can pitch them forward headlong into the future (notwithstanding the fact that 6 million of the DPRK’s 24 million people are starving).

2. Analysis of all of this is needed, and one of China’s top North Korea bloggers rises to the task:


Roughly, while Kim Jong Il is trying to “transmit craziness” to the world community and heighten concern about his food difficulties and military potency, he is also – and this is interesting – trying to restore Sino-North Korean relations to a state resembling that of the 1980s.  Economic junkets and implicit promises of reform were a core piece of those relations.  However, the economic linkages of the 1980s never really took off, whereas today, North Korea is ever-deeper in the economic embrace of China along the frontier and otherwise.  In the 1990s, during the height of the famine, Kim Jong Il not once travelled to China.  This was clearly a mistake.  North Korea appears to have learned something from its recent past [前车之鉴].   Perhaps, finally, there is no going back.

3. Another very astute point made by the Chinese blogger is the unifying imperative of both the internal situation in North Korea (and, implicitly, China) with the complex international situation.  This includes the democratic wave in the Middle East and the need to improve domestic stability in both countries.  Thus the answer is to present not only a united Sino-North Korean front to the world, but to render that front even more united than before:


The mechanics of Kim Jong Il’s visit are less important than its effects and what it accompanies: another wave of economic cooperation with China.  Economic ties with North Korea are far, far more important to the Chinese leadership than blustering about North Korea’s nuclear program.

4. Criticism of the DPRK will remain a salient part of the PRC’s media arsenal, but this is done in more subtle ways that do not damage fundamentally the international united front with North Korea.  Where, after all – other than on Sinologistical Violoncellist – do you read stories in English about North Korea-bashing in the Chinese media?

Thus, to economic cooperation, which continues apace:

5. China and North Korea will launch a new borderlands developments initiative next week, and these developments near Sinuiju and on islands in the Yalu River are making the rounds on various government-approved  internet bulletin boards.  In particular, this Chosun Ilbo story is getting a great deal of attention from netizens:

6. North Korea is doing a great deal more than it has in the past to promote Chinese investment.  Witness this – the most detailed KCNA story on the subject I have seen to date — about Chinese investment in Rason, the port in the northeastern corner of Korea.  Of special interest is the frank admission that China is footing the bill for the port’s renovation:

7. Just as the North Korean regime essentially said “hell with it” to the public distribution system in the late 1990s and allowed small market activities so that people knew they should fend for themselves, the DPRK is today more or less admitting that China is going to be increasingly important certain segments of economic life.  Again, the survival imperative is at the core of this: North Koreans know the economy needs an infusion from somewhere, and internal complaints about the Chinese ascension – and they certainly exist – are easy enough to stifle.

8. North Korea has emphasized how much they value Chinese investment in Rason – or done a damn good job in covering up an accidental death – by commemorating the drowning of a Chinese businessman who is said to have saved the lives of two North Korean girls who were somehow just floating in distress of the Rason coast.  A ceremony was held in early April in Pyongyang and Zhang’s stone-faced widow and son were there to accept awards on behalf of a grateful nation.  (Link with photos.)

9. Unfortunately, according to internal sources, North Korea still can’t find enough Chinese investors who are willing to trust their North Korean counterparts.  The limits of rhetoric thus become evident.

10. Not that North Korea isn’t trying hard, and also drumming up interest from European firms as well.  At the International Trade Exhibition in Pyongyang on May 17, a whole host of DPRK international trade officials showed up to meet the Chinese ambassador, as well as a host of businesspeople, including Germans, French, and Italians.

11. But at the same time, the moribund nature of everything economic in North Korea seems clear.  No one has mentioned this, but in last site visit prior to moving east through some devastated provinces which he completely ignored on his way to China, Kim Jong Il managed to stare forlornly at some fruit, coughing up some of the same old boilerplate:

And speaking of Kim….

Personal Politics

12. Kim Jong Il has regained weight, his swagger, and high heels

13. While he was crossing over the Tumen River, North Korean media released this unusual and soaring endorsement by a “Chinese VIP”  (Chen Zongxing, discussed later in this post) who endorsed Kim Jong Il’s rule and anticipates it will alst at least through 2012 :

14. Kim Jong Il proceeded to meet with Dai Bingguo in little Mudanjiang city. (with photos) in a trip that might have been prophesized had anyone been paying attention:

On May 10, the Chinese Embassy had been summoned to Mangyongdae Hall in Pyongyang for a good long meeting with the DPRK’s head of Public Security [李明洙/Li Myong Jo] at which the two countries’ Public Security Bureaus agreed on “the strictest” precautions (obviously in reference to the Dear Leader’s visit, as can be seen in retrospect).  Link with photos:

Stories like the above, which go totally unreported in even the Wall Street Journal or the Guardian, along with stories like this in the Chinese media (“Kim Jong Eun Visit Speculated for Early May”) make you wonder: even given latitude for the differences in political culture, is it really fair to say that China is “habitually secretive about such trips” by Kim Jong Il?  As with everything else, it depends what you are paying attention to prior to the “disclosure” of Kim’s appearance in China, and what your definition of “secretive” is.    Perhaps more people need to read “North Korea Leadership Watch.”

