Crystalized Data: Additional Notes on the Meth Trade in Yanji

The story of illegal drug distribution across the North Korean border and into China is now being told with a bit of flair in the pages of Newsweek.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I find fieldwork in the Chinese borderlands with North Korea always to be an exciting process.  Exciting though it may be, it is a process that — speaking for myself — has not been made more exciting by exposure to crystal meth.  In fact I don’t think I would recognize crystal meth if it was put on my breakfast cereal.  Moreover, it was only yesterday that I finally learned how to say “crystal meth” in Chinese — 甲基安非他命.

(To my former students who may be reading — why did you never ask me how to say “crystal meth” in Chinese?  Do you not read the daily complilation of North Hamgyong and Ryanggang cell phone informant conversation write ups which constitute the bulk of Daily NK sources about the meth trade?  Did you think that such a linguistically and culturally fraught question would instead represent merely a bit of trivia, a cerebral divet, a trivet of myopia of no consequence to our respective intellectual lives? You never asked me.  Damn you all!)

The foregone and falsely cynical de rigeur professorial abdication of intellectual responsibility notwithstanding, I did manage to track down some data which has not been pulled into the Anglophone public eye as regards the meth problem along the Sino-North Korean border.     And thus:

1. This 2009 piece from no less than Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily) about the sentencing of 9 drug dealers in Jilin province to death, one of whom is a North Korean surnamed Kim who was planning to bring meth into South Korea via China;

2. This interesting bit of comparison to much more heavily-populated Zhejiang province, which as of 2010 statistics had more than 103,000 registered drug addicts (“drug smokers”).

3. The Yanbian Public Security Bureau’s work priorities for 2011, in particular point 5:


Not incidentally, the Bureau leaves its press liasion number at the end of the release; they also have a nice Weibo feed, which is akin to Twitter but without all the dissident celebrity Chinese bloggers and Tibetan and Uighur activists.

The slogan 打击“黄赌毒” also seems to be a signpost for some of the anti-drug efforts.

4. Much discussion of all of this on Tianya, a Chinese BBS, including debate over the less-than-constructive role that North Korea is playing.

Finally, because I became more aware of things by spending several key years of my life on the east side of Cleveland Ohio, and because crackheads in Seattle’s Chinatown have since reminded me of the importance of asking for a very specific amount of money for anything,  dear readers, for the four rocks of crystalized information which I have cooked up for you, I should like a sum of seven U.S. dollars.  This money, just as it would if I were bartering a broken electronic razor to a perfect stranger through the scratched plexiglass window of a barricaded gas station in the middle of the night under flourescent light in North America, will allow me to get through the next several hours before my next exhalation in the form of a post.

(Now, on to some Heinrich von Kleist, thank you very much.)

Dandong, PRC customs house, photo by Adam Cathcart this past Sunday

Crimes and Misdemeanors in Yanji

In the endeavor to put some meat on the bones of the Chinese side of the Robert Park story (e.g., What was Park doing in Yanbian and what was the Chinese police response?), a recent commenter on this site pointed my attention to the website of the Yanbian Public Security Bureau.  Sure, its posts about cops sharing some grains with local households are just standard P.R., but in fact there are some wickedly interesting police reports there digested for public consumption.

延边州公安局 Yanbian Autonomous Region Public Security Bureau, Yanji City west side, near the airport, not far, in fact, from where I was almost abducted this summer by some guys claiming to be "xinjiang terrorists"

On this website, I asserted here that I had found information pertaining to a manhunt for someone who was likely to be the North Korean defector-turned South Korean citizen who was Robert Park’s contact in Yanji city.  In the comments section of this post on Robert Park’s portrayal in the Chinese press, one suggested that this December police report from Yanji might provide a few clues about manhunts in Yanbian after the Robert Park walk across the Tumen River.

Well, I translate it below, and, while it certainly doesn’t refute my earlier assertion, it does tell you why a bunch of cops were up all night on Christmas Eve in Yanji and why Public Security was a bit on edge when he went over the border.

It also gives a nice sense of the sometimes-tenuous status of the drive to establish a through-going “rule of law” on the Chinese frontier, particularly in an area probably awash in various currencies (particularly RMB and USD) counterfeited by the North Koreans across the border.

Or, if you prefer, the story functions as a powerful reminder that certain George Clooney movies about heists in Las Vegas can be used as inspiration in some very different cultural contexts indeed.  But that’s much ado about nothing: here, in short order, is the story on the “12.16 Incident”:

Yanbian Automomous Region Public Security Bureau, “Yanji Police Successfully Route Out the Case of the Great ‘December 16′ Theft [延吉警方成功侦破“12.16”特大抢夺案],” 28 December 2009, URL (full text in Chinese).

[Translation and headers by Adam Cathcart]

At 10:15 on December 16, 2009, Yanji City Public Security Bureau received a report. It stated that in an office (room 1206) at the “New Century Mansion,” in the process of exchanging American dollars for Chinese yuan, a man robbed three victims of 140,000 yuan and then escaped.

On December 25, the Yanji Public Security Bureau held a news conference, giving a report the previous seven days’ progress on the investigation. They stated that three suspects had been netted in Hegang city [鹤岗市] in Heilongjiang province, and that the three guilty suspects had been arrested and brought back to Yanji on the night of December 24.

After the outbreak of this incident, Yanji City Public Security Bureau attached great importance to quick movement, immediately establishing Kim Kyung-il [Jin Jingri / 金京日] as commander, Jin Huzhe [金虎哲] as vice-commander, and setting up a brigade of “12.16” investigative command.

Physical descriptions and drawings of the suspects were obtained through the testimony of the victim of the 12.16 crime, and spread through the media, including the notice of a reward. An expansive effort followed, including retrieval of surveillance videos [监控录像], and visits took place all over the city, thoroughly checking rental housing, hotels, and bath houses, and so on. On December 20, police had in their hands some very valuable clues.

According to the impressions of two hotel owners on Jinxue [“Improved Study” 进学街Street], suspects had stayed in their hotels, but had gone to other hotels to do their business. According to these clues, the investigative headquarters determined the three biggest suspects of the “12.16” case, surnamed Yang, Zou, and Zhu.

Through investigation, police made progress through gathering of further detailed information about suspect Yang, integrating analysis and information to find that Mr. Yang may have fled to Hegang City in Heilongjiang Province.

As a result, police officers rushed to the headquarters and immediately organized a team of cadre to go to Hegang in Heilongjiang. On December 23, with the vigorous assistance of Hegang City Public Security Bureau, the three big suspected thieves, Mr. Zou, Mr. Zhu, and Mr. Yang were captured at the “Oriental Hotel” [东方宾馆], where investigators confiscated 63,901 U.S. dollars, 30,400 Chinese yuan, and 360 Hong Kong yuan.

On the evening of December 24, the suspects were escorted back to Yanji.

The Perps: Hatching Plans in the Lhasa Lockup

After the return to Yanji, the local Public Security Bureau spent the night doing an in-depth and detailed review: criminal suspect Mr. Zou was found to be of Han nationality, born in 1962, with a residence [户口所 hukou suo] in Nanchong City [南充市], Sichuan Province. In July 2000, Mr. Zou had been in Tibet, and, due to fraudulent resale of American dollars, had been sentenced to imprisonment for 12 years. He was released in May 2007.

Criminal suspect Mr. Yang was found to be an ethnic Korean born in 1969 with a household registration in Hegang City, Heilongjiang Province. He was determined to be a temporary resident [暂住] of Yanji City.

Suspect Mr. Zhu was found to be of Han nationality, born in 1964, with a household registration Hegang City, Heilongjiang Province. In July 1999, due to theft, he had been sentenced to imprisonment 12 years. He was released from prison in March 2006.

Within this group, Mr. Yang and Mr. Zhu were from the same hometown [同乡], and had been in close contact since 2005. As for Mr. Zou and Mr. Zhu, they had been fellow inmates in the same prison in Lhasa, and, since the two of them had been released, often kept in touch.

Early in December 2009, the three men consulted in Yanji City, determining how they would rob U.S. dollars from a person engaged in foreign exchange, and got money used to carry out the crime from Mr. Yang.

After this premeditation [预谋后], Mr. Zou selected the targets. He thereafter did five separate exchanges of U.S. dollar transactions with the victims – the biggest amount being 50,000 U.S. dollars — to gain the trust of the victims and relax their vigilance [放松了警惕].

Then, based on the information provided by Mr. Yang, Mr. Zou went to “New Century Mansion” and rented room 1206 to use as an office. Together with Mr. Zhu, they renovated the room [装修], separating it out and adding security doors fitted to prepare for committing crimes.

The morning of December 16, Mr. Zou tasked Mr. Zhu with tracking the victims, surveilling the corridor outside room 1206, and telling Mr. Yang to get good vehicle from his previous employer to wait at the back door of the “New Century Mansion.” Then, the three victims arrived inside room 1206 for the exchange. They gave Mr. Zou 140,000 U.S. dollars. Mr. Zou then went into the previously prepared room, locked the doors, and escaped.

After perpetrating this act, the three suspects then took the three suspects got in the car and fled to Changchun, eventually going to Hegang City, Heilongjiang Province.

According to the understanding of the investigation, in Hegang city, Mr. Zou lay claim to about 60,000 U.S. dollars of the spoils, and then divided the remaining 80,000 U.S. dollars equally, giving each person a share of 26,700 U.S. dollars. Mr. Zou’s possession of 60,000 U.S. dollars are being traced, and the case is under further investigation.

The public security organs to remind the masses: unauthorized reselling of U.S. dollars and other valuable securities is against the law, exchange foreign currency to go through the normal channels of exchange of financial institutions; and, if there is a cash transaction, we must ensure safe and reliable behavior. To the greatest extent possible [尽量], use financial institutions to conduct banking transactions. As the year reaches a coda, the masses should strengthen their own precautions: Do not give criminals any opportunity to even sit down, and, if illegal violations occur, report them immediately to the police for assistance.

Perps in the "12-16" Incident in Yanji, PRC -- photo by Li Yun

A Few Closing Thoughts

Can you imagine, by the way, what similar police reports look like across the border in North Korea?  If Good Friends reports make for bracing reading, one can only imagine what the cops are saying and seeing.   You can bet that the reports near Hyeryong, where Park walked across the Tumen River, are probably digitized, but we’re maybe decades away from the notion of even the most limited public transparency for security organizations taking hold in the DPRK.  (中国的开放社会加油!) I’ve had the unsettling pleasure of reading North Korean police reports from the 1945-1950 period, thanks to the fact that U.S. Marines plundered the DPRK’s archives from that period and stuck them in the vault in Maryland, now site of scholarly sojurns until we normalize relations and hand the records back according to international law.  In the meantime, I’m for one glad that we can use Chinese websites to get a bit closer to what is happening on that vibrant side of the North Korean frontier.

Preferred Citation:  Adam Cathcart “Crimes and Misdemeanors in Yanji,” Sinologistical Violoncellist blog, 8 February 2010, URL.


Yanbian Automomous Region Public Security Bureau, “Yanji Police Successfully Route Out the Case of the Great ‘December 16′ Theft [延吉警方成功侦破“12.16”特大抢夺案],” 28 December 2009, URL (full text in Chinese), translated by Adam Cathcart in “Crimes and Misdemeanors in Yanji,” Sinologistical Violoncellist blog, 8 February 2010, URL.

News from Yanji

Well, North Korea may be on fire, but the wise Chinese Communist Party has apparently decided that releasing the news in the PRC would disturb social harmony.  Or otherwise interfere with its evolving master narrative on North Korea.  As Professor Jonathan Pollack reminds us, the PRC narrative now includes sticks as well as carrots, and features some unprecedented public criticism of North Korea.

So instead of a story in regional news outlets in Yanbian on the North Korean fires which might stir sympathy (or open up a can of “indeed, why is the air so bad anyway, comrade?” whoopass), we get a story derived from the Huanqiu Shibao which is actually quite sympathetic to South Korea and the U.S. about the dangers of an “elite-level North Korean hacking unit.”  Or this China Daily story from October 21, 2009, focusing on DPRK diplomat Ri Gun’s forthcoming trip to the U.S., focusing again on the Six-Party Talks revival.  Increasingly rare are items like this one, a simple transmittal of a Rodong Sinmun story in the mainland Chinese press.

Giving some indication that people along the Sino-North Korean border may in fact be talking about fires, the local television station in Yanbian obliges with a report on a small fire in a local hotel.

On the previous point, I can be accused of overreading, but then again I’ve spent enough hours reading CCP news  to know that one of the important functions that Xinhua serves is to confuse the confusable people by putting out stories that resemble the more important story in terms of keywords.

Example: Q. Did you hear about the fire?  A. Yes, you mean at the hotel?  Q. No, in North Korea.  A. Oh, there was a fire at the hotel; did you hear about that? This technique was used expertly, and effectively, by the CCP when the character-assassination, Mao-as-Hitler biography by Jung Chang came out in 2005: China responded by re-releasing a deeply edited version of Russ Terrill’s decade-old Mao biography with great fanfare and calling it “the latest Mao biography from the West.”  In other words, when you can’t change the subject, pretend you are the subject.

But then again, how can you argue with another story about fires? 

