Stephan Haggard’s Comment on Sinuiju SEZs

Hwanggumpyeong Island in 2011; image courtesy Al Jazeera news

Banners in lieu of factories on Hwanggumpyeong Island in 2011; image courtesy Al Jazeera news

Stephan Haggard is frequently described as one of the top North Korea analysts in the United States; his breadth of interest, range of expertise, and command of massive amounts of data, along with his keen analytical eye all serve to confirm his standing in the research community.  I was therefore glad to see that he took interest in one of my recent papers on the subject of North Korean Special Economic Zones in and near Sinuiju, the city that serves as a major conduit for North Korean trade with the People’s Republic of China:

Adam Cathcart’s SinoNK is one of our go-to sources, in part because Cathcart and the writers for the blog visit the border zone frequently, and in part because they draw heavily on Chinese sources others don’t pick up. Cathcart was recently in Washington where he presented a new paper at the Korea Economic Institute on the Hwanggumpyeong and Wihwa SEZ’s. (A direct link to the full text is here; for further background, see our own posts on the two zones and investment more generally.)

A new look at the zones is warranted by the fact that they appeared to fall under the management of Jang Song-thaek; as we noted at the time, Jang’s fall raised the question of whether North Korea’s commitment to the zones would continue. Cathcart provides an excellent overview of the troubled history of the two islands. He details early Chinese critiques, including that North Korea was not investing in basics such as flood control, as well as ongoing institutional and legal squabbles. Outside of investment in a costly bridge—Cathcart estimates as much as $350 million—the lack of Chinese investment in the zones reflected ongoing problems even prior to Jang’s demise. Cathcart details negative reactions to Jang’s purge in China, but he also makes an interesting and obvious link we had missed: that North Korea’s push to set up SEZ’s occurred at the same time as the Jang purge and effectively sidelined all of the effort that the Chinese had invested in the two islands; as Cathcart points out, one of the proposed SEZ’s in Sinuiju would be directly competitive.

Cathcart concludes that there are still political forces in China that are seeking continuity with the zone projects, in effect trying to calm the waters. But the larger arc of Cathcart’s narrative is that the North Koreans seem unable to commit to such projects in a sustained and credible way. The open questions are “why.” Possible answers include fear of Chinese dominance, ongoing struggles over rents, and interference from conservative forces opposed to the effort. Our favored explanation, however, is simple failure to understand the institutional and physical infrastructure required to make such projects work. A must-read piece for anyone interested in the prospects for reform.

Tremors on the Periphery: Sinuiju Unrest

Yesterday I got a message from one of my favorite North Korea specialists, Owen Miller at the School of Oriental and African Sciences in London, concening a recent disturbance in Sinuiju, the northwesternmost city in the DPRK and a bellwether when it comes to regime intentions and popular resistance. More information about the protests is available via Chosun Ilbo (Korean version here), as well as on an Asia Catholic website. Indeed, Daily NK now reports that the Workers’ Party has now ordered the assembling of “riot squads” in big cities.

O(As for Owen’s own formidable writing about North Korea’s early tumult, and the Sinuiju Incident of 1945, I will recommend this remarkable essay of his in the journal International Socialism.)

The Chinese media has had little direct to say about the events in Sinuiju, and likely won’t comment, given the CCP’s aversion to discussing the manufacture of a “Jasmine Revolution” in China.

However, after a couple of hours of reviewing the national press in China and working my way through the Public Security Bureau website in Dandong, it seems that Chinese cops generally are ready to handle any revolutionary spillover with some rather fearsome firepower.  I was in Dandong the last time the city had an emergency (that is to say, during the August 20 floods; my surreal reportage is available here), but this kind of firepower for local cops — as opposed to the PLA — is completely new.   Back in October it was reported on a national website that Dandong frontier cops were now touting high-powered rifles, and engaging in “anti-terrorism drills.” Contrary to my comment which may or may not be posted at One Free Korea today, the photos are from the neighboring maritime province of Shandong, but I’m assuming that local forces will probably have something that looks like this in their arsenal fairly soon.

This is what it takes to keep Northeast Asian frontiers harmonious, people!  That, and German shepherds.

Toys for the boys on the North Korean border -- image courtesy Dandong Public Security Bureau -- click image for link to an impressive short gallery

Police Payoffs in Chongjin and Upset Students in Sinuiju

The latest Good Friends report for January 2010 has been released, and includes these dispatches:

Police Returned Stolen Objects to Owners after Receiving Payment
At the Chungjin Preservation Center of Northern Hamgyong Province, possessions stolen during the 100-Day Battle were being returned as of December 8th. Officers have found 20 bicycles, 8 TV’s, 2 motorcycles, and 5 sacks of clothes upon capturing four thieves. Village residents had to pay in order to receive their own things back. These payments supposedly paid for the officers’ gas and other traveling costs while they were searching for the thieves. 500 won in new currency was paid for a bicycle, 400 won for a TV, and 20 won per article of clothing. The villagers claimed that travelling costs could not have exceeded 100 won to find one bicycle meaning that the officers were still making a profit of 400 won. They criticized the officers for taking advantage of citizens for their business-centered interests.

China is engaged in a struggle with official corruption, but in comparison to Chongjin, it ought to be easy.

This story is followed by a detailed description of a 75-year old filling in on her absent son’s labor detail outside of Hoeryong.  When people call the DPRK a Confucian throwback (which in many ways it is), they might also call our attention to the dangers the regime exposes itself to by allowing old folks to work this hard.

Finally, a tidbit from Sinuiju, and one that gives us a sense of generational splits in the DPRK:

Students Born in 1993 Face Biggest Obstacles
On January 5th, the college preparation test was held in Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province. Most of the students born in 1993 have not gone to serve military service after graduation and enrolled in colleges. However, the parents of such students and the student describe themselves as the most unlucky class, since medical and educational areas have no room for new students. After visiting her daughter’s school a few days before the test, Mirye Kim (alias) sighed and worried about her daughter. “The principal said that colleges do not accept applications for the new students. I pity my daughter, who desperately wanted to get into medical school.” Even though Province People’s Hospital in North Pyongan Province only has a need for 600 doctors and nurses, there are more than 650 who work at the institution. Similarly, about 15 of the 40 faculty members of a middle school in the city are not receiving wages and so work for nothing.

Sinuiju Updates / North Korean News from China

Good Friends reports that swine flu has broken out in the northwestern border city of Sinuiju.  In addition to testimony from a mother, including rumors of a quarantine of Kaesong, the report describes that medicine sales have been halted on account of the recent currency revaluation.

This report from Daily NK describes how piles of the old currency were being used by arsonists to light up old buildings in an unspecified North Korean city.

The same report describes the anxiety of woman traders in Sinuiju distraught by the currency revaluation:

According to another source in North Pyongan Province, one Ms. Jang, a woman in her 40s living in Yeokjeon-dong, Shinuiju who lives by trading cosmetic products, got such a shock from the news of the redenomination that she became delirious and started yelling criticisms of the authorities, so officials from the National Security Agency had to arrest [her].

The major Chinese news outlets have been quieter today on the currency front, having expressed some disapproval already.  However, there has been some interest by Chinese press and readers in a South Korean television series that depicts North Korean spies.

via Huanqiu Shibao -- anti-North aspects of the "Korean Wave"

The series has come in for incredible mockery in China because the attire of the agents resembles that precisely of Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix” (talk about dilemmas of globalization!) and, more to the point, because the height of the actors portraying the agents. Quoting the unnamed masses in South Korea, the Huanqiu Shibao states that “Everyone knows that North Korean men are 10cm shorter than South Koreans.”   It’s bad enough to be North Korean in China, but this kind of thing adds insult to injury, which I’m quite certain continues on this comments board.

Of course, Chinese opinion on North Korea is anything but monolithic, and the CCP’s lightening of restrictions on Chinese scholars does not axiomatically mean that Chinese scholars will now stand up and condemn North Korean dictatorship.  And Chinese scholars can always publish outside of China.  Thus we have Qiao Yuchi [乔禹智], director of Korean economic research at Peking University, writing in the Chinese version of Chosun Ilbo of his optimism for North Korean economic reform.

Qiao Yuchi -- 北京大学朝鲜经济研究室主任 乔禹智

Qiao scrolls through a number of ideas, including the notion that North Korea “possesses the advantage of the late comer” to socialist economic reform and can benefit from the wisdom of Eastern Europe, Mongolia, Vietnam, and China in this regard.

Some new information is also included:


When Wen Jiabao visited Pyongyang, he was accompanied by the North China Development and Reform Commission and the Secretary of Commerce, people who had the ability to  decide to complete the investments worth several billion American dollars, but in fact, they did not sign any investment agreements with the North. The two sides announced just something that doesn’t make much sense: agreements on tourism and IT. In this writer’s opinion, it is very likely that North Korea had no person who could properly engage with negotiations along with China, so the two sides did not engage in dialogue.

That’s awfully interesting, isn’t it?

In conclusion, Qiao presents a new metaphor:


It can be said that North Korea is like an iceberg above water; if the initial economic change is too fast (reform and opening up), it becomes very difficult for the iceberg to maintain its shape (political system); if the initial changes melt too slowly (economic sanctions on North Korea), the next time the economic reforms will need even greater efforts, and moreover the submerged part of the iceberg (the lives of the local residents) will also remain frozen.  Presently what is needed is what the Daoists call “Tai chi.”

Perhaps Tai chi is needed, but the people on the bottom of that iceberg would probably settle for more protein and a stable currency.

Finally, the Dandong newsline on China’s northeastern border doesn’t appear to have any comment yet on the swine flu in neighboring Sinuiju, but there is this summary from the city’s United Front work bureau on the struggle against counterfeit currency.  This kind of thing is only going to get worse, it seems, on account of the North Korean revaluation.  As always, the winds from North Korea remain cold, but this time, they bring waves of fluttering and useless blue bills.

Students in Sinuiju, DPRK

The Daily NK reports that sightings of a few large boatloads of students in the large North Korean border city of Sinuiju are indications that the DPRK’s fuel shortages have abated, and that ferry service in Sinuiju (most likely to Uiju, upriver) is back in operation.  These are quite some photographs for anyone who has spent time in Dandong.  Normally it is the Chinese who pack the boats and stare joyously across the space:

Courtesy Daily NK, taken Sept. 18

Courtesy Daily NK, taken Sept. 18

Courtesy Daily NK

Courtesy Daily NK

This information, is, of course, open to anyone who reads the Daily NK, so nothing in particular about this post is special — yet!

This morning in a session at University of Washington-Tacoma’s library, which I have praised in the past, I dug up a new and recommendation-worthy text on North Korea.  It is:

Jae-cheon Lim, Kim Jong-Il’s Leadership of North Korea (Routledge, 2009); call # DS 935.5 L55 2009.

This thing is hot off the press, and it is well written, and based on a gang-load of Korean sources.  But don’t stop there, that’s not the most important thing!

Lim quotes a speech that Kim Jong-Il gave at Kim Il Song University for that institution’s 50th anniversary.  And since we love anniversaries, and we love long speeches by communist officials, and we enjoy reading new books, we pressed forward!  Finding, yes! on page 200 of Lim’s book, that Kim Il Song in Pyongyang made the following statement in decrying the decentralization and fragmentation of what he called “cadres of the provinces and the cities and the counties”:

If party members continue to work like this, we cannot guarantee there will not be an incident like the Sinuiju Student Movement in the future…

And in this sentence the Dear Leader vindicated, at least in part, my research agenda.  Co-author Chuck Kraus and I have argued in the Journal of Korean Studies that the Sinuiju Incident of November 1945 is the premiere case study of a North Korean rebellion, and here the Dear Leader agrees.  If North Korea collapses, regionalism, students, religion, and communist security forces are likely to be involved (as in the Sinuiju Incident), as are cross-border influences and the politics of food.

For the record, Kim Jong Il made the statement in an article ferried down to Seoul by Hwang Jong-yop; here’s the cite:

Kim Jong Il, “Kim Il Song chonghap taehak ch’angnip 50-tol kinyomj yonsolmun [A speech of the 50th anniversary of Kim Il Song University],” Wolgon Chosun, April 1997, pp. 308-312.  Note my King-James style bold-facing of his words above.

Mobile Phones in Sinuiju / 新义州手机管理

Good Friends (好朋友) organization reports the following news from Sinuiju:

Illegal Chinese Mobile Phones Will be Monitored in Sinuiju Throughout the Year
As of July 1st, officials in Sinuiju North Pyongan Province have been enforcing laws on users of illegal Chinese mobile phones and will continue to do so at least until the end of the year. New technology has been purchased in order to conduct the investigation. The wire tapping equipment is capable of intercepting both conversations and text messages. In addition to monitoring Chinese mobile phones, North Korean authorities have decided to supplant them by permitting the use of North Korean mobile phones, beginning October 10th.

For once, this story should be fairly easy to verify via cross-checking with Daily NK reports, since so much of Daily NK’s work is dependent on such cross-border conversations.  (I wonder if the North Koreans have asked the Chinese government to shut down the Daily NK Chinese website in China?  Because it would be very easy for the PRC to do, particularly given the loss of face that the North receives every day on the site.  You can be darned sure that the embassy in Beijing is reading the site.)

It is also true that North Korea has been moving fast to set up its own cellular networks.  However, it’s interesting that the dispatch does not assert that NK is trying to block cell phone signals coming out of their northern provinces, which would incur the serious wrath of various Chinese businessmen who are still operating with relative freedom (including, at least until recently, vists to North Korean brothels probably accompanied by North Korean cadre) on the DPRK side of the border.

New Allegations of a Chinese Link to the Jang Song-taek Purge & Execution

Jang Song-taek

Jang Song-taek in China, 2012 | Image via China Daily / Reuters

According to what would appear to have to be a very high source cultivated by New Focus International, sometime in early 2013 (i.e., in the aftermath of the satellite launch, or maybe the 3rd nuclear test) Jang Song-taek wrote “the Chinese leadership” a letter explaining he wanted to reform North Korea’s economy and rebalance the DPRK’s locus of power away from the Party and into the Cabinet.

The text of the letter (presumably read over the phone by New Focus’ source, or written down by someone extremely reckless and brought out by hand) described Jang’s view that North Korea had moved away from its administrative fundamentals established by Kim Il-sung.

Jang Song-taek’s alleged letter, coincidentally, works perfectly in keeping with New Focus International‘s historical interpretation of the 1980s (as described in the book Dear Leader), complaining that “following Kim Jong-il’s rise to power through the Party since the 80s, the country has functioned as a KWP-pivoted system.”

Is this enough to get a top official executed in North Korea? Perhaps. We aren’t supposed to ask questions about the way the system works, particularly when the questions or dirty laundry are being shared directly with unnamed Chinese counterparts.

According to New Focus, the main problem was that Kim Jong-un had given his uncle some leeway to approach Chinese leaders with this indecent proposal, suggesting again that the new leader’s diplomatic acumen and understanding of the system over which he presides was not very high.

During the “four day investigation” of Jang’s wrongdoing by the Ministry of State Security, Jang was said to repeatedly state that “the contents of the letter had not only had the approval of Kim Jong-un himself but his active support.” Thus the need for summary execution — leaving reformist impulses in the grave with Jang, and not implicating the new Supreme Leader.

While a few other details exist that bear discussion (the role of the Sinuiju SEZ, impact of the rumours domestically, ongoing crackdowns, partial confirmation of the story via the 13 December execution document, to name four), it seems that this story adds rather more weight than New Focus has done previously on the scenario of a powerless or at the very least, conflicted and ineffective, Kim Jong-un.

Is China losing faith in North Korea? A Contribution to The Guardian

Having been asked to put something together for the Guardian‘s new North Korea network, I did, and had the following short essay included as part of a very fine panel:

One of the things you quickly realise from travelling along the full length of the Chinese border with North Korea is just how much of North Korea there is. China’s boundary stretches along four northern frontier provinces of the DPRK, stretching for hundreds of kilometres along the Yalu and Tumen rivers. Along those tributaries, there are at least five good-sized North Korean cities (Sinuiju, Manpo, Hyesan, Musan, and Hoeryong) which could easily absorb China’s attention during a crisis.

Whilst we tend to imagine a wholesale collapse scenario where chaos radiates outward from Pyongyang, we might better examine the possibility of chaos farther from the bright and labyrinthine capital city – and far closer to China. For instance, we might see a chemical accident in Sinuiju“terrorism” directed at Kimist monuments in Hyesan, theforcible expropriation of Chinese mining concerns within the DPRK, anuclear accident or even a volcanic eruption.

China is of course planning to handle such problems, but not for the first time. Documents in the Chinese Foreign Ministry Archive describe China’s intensive interactions with the DPRK during the last full-scale collapse scenario in 1950. China was able to absorb about 10,000 North Korean refugees on either end of the border, and the DPRK waspressing to set up consulates up and down the frontier so that they could themselves keep track of the outflow. At that time, North Korean military units moved into Chinese territory to escape bombing by US planes – such as happened in Hyesan.

The North Koreans have hardly forgotten the war or China’s massive aid and stationing of troops until 1958, but the recent warming between Seoul and Beijing is clearly troubling; Kim Jong-un’s level of trust in Chinese comrades is as limited as his contact with them. The international community needs to understand that North Korea doesn’t simply fear American nuclear missiles, nuclear submarines, and nuclear-capable bombers; the country’s leadership also is concerned about falling unwillingly into the embrace of its huge northern neighbour.

Travels to the frontier region, and conversations with China’s own North Korea experts, help to contextualise that the real struggle along that frontier is likely to be above all economic and cultural. But China does need to be ready for a catastrophe; appearing helpless before its own population in the face of the North Korean equivalent of Fukushima is not a scenario the Chinese Communist Party wants to face.

Citation: Adam Cathcart, et. al., “Is China Losing Faith in North Korea?,” The Guardian, 9 May 2014.

Enemies and Allies in North Korean Art and Archives, 1948-1952

This is the introduction to a paper which I prepared for an Association of Asian Studies panel on captured wartime documents in Korea, Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, 29 March 2014.  The panel was organized by Chuck Kraus and the discussant was Bruce Cumings. The images that accompany the presentation can be accessed via clicking on this link for PowerPoint slides. – Adam Cathcart

Usually in modern times when States have been defeated in war they have preserved their structure, their identity, and the secrecy of their archives. – Winston Churchill, The Second World War, Vol. 1: The Gathering Storm (London: Cassell & Co., 1948), p. 232.

Embarking on an analysis of North Korean political cartoons retrieved out of the dark and then gleaming fluorescent vaults of the US National Archives ought to stir a bit of reflection. These are not simply cartoons, they are captured cartoons, and their transmission into the present has come down a long and peculiar line. Such documents have been stripped from their original possessors; they are the residual booty of a momentary victory in the autumn of 1950.[1]  They may not, as Cumings wrote of photographs, “objectively hold history still,” nor prove anything at all about who started the Korean War,[2] but very presence of the captured documents in one’s hand or their impression upon the eye itself forces the historian firmly into the ranks of the wielders of power, even as the scholar endeavours to use the image as a portal into the semi-sovereign optimism of the “North Korean Zeitgeist” during the era of liberation.[3]

To illustrate the point regarding preponderance of force, and its connection to how we come to know anything at all about North Korea during, before, or after the war, we might also look to the New York Public Library, which holds two boxes of Korean War propaganda. Much of this material consists of anti-communist United Nations leaflets, but it also includes a few folders of graphic documents wrested from Prisoners in Koje Island during the Korean War. Communist prisoners were not allowed to have writing utensils in the camps, but somehow ball-point pens were smuggled in and paper acquired, cartoons sketched of massive North Korean T-34 tanks smashing South, world maps generated and labeled with letters for educational quiz purposes, and portraits drawn of Kim Il-song on white T-shirts. When holding the documents, the historian is made aware of his or her silent collusion with, and dependence upon, the prison guards, truncheons, and tear gas, the “stock of intrinsic atrocities” that allowed the camps to function.[4]


Korean War Crime 95 — An unidentified male bludgeoned to death and left atop the library at the Bowibo (Public Security HQ) in Chinnampo, North Korea, October 1950 . The magazines and publications ended up in Record Group 242.–  Image from U.S. National Archives Record Group 153, Korean War Crimes


If plunder, in this case, rests at the core of the scholarly enterprise, it is congruent with North Korea’s own perception of a continual push from without for a kind of “cultural rollback” of the gains of the revolution, however Kim-centered and atrophied those gains might be. The momentary revolt against communist power initiated by students in the northwestern city of Sinuiju in November 1945 was crushed with arms before a quarter of the city was taken over (this was no Kwangju 1980, nor Beijing 1989), so anxieties over destruction of monuments and North Korean culture become displaced fully into the war itself, and justifiably so. But even after the war, threats remained: Like the horrified Mao Zedong, North Korean leaders and diplomats surely took careful stock of the actions in East Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956. Destruction of communist icons was de rigeur in these uprisings, but so too was the burning of communist publications; this was an incendiary cultural rollback.[5] “To destroy or to loot?” becomes the question of the rebel as well as the imperialist.

The North Korean response to such pressures today is ubiquitous, and it is twofold: 1) Rebuild the archives and, in more familiar fashion, 2) Use art to attack the state’s enemies.


[1] Dae-Sook Suh, “Records Seized by U.S. Military Forces in Korea, 1921-1952,” Korean Studies 2.1 (1978): 177-182. See also Ra Jong-yil, “Governing North Korea: Some Afterthoughts on the Autumn of 1950,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Jul., 2005), pp. 521-546; Charles Armstrong, “The Destruction and Reconstruction of North Korea, 1950 – 1960,” The Asia-Pacific Journal Vol 8, Issue 51 No 2, December 20, 2010.

[2] Bruce Cumings, War and Television (Verso, 1992), 54-57.

[3] Charles Armstrong, The North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950 (Cornell, 2003); Suzy Kim, Everyday Life in North Korea, 1945-1950 (Cornell, 2013).

[4] Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974-1975, Valerio Marchetti and Antonella Salomoni, eds., Graham Burchell, translator (New York: Picador, 1999), p. 84; see also Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir (Paris: Gallimard en février 1975) ; Ha Jin, War Trash (Pantheon, 2004).

[5] Dandan Zhu, “The Hungarian revolution and the origins of China’s Great Leap policies, 1956–57,” Cold War History, (2011) Volume 12, Issue 3.