15. As for possible meetings with Xi Jinping, so far the Chinese media is mum, as per protocol, but one “inside source” (maybe a friend in the Foreign Ministry in Chaoyang) states that Xi Jinping doesn’t want to be photographed with Kim Jong Eun, in any event:

16. Kim Jong Eun, perhaps, is busy holding down the fort in Pyongyang, making sure that the press duly commemorates a speech his absent father made twenty years ago (when the heir apparent, it bears noting, was all of six years old) about architecture theory:

17. In a story about the paradox of youthful leadership transition in North Korea, the Chosun Ilbo speculates that the DPRK’s new cadres are actually likely to be more aggressive than their predecessors:

Meanwhile, the “American imperialists” were also rather busy…

The U.S. Angle

18. The new US diplomatic team on North Korea is rather remarkable, and rather expert.  I strongly recommend you get to know Sydney Seiler, a Koreanist who has studied Kim Il Sung’s rise to power, via this Chosun Ilbo rundown:

19. The core outline of what the US wants – nuclear de-escalation before resumption of normal trade – is made clear in this extensive interview about North Korea with Kathleen Stephens, the excellent US Ambassador to South Korea:

20. KCNA has yet to jab at Seiler – surely they will start name-calling eventually – but the North Korean media put out again a  warning about the deployment of US unmanned drones in Asia-Pacific:   As I mentioned a few days ago, the use of unmanned aerial drones by the US in East Asia, if in fact this becomes policy, has already become, paradoxically, a major plus for the North Korean regime.  Can you imagine a more perfect method of pumping up a mobilization-weary populace to be vigilant of foreign threats than that?  It also has already brought the Sino-North Korean security and military apparatuses closer, closing ranks against the common threat.  Drones over Hyesan?  As much as Douglas MacArthur would love the idea, couldn’t we leave MacArthur in the grave and the North Korean textbooks and just stick with satellites?

General Sino-North Korea Relations

21. Returning to the endorsement of Kim Jong Il given in Pyongyang on May 19-20 by the Chinese official: it was Chen Zongxing, in Pyongyang along with Ma Zhongping (马中平), chair of political conference in Shaanxi Province, there with a led a group of Chinese officials from May 16-20.

In a meeting with Kim Yong Nam, Chen uttered what is likely to be the most high-level characterization of the Sino-North Korean relationship that we get, absent a Wen Jiabao eruption on his junket in Seoul.  Via the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang, which, like me, translates very little of value into English,



22. After praising Chinese “multilateralism and supporting the unique development of China’s “green economy” in KCNA, it was time for the annual spring rice-planting by Chinese embassy in Pyongyang, for pictures, see also

23. In a May 4 speech celebrating “Youth Day,” PRC Ambassador in Pyongyang assures his North Korean colleagues of the ideological reliability of young Chinese people working for the Embassy.  Is this a response to North Korean nervousness about liberal Chinese youth?  Or is it just another statement of filler orthodoxy that kills another thirty seconds before the Ambassador can enjoy those blessed three seconds of solitude with the obligatory glass of alcohol that makes such events tolerable to officials who would rather be stationed in London?

If Chinese youth are becoming more liberal, they are going in a very different direction than the core North Korean leadership, or so it appears.  And the Global Times, by the way, seems to agree: Chinese under age 35 have little attachment to the type of “Red culture” so praised by the North Koreans.

24. For the May 1 holiday, Chinese embassy staff took a misty holiday to the DPRK mountains.  In a virtually abandoned park, they enjoy some beverages – both their water and their orange drink, unsurprisingly enough, are brought from China.

25. On April 28, the Chinese Ambassador met with the North Korean cultural official Park.  The main business at hand was to announce the North’s intention to organize the  “13th International Film Festival” in Pyongyang to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth.

Judging from the Embassy’s summary of this meeting, it seems that Park did most of the talking.  His remarks begin by stating how well North Korean revolutionary films have already succeeded in giving the North Korean people a positive picture of the Chinese people.  (A whole list of films is then reeled off, probably while Ambassador Liu nods with false curiosity and a student at UC Santa Barbara finds new fodder for summer research.)

Perhaps most interesting are this section of Park’s remarks:


“[I] hope that the Chinese government and the Chinese Embassy can continue to give great support [大力支持] to the Pyongyang International Film Festival, which will allow the North Korean people to encounter films which [give them] even more understanding of the revolutionary spirit [革命精神] of the Chinese people, traditional [Chinese] culture and the colorful realism of life in China.  At the same time, we hope that both sides can quickly [尽快/jinkuai] move forward with friendly cooperation in the area of film-making, so that our two countries’ film industries can reach a new and higher level of exchange.”

And, as a coda, a few more links and fragmentary notes from the Chinese-North Korean border…

Borderland News

26. Contrary to the Chosun Ilbo report, the Chinese Ambassador to US was NOT at the launch of recent abductions report; China is not sending any signals of anger at the DPRK for snatching people over the Tumen river:

However, more news has emerged about a 1999 Tumen river body snatching of a South Korean agent by North Koreans:

27. In a story that, for me, does not pass the sight test –since I’ve met several dozen of these young ladies – the Daily NK asserts that North Korean waitresses in China supposedly need surgery on their eyelids before they go abroad:

But fashion matters: After noting a struggle between young women and state minders over extravagant earrings (just check my Twitter feed for that), Daily NK reports on a recent public trial in Sinuiju for those caught watching South Korean movies:

28. Finally, there are parallels between tracking a wild predator and the type of journalism and analysis that we need to do to understand the Kim trip.  This one is propitious: A trail of torn throats and paw prints in the mud: photo evidence of the rare Northeastern tiger roaming the Sino-North Korean frontier.  Photos: