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.

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 SinoNK.com, 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 SinoNK.com.

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.

 

Yanbian News

I’ve just shot off a voluminous bolt of Tweets on the subject, but thought I might wax on the plus-140-characters side of things here on S.V. regards recent activity in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in northeast China, snug up against the North Korean border.

Do you suppose we will learn anything new with the publication — tomorrow! — of the Ling sister memoir of Laura Ling’s captivity in the DPRK, her sadly monolingual cloak-and-dagger activities seeking out prostitutes and sold brides in Manchuria?  I should certainly hope so.  As a down payment on that new knowledge, here is a bit of context which may not be included by the Lings in their Oprah-endorsed exposé.

Coursing through the various online channels into Yanbian, one finds themes of construction/destruction, law and order, and, of course, a drive toward more foreign investment.

A new (temporary) footbridge is going in at the same spot where people used to shoot across tied to a wire, into a shoreside theme park/outdoor bierstube:

And new roads are being blasted.  To me, this photo represents much of what China is about today — it might even make Stalin, were he alive, choke with envy:

News has now hit Yanbian as regards to South Korean assignation of guilt to the DPRK for the Cheonan sinking.  No comment yet from northeastern netizens, and perhaps none to be found on the regional websites.

Somehow I missed the news, but back in December (not long before yet another American  walked across the Tumen demanding Christian salvation via Kim Jong Il) Yanbian officials had a big conference on environmental protection:

Normally the above kind of photos (via Yanbian’s government site) induce sleep or sarcasm, but I’ll tell you, standing on the Chinese side of the border and staring at clear-cut (and often smoggy) North Korea makes one really grateful that the PRC is making big strides in terms of environmental consciousness.  I can say that without being accused of self-censorship by the New York Times, can’t I?

Law and order is similarly prevalent in Yanbian these days.  A trio of “April 16″ murderers were recently tried in court, and, I believe, themselves received death sentences.  True to its Legalist tradition, the PRC publishes photos of the parents of the convicted killers, upping the shame factor exponentially.  I thought this photograph, set in front of some huge slogans promoting military readiness, was most powerful from a series:

Student activities are also included here.  The Public Security Bureau in January kicked off a serious drive to “purify the cultural environment” around Yanbian University and high school campuses, cracking down on “black” (e.g., illegal/unregistered) internet cafes.

But probably the most important law-and-order story concerns the promulgation, on March 15, of a new law aiming to reduce the trafficking of women and children nationally [ 《关于依法惩治拐卖妇女儿童犯罪的意见》的通知 ].  The press release was put out on April 7, so we aren’t running too far behind on this one.  At some point I might aim to get a more full translation out, particularly given the public attention that is going to be paid to the women-trafficking issue thanks to the Ling sisters (Laura and CurrentTV were working on a documentary on this issue when she foolishly crossed into the DPRK and was arrested).  The press release also carries some precious statistics, while never explicitly mentioning that the problem, at least in the autonomous prefecture, primarily concerns foreign nationals (e.g., North Korean women).

Related Post: Crimes and Misdemeanors in Yanji,” February 8, 2010.

Rustlings Near Ritan Park, Dragging Home Generators from Dandong, and Manhunts in Yanbian: Sino-North Korean Stories

The North Korean ambassador emerged in Beijing today to give a press conference at the DPRK Embassy, reprising themes from yesterday’s DPRK Foreign Ministry announcement of a desired peace treaty with the United States (an announcement reported here from one Xinhua’s stalwart guys in Pyongyang, Gao Haorong).  The ambassador noted that North Korea’s “goal has always been to achieve denuclearization,” or, stated in Xinhua-ese and mixed in with some chengyu-style idiom, “无核化是朝鲜政府始终不渝、一贯坚持的目标.”

I make an effort to spend at least three weeks a year floating around in the general vicinity of the Ambassador’s office near Ritan Park, and it’s fair in my mind to say that press conferences held in the North Korean embassy in Beijing are a rarity.

Perhaps the idea is not so much to pressure the Americans, but to get the word out in China that the North Koreans are reasonable people who just want to be secure from the possibility of American attack.  And I think there’s some traction for this point of view within China, regardless of whether the request for a peace treaty is genuine or just a feint for propaganda purposes.   The Dandong news service across the border from Sinuiju indicates as much, reporting on White House spokesman Robert Gibbs’ rejection of the North Korean proposal.

And speaking of Dandong,the  city which handles some 70-80% of all cross-border trade, Chinese merchants in the North Korean-China Friendship Markets report that  the most popular items bought by North Koreans in China include generators, with South Korean rice-cookers coming in a close second.  Of course the Huanqiu reader board uses this as an opportunity to disparage South Korea for pretending to be obsequious to China when in fact the South Koreans consider themselves to be at least a decade ahead of the PRC in terms of development.

Meanwhile a perusal of Yanbian’s main news portal yields a mysterious manhunt for a 47 year old male “Korean fluent in Chinese.” As the Gong’anju (Public Security Bureau) have the tendency to do in China, there is no information available about this fellow’s crimes, so it could be something simple, or he could be a South Korean missionary running around trying to contain damage done by Californian missionary Robert Park, who walked into North Korea via the Tumen River on Christmas Day.  But he’s worth 10,000 yuan, and thanks to a taxi cab camera in Yanbian, here he is:

The 10,000 Yuan Man, a la gauche, via Yanbian News

Another South Korean walked into North Hamgyong province on January 9 from somewhere near Tumen, reports Yonhap, an action which, I imagine, will keep things tighter than usual for jaunts to the border.

Finally, Yanbian is so full of interesting characters it’s hard to resist including this photo as well, as part of a story about parents trying to get compensation for an eight-year old kid who suffered a dog bite:

"出事的院子" , via Yanbian News

Return from Yanbian

My apologies for the paucity of recent posts, friends.  The author of this blog has been smashing through the Chinese borderlands with North Korea, pen in hand, laden with a camera, now borne aloft on new experiences.

In the aftermath of this journey, there are scores of things I would like to say about North Korea and Chinese views of that state.  Along with a few of my extra photos, I will be offloading said views and first-hand accounts onto this blog in the coming weeks.   Fortunately, none of it involves 1. my being kidnapped or 2. walking across the border into North Korea.  (As for 1., I was momentarily trapped in a cab by some miscreants who claimed to be Uighur terrorists at about midnight one evening on the outskirts of Yanji; fortunately I muscled and talked my way out of this situation without relinquishing funds or dignity and was fine.  And they were Han, not Uighurs.  And, as for the second point, although I was very close most of the time to North Korea, for anyone who is not a returning refugee bringing food or cash back home, crossing into that country without permission is both irrational and pointlessly dangerous.)

In all, it was a lovely journey and I am looking forward with great anticipation to describing it further, along with further analysis of related geo-political issues, most of all that badly misunderstood and changing rubric of Sino- North Korean relations.

And some local descriptions of areas such as Ji’an, Linjiang, Changbai Automous Korean County, Yanji, and that Russianized outpost of Hunchun.

Today, following a 36-hour stint back in Beijing to clamber my way through a gang of Huadong Shifan University scholars and collect an armful of documents from the Foreign Ministry Archive, I am now tasting the fruits of internet liberty and the abundance of newspapers which are the domain of the Bundesrepublik, e.g., Deutschland, e.g., Germany.  Yesterday Frankfurt, today Hamburg, tomorrow Berlin.

Finally, a bit of inspiration from Eliezer Gurarie, our favorite scientist in Helsinki/Seattle, whose offering prompted me to return to the blogging method, and to do so forthwith:

the trickle of data oozing through the cracks in the great firewall has gone calando, calando, calando to an deafening fermata, not unlike sightings of the baiji in the long water of the golden sands.

is it the perturbations among the arid sands of the sinic occident?  or in the febrile jungle of the cathcartian heart?  these are the questions that haunt us here, perched in the glass aeries of academe in helsingfors, looking eastward through warm winds, fanciful thunderrolls and heavy baltic mists.

in any case, the silence, we hope, will be broken.

And it has now been broken indeed, not with a Mahlerian thunderclap, but with a modest post, of modest means, tapped out in the modest corner of a Hamburg train station…

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.

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.”

 

Ears Plugged, Fuses Lit

Just prior to the tolling of the bells that marked the turning of the year, I was fortunate to have an essay published in South China Morning Post on the subject of China’s leadership and the evolution of their attitudes toward North Korea. Written with two excellent co-authors (Roger Cavazos of Nautilus Insitute and Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga of London School of Economics), the full version of the essay can be accessed here with no paywall.

As with so many things (yet hardly all things) Sino-North Korean, once you dig deep enough, there is a Yanbian connection at work.

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 SinoNK.com.  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.