Yanbian Koreans in the ROK

Three Yanbian Koreans, including Zhao Yingzi, a 53-year old community leader, were recently killed in an arson in South Korea.  I think that incidents like this, and their subsequent reporting in Chinese media, help to underscore why South Korea is not necessarily viewed as a promised land — and the North therefore axiomatically rejected — by Yanbian Koreans.  They know that Yanbian Koreans are often treated as second-class Koreans in the ROK, misused and exploited.  Although the wages are high and more than 200,000 Yanbian Koreans are living in the ROK as laborers, it can be a very difficult life.  Thus Xinhua’s language can be interpreted here as a genuinely remorseful expression of a compatriot who has fallen in her pursuit of something elusive, never now to be found, outside the “motherland” of China.  As the story says, 今年4月份,赵英子办理了出国手续,踏上了异国他乡淘金的路途,可谁承想踏上的竟是一条不归路, or, something like “this past April, Zhao Yingzi prepared the formalities to leave the country, trodding the golden road to a strange country, but was instead invited to trod the road of no return.”

A note on word choice: I don’t know about you, but even though I know the writer is trying to manipulate me here, I can’t help but get a little tingle.  Perhaps I am too easy a target, thinking here of the character  异, strange, other, as Camus’ “The Stranger,” another story which involves death in an adopted land.  I recall a discussion I once read by a Chinese student in France who was “reading The Stranger in a strange land,” relishing it, but understanding the sorrow of it.   And as tomorrow I trod a new road — to San Francisco — I am susceptible to such writing.

By the way, Zhao Yingzi lived on Xinhua Road in Yanji — “New China” indeed.

Tumen Tourism Agreement with North Hamgyong

This post from May, 2009, is a rather fascinating discussion of the opening of the Tumen-Nanyang bridge to increased pedestrian traffic and tourism exchanges.

Tumen-Nanyang crossing point -- for some reason the original photo caption also includes the words Qin Terracotta Soldiers -- is that some veiled stab where Qin Shihuangdi loots Tanduns tomb and smashes the Korean ur-monarchs giant pubic bone?

Tumen-Nanyang crossing point -- for some reason the original photo caption also includes the words "Qin Terracotta Soldiers" --perhaps a veiled stab? Some historical threat whereby Qin Shihuangdi swoops down past the Han commanderies of his successors, loots Tandun's tomb, and smashes the Korean ur-monarch's giant pubic bone?

It seems the Tumen City government has been actively soliciting the North Hamgyong Province Tourism Board [ 朝鲜咸镜北道{함경북도}旅游局 ] for years, and finally broke through in setting up the agreement which resulted in trains of PRC passengers bound for short-term visits to Chongjin.

Two things on the Tumen agreement: 1.  Chinese city governments are encouraged to increase their revenue-generating (legal) practices, which creates a local impetus for cross-border (legal) exchanges on the Sino-Korean frontier, and 2. Damn — North Hamgyong has a Tourism Board!   Of course, given that Chinese are supposed to go gambling at Rajin, it’s a no-brainer.  But those must be some very interesting meetings.  And they result in strangely estatic newspaper articles in Yanbian; apparently cheap dried seafood in the smoky North Korean port of Chongjin is worth the trip.

But apparently North Hamgyong province has done more than its share of outreach with Chinese neighbors, spreading the love here to Mudanjiang, that eastern outpost of Heilongjiang province, PRC, once part of that august mental construction of Pukkando.

Traffic Tales – Justice in Yanbian

Finally, a story on lawlessness and short-term fugitives in Yanbian. regularly translates stories like this, which makes their site particularly valuable: what good is an understanding of China if it has no local flavor, if all that is discussed are missiles, GDP, and foreign policy?  Local news (like this jarring dispatch from the Sino-North Korean-Russian city of Hunchun about a mutton-kabobs roaster who was slashed fourteen times and survived]  is original stuff!

Anyhow, to the story:

A young woman drives at twilight on a Yanbian road.  She smashes into a slow-moving tractor and kills the driver.  She flees the scene.  Hours later, her boyfriend shows up at the police station to turn himself in, saying he was the driver.  But the police investigate further and uncover the ruse.  Now they both get jail time.  No escape from the web of justice in Yanji!

Her last name: Zhao.

If only Ms. Zhao had paid as much attention to this sign as Dr. Cathcart -- between Hunchun and Yanji, July 2009, photo by Adam Cathcart, Ph. D.

If only Ms. Zhao had paid as much attention to this sign -- between Hunchun and Yanji, July 2009, photo by Adam Cathcart.

Comment on Haggard: The North Korean Restaurant Franchise

Stephan Haggard is an endless source of extreme quantities of highly enriched North Korea information. His ‘blog’ posts (which are usually more like mini-journal articles, trenchantly done but lighter and more fluent in style)  at Witness to Transformation place him at the prow of a mighty and miraculously regular enterprise, so it’s only courteous to add data in the form of a comment if you’ve got something worthwhile to share.

On a recent post by Haggard on the question of foreign currency and North Korean restaurants, I shared the following comment:

…There is a lot of movement from place to place (North Korean businesses seem largely allergic to high rents); no sooner have you located a North Korean restaurant than it is demolished or is moved. In other words, one has to be careful in adding up businesses that in fact may be the same business in a new location. Is the “newest” North Korean restaurant/karaoke bar in Yanji a retooled version of the one that used to be in the Luojing Hotel? Beats me. I think they make a hell of a lot more money doing karaoke than serving food. Incidentally, a Budweiser (beer of champions, and imperialists) is about 8 times cheaper at these places than the North Korean beers which are presumably hand-imported, and often bottled (illegally) in used Qingdao bottles. Careful economizing runs parallel to the epicureanism.

Along those lines, this essay by Chris Green deserves more discussion — because it considers the notion of North Korean profit margins outside of the criminal sphere, to which the rest of us are fluttering irresistibly.

Personally (signposting for a tangent…), I think the restaurants need to be considered from the cultural aspect, as this certainly does come into play from the North Korean control point of view. The restaurants are bubbles of North Korea which endure and are sustained precisely upon a direct, if not wholly uncontrolled, exposure of the workers to foreign capitalism, foreigners, and of course South Koreans in Izod shirts. Perhaps if more South Korean youth groups touring China would make stops into such establishments, a few more minds could be changed (or washed, depending on your perspective), even as the Songun melodies blare on…

The Guardian’s North Korea Network, and a Note on Journalism, Fieldwork, and Academia

The Guardian has created a new North Korea Network, of which the web journal which I edit, Sino-NK, is very much a part. Graciously, the editors in London also saw fit to endorse my Twitter feed (@adamcathcart)  as a must-follow for micro-analysis of the DPRK and its foreign relations.

There are, naturally, hard limits to the Guardian‘s partnership with our website. While I was in Yanji at the same time as The Guardian‘s highly talented Tania Branigan, the existence of the new network surely does not mean that we teamed up as investigators in the field while she was on assignment, or that I have somehow become a journalist —  rather than the “journalling academic” engaged in regular fieldwork that I truly am.

Quite the opposite.

When in Yanji in particular, but also in places like Tibet (and to a lesser extent, Sichuan), rather unlike a journalist, I endeavour to avoid things that might stretch the limits of legality in the Chinese context– such as meeting with North Korean refugees or getting involved with Tibetan dissidents. Engagement and advocacy are distinct, and while one can act as an advocate while in the UK — and I have tried, surely, to do that on the North Korean refugee issue — there would be very little point to my meeting in clandestine with North Koreans in China illegally.

None of this means that I am unable to comment on contemporary events in my capacity as an academic while travelling in China, one of the Koreas, Hong Kong, Singapore, or Japan, etc., much less writing a ton once I return home to the United Kingdom.  Fortunately the topics about which I pontificate are not nearly as “dangerous” as, say, Xinjiang, but one does have to be mindful of context and the long-term.

My research is primarily historical, which means that I am looking for access to document collections (the larger and rarer, the better). Fieldwork serves an important function in my research, in that it puts me closer to rare documents and archives, and also gives me a far more tangible sense of what and where I am writing about. Having spent a few years in total in northeast China and Sichuan, I like to think, gives my work more immediacy and less abstraction.

Being listed as a resource for journalists is absolutely fine with me, and I very much hope that my work remains “policy relevant,” as this recent Executive Summary of my trip to the northeastern Chinese border regions with North Korea should indicate. Likewise, the Guardian partnership and endorsements are all to the good, and as long as I’m able to maintain my academic access and integrity, I’m happy to see those associations and writings pushed forward into the blazing light of day.


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.


Sinews of Revolution on the Edge of Chinese and North Korean History

Peripheries are everything in the study of China, because they are so dangerous. Whether social peripheries or geographical, those who dwell on the margins — so tangibly aware of the possibilities of flight or of wresting away control from the guardians of order — pose a challenge to hegemonic structures.  When the social and geographical elements combine,  creating revolutionaries, powers residing in urban metropoles such as Beijing or Nanjing intensify that process of control governed by fear that is by now so familiar.

What prompts these thoughts? For the past week or so, I’ve been piecing through a text which I had picked up a few years back from a little used book shop in Yanji, near the North Korean border, on the subject of revolution in Yanbian, the extreme eastern edge of Manchuria, the ethnic-Korean region of China on the border with what is today the DPRK, or North Korea:

中共延边州委党史工作委员会,中共延边州委党史研究所 编,延边历史事件党史人物录 (新民主主义革命时期),[吉林省内部资料] (延吉:中共延边州委机关,1988), otherwise known as Catalog of Personalities and Events in the Party History of Yanbian, published in Yanji [I think] in 1988 by the local CCP Committee on Historical Research for “internal circulation only”.

We have spent virtually all of our lives in the backwash of the two great revolutions that sprang out of this region — the North Korean and the Chinese.  It now seems to be taken for granted by Sinologists and Koreanists trained in the West that the weight of the propaganda that has emerged since 1945 obscures rather than highlights the sacrifices made at the time, the genuine acts of nationalistic heroism undertaken by Koreans and Chinese and Chinese-Koreans to overthrow both Guomindang-linked warlordism and Japanese imperalism.  Call it the Sea of Blood effect.  We know how heavily North Korea in particular leans on these stories.  And why not resist the state-sponsored narratives, representing as they do the acrid stench of steel being welded into unnatural shapes, the rise of the monuments across Northeast Asia like cankers, the repetitious lifting of volumes hewn out of totalitarian imagination by committee in rooms choking with carbon wherein the leaders exercise not so much influence as levitate like executioners outside? Banquo has a mighty arm.  The amount of analysis levied at Kim Jong Il’s attempts to recapture the heroism of the anti-Japanese fighters overmultiplies attempts to capture the original acts of violence and intellectual bravery or audacity which brought Kim Jong Il (and his first post-colonial generation) into being in the first place.

But the narratives of resistance in the Sino-Korean borderlands in that earlier era are still worth delving into, and they demand our attention. This work is to be done by scholars who, like artists who hop around in dead factories, dwell at the junctures of creative destructions. Both the historian and the urban spelunker from their gargoyle perches on the peripheries, above the pedestrian status quo of master narratives or factual inevitability, suggest a new future.

Allow me then, to suggest this: North Korean history is about more than Kim Il Song and his offspring.  Kim’s acceptance and his life was made possible by an entire matrix of interactions and global occurences, which included revolutionary movements in what is today Yanbian, what then was known as Jiandao (间道).  The victory of the Chinese Communist Party in the final massive phase of the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949) in Manchuria was made possible not simply by superior strategy by Lin Biao and Mao Zedong, and that victory was far from inevitable.

To arrive, then, at the individual narratives that sparked this short moment of reflection: Two biographies.

Han Leran [韩乐然], 1898-1947

Han was born in 1898 (the same year as Zhou Enlai) in Longjing, a small city near the Korean-Russian frontier in the extreme eastern edge of Manchuria.  In 1919, Longjing underwent the so-called “March 13 incident,” the violent suppression of an anti-Japanese demonstration by Japanese police.  As a young man, Han Leran experienced the incident as a kind of crisis, witnessing how in the aftermath of the March 1 1919 demonstrations in nearby Korea — a rather exciting statement of peaceful and democratic rebellion against the Japanese occupiers — ended in bloodshed, with demonstrations being broken up by Japanese police with guns, killing 14 people in Longjing.

Han quickly left for the maritime provinces of the Soviet Union, which were far closer than the vermillion roofs of Beijing, but by no means solidly Bolshevik in 1920. After less than a year in Russia, Han hopped a steamer in Vladivostok and went to Shanghai in that fertile year of 1920. It took him three years to become accustomed to the giant city (outstripping pre-Manchukuo Changchun, the nearest big city to his hometown, exponentially) before he joined the young Chinese Communist Party.  His Manchurian roots and artistic interests made him useful to the Party, and he was sent to Shenyang, Liaoning, in 1924, and after a year, on north to Harbin, where he continued to study art  [pp. 43-45].

In 1929, he went with Party support to Europe.  For two years he knocked around in southern France (mainly Lyon and Nice) before getting accepted in 1931 to an art institute in Paris (巴黎艺术学院).  For the next six years, he worked and exhibited in Paris and traveled around Europe, reading the French press about the “Manchurian Incident” and the futile attempts at the League of Nations in Geneva to extract Japanese troops from northeast China via diplomacy.

In 1937, with the outbreak of all-out war in China, Han returned to China, but not before doing some work for Paris Soir to propagandize the Chinese war effort.  (It is rather interesting to consider how those inveterate readers of the Parisian press, Jean-Paul Sartre [obviously not the only reader of said press, but an important one, with an editor's impulse] and Simone de Beauvoir regarded Han’s work, if they saw it at all.  Nevertheless the very notion of a coincidence of a meeting of minds like this can come full circle with Sartre and de Beauvoir’s trip to Manchuria in 1955, when Sidney Rittenberg said they were “taken with how China had made {them} think more about life and less about death.”)  Finished forever with France, Han sped back to the Chinese front.

He arrived in the wartime center of Wuhan, where he plunged into work with a group of artists with roots in the northeast of China, focusing their artistic fury on the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, and attempting to inspire Chinese audiences with tales of the resistance movement there.  In this period, particularly following the fall of Nanking, Wuhan was a temporary capital, and was crawling with foreign reporters, many of whom Han met, certainly charming them with the type of linguistic pastiche he had surely developed after his time in eastern Russia and more than half-decade in Europe.  Among his acquaintances was Edgar Snow.

In 1938, Han came to the attention of Zhou Enlai, who recommended that he move to Yanan.  As Wuhan was in danger of falling to the Japanese, Han followed through, spending the summer of 1938 in the remote Communist HQ.  However, within a few months, he was back in the intellectual and international hothouse of Chongqing, in spite of the fact that Yanan was rather safe from Japanese air raids and Chongqing was being bombed with rather savage regularity.

In 1940, for reasons that are not entirely clear — perhaps a response to the New Fourth Army Incident? — Han was arrested by Guomindang police and jailed for two years.  In 1943, he moved through Xi’an and Lanzhou, farther from the front.  After the war, he moved even further west, to the remote province of Xinjiang, where, physcially unphased by the outbreak of the Chinese civil war,  he went on a spurt of creative productivity (the subject of cultural production in its relation to the war being a rather unresearched terrain).  In April 1946, he went to Turpan [吐鲁番市] in Xinjiang, where in the space of a few short months he did more than 50 oil paintings and took more than 500 photographs to exhibit.  In October of that year, he turned up in Lanzhou to exhibit his new works and connect with the left-wing Guomindang general Zhang Zhizhong [张治中, who had led the defense of Shanghai and later went over to the CCP] to to “united front work,” a unified Nationalist-Communist government still being a nominal, if doomed, dream in that year of Chinese intellectuals.  Han set up the Northwest Arts Museum [西北艺术馆,今天大西北艺术馆 ], and was on his way to becoming a key part of postwar national cultural revival in Xinjiang.  His background of foreign study, early ties to the Chinese Communist Party, and active postwar activities bode well for a place in the burgeoning cultural hierarchy of the world after 1949, but Han never made it back to Beijing, much less Paris: less than thirty years after leaving his hometown, the ethnic Korean artist died in a plane crash in Xinjiang in April 1947.

Codetta: This past August 2011, local governments broke through and found Han’s example worthy of patriotic education, setting aside a hefty sum (2680万, seemingly a standard sum from the central government for civic projects) for a park in his name.  A small (65 sq. meters) museum space is underway to honor him in Longjing, for which local historians went to 20 archives around China.

Zhou Dengzheng [周东郊], 1907-1978 — fuller bio TBA, but this involves the set up of the first CCP Eastern Manchuria committee, work under cover of teaching Chinese to Koreans on the border, an arrest in Dalian that leads to eight years in a Xinjiang prison, propaganda work for the Nationalists in Xinjiang for four years after 1945, a peaceable transfer by the CCP to the Bank of Beijing in 1949, a 1956 revelation of his “history problem,” and an old man teaching middle school during the Cultural Revolution.

Related Reading

Adam Cathcart, “Reading Kim Il Song’s Memoirs,” Parts One and Two, Sinologistical Violoncellist, August 6 and 20, 2010.

Adam Cathcart, “Nationalism and Ethnic Identity in the Sino-Korean Border Region of Yanbian, 1945-1950,”  Korean Studies, vol. 34 (2010): 25-53.

Inside North Korea: French Edition

I found this French film, apparently shot in spring 2010, to be better than most treatments of the North Korean tourist experience.  Among other things, a young North Korean “rapper” is encountered in an amusement park (at 12:31), North Korean rallies are accompanied by music by Philip Glass, and the piece benefits from the use of some selected extracts from North Korean film archives.

In Part II, one gets a sense of how French tourists experience the Korean War museum in Pyongyang, a visit which begins with one of the visitors writing an inscription about her father, who left Korea in 1950 for France, never to return, in the museum’s visitor’s book.

Of slightly older vintage (but with the same North Korean Francophone guide, and a far more vigorous and hirsute traveller) is this French documentary from 2008, which concludes, around 2’30”, with the main TV personality sprinting across a field to batter a plywood cutout of a big-nosed American soldier, which prompts some humorous dialogue with the locals.

In the following section, a man gathers edible grasses on Kim Il Sung’s birthday.  Then, in section three (below), the host laughs — he has finally lost his guides, who refuse to enter the church along with him in Pyongyang.

In Part 4, the viewer can enjoy (what else?) spectacle, as the French man goes into an extended discussion with his hosts about the sex habits of ostriches, including the possibility of bisexual ostriches.  This is as far from the dark and paranoiac music of Lisa Ling’s National Geographic DPRK documentary as possible!  As with everything else, it seems that the results of a journey have much to do with the proclivities of the traveler.

On the more geopolitical side of things, there is this in-depth French look at current events through a historical prism, including interviews with (among others) Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation which begins with a look — which I had never seen before — at the immense American flotilla sent to intimidate the North Koreans in summer 2010.

There are, somewhat less helpfully, long discourses by Jerrold Post, head of psychoanalysis [?] for the CIA, about Kim Jong Il’s cognac habits, and Klingner goes on about how the current generation of North Korean children are “mentally stunted.”  But the documentary takes Kim Jong Il’s film history seriously, and, for the cultural historian, part 2 begins with extracts from the 1985 North Korean remake of Godzilla.

Not to be missed (besides the wonderful contrast between the personal stories of the casual and goateed bandana biker-styled Kenji Fujimoto and the statistics of Marcus Noland in his precisely fixed suit and tie) are North Korean television depictions of George W. Bush, seen here at 6’30”.  What I find remarkable is the extent to which the continuity of the North Korean graphic styles manages to make Bush look like John Foster Dulles in 1950.

Finally, the obligatory refugee documentary, “Han, la prix de la liberte [Han, the Price of Liberty]” by Alexandre Dereims in 2009.  Like Mike Kim’s book Escaping North Korea, “Han” traces the path of refugees from Yanji down to the Chinese borders with Laos/Thailand and takes them into Seoul.  This is a well-known arc to anyone who follows news about North Korean defectors, but there is one point of fact which I found particularly interesting, if not happily so.  At about 1’40” of the following segment, a young woman refugee being interviewed in an apartment in Yanji describes the years of famine — 1994, 1995, 1996, she enumerates them off one by one as if to recount each as an entity deserving of individual weight — and matter-of-factly recounts that people resorted to cannibalism.  Then, she says “Things are presently on the path for it to happen again.”  Not good news from inside North Korea.  Incidentally, although in the wake of the Laura Ling/Euna Lee debacle which managed to break up at least one network dedicated to extracting refugees from the North, the defectors’ faces here not pixelated out because they made it to Seoul, where, presumably, they are presently.

Radiation Reported in China’s Heilongjiang Province

Thus reports China Daily, stating that radiation has been found in the water in Fuyuan county [抚远县], which is China’s easternmost point in the northeastern most province, very close to the Russian frontier.

On March 22, the PRC Environmental Protection Agency [环境保护部/Huanjing baohu bu ] had reported no evidence of Fukushima radiation in Heilongjiang province.

Checking radiation in the late March snows of Heilongjiang, courtesy China's EPA

The irony is that Fuyuan was supposed to have been the site of a major wind power project (sponsored by this Austrian company) which is currently on hold for lack of investment.

According to the PRC Environmental Ministry (via Huanqiu Shibao), radiation levels in the area are within acceptable limits and no precautions need be taken, at least not yet.  Getting far more attention in China — certainly driven by the dense urban populations there, as opposed to sparse and peripheral northeastern Dongbei — are these daily radiation readings in Zhejiang and Shanghai.

China’s EPA website has a fair amount of information about the situation in and around Japan.   (The page crashed the first two times I tried to load it, indicating that, just maybe, a few million Chinese surfers are trying to look at the same thing.)  As for the Fuyuan problem, the Heilongjiang branch of the Chinese EPA seems to be counseling calm while exemplifying provincial powerlessness without central stimulation; the main feature on its page is of an employee banging on some drums and singing patriotic songs. The site has an impressive set of links, but none of them appears to be about Fuyuan county’s current problem.  Does this strike anyone else as a strategic weakness in the PRC’s ability to mobilize and inform?  So what if the provincial EPA has investigating pollution in the Songhua River?  This is old news!

Mudanjiang, another small eastern city in Heilongjiang, has some commercial and tourism ties with North Korea.  Do you suppose that it’s only a matter of time before  rumors are floating into North Korea about radiation moving west?  The North Korean media has been reporting on the nuclear crisis in Japan in sporadic but unmistakable terms.  Who cares if North Korea is using environmental issues as an excuse to talk?  Just start talking, people!

A few final points:

If you need a Chinese-language fix of the latest television reports about Japan, start with this CCTV report on the basic layout of Japan’s nuclear plants.

If you’re an Anglophone (or an environmentally-inclined Anglophile) looking for a fantastic, mind-altering, and all-too-relevant book to read, try Brett Walker’s new Toxic Archipelago, published in Seattle at the University of Washington Press.  And keep your eyes on this space for more analysis of Walker’s paradigm-busting monograph, because it’s worth all of our time.

This morning I had a student come into my office and ask to write a paper about the Sino-Japanese textbook controversy and I told her to forget it.  Maybe both China and Japan, eyes on the widening Geiger counter, can do the same.