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.


Inspector O is Not in the Office: Tracing a Traffic Accident Near Pyongyang

The story has made virtually no waves in English, Chinese, or Korean, but perhaps that is the point:

On November 26, apparently within minutes of one another, two separate buses full of “a Chinese business delegation” and “a Chinese tourist group” crashed on an icy road 60 km from Pyongyang, killing six Chinese and two North Koreans.

This according to the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang, which rapidly reported the news on its website and said the North Korean authorities were doing everything they could to help the other victims of the crash, some of whom were moved to the Friendship Hospital in Pyongyang.  Ambassador Liu Hongcai got very busy indeed, going to the scene of the accident and linking up with various North Korean bureaucrats.

The next day, the body count went up: one Chinese and another North Korean died in the hospital.  At this point, Xinhua picked up on the story, and Liu Hongcai sent his councilor Jiang Yaxian to stand in front of the bomb-proof Chinese embassy in Pyongyang to make a short statement for CCTV).

On November 28, the tourists and “businessmen” who were not badly wounded returned to China, some by air and others by train to Sinuiju, where they then got on more buses to cross the Friendship Bridge into Dandong.  What a nice surprise to find that there were three Dutch people on the tourist delegation; that had not been reported prior. No one knows in which direction from Pyongyang the bus was coming, nor what the two groups were doing precisely besides “being tourists.”

This incident interests me because it happened precisely when Xinhua and KCNA were inking their new mutual understanding and cooperation. KCNA clearly pledges to continue reporting daily news about China to the North Korean people (along the lines of supporting China’s modernization, party building and ethnic unity policies) while Xinhua clearly pledges to tone down negative reporting about North Korea within the PRC.  KCNA also pledged to start a Chinese-language service, which they did on December 1.  And since these meetings, we have seen almost a total absence of critical items in the Chinese press about North Korea. Certainly the CCP will turn up the heat again when they need to, but for the time being, the information environment is one where the CCP Propaganda Ministry (surely with the support of the Foreign Ministry) is trying to consolidate its gains with the DPRK and going easy on, for instance, North Korea’s new assertions that things are going great with their Light Water Reactors.

There was no original reporting allowed of the incident from Pyongyang; that is, a single short Xinhua dispatch went out and was not elaborated upon by anyone.  The Chinese reporters in Pyongyang wrote nothing.  The Chinese Embassy has been the sole source of information about this incident, the sum total of which is about ten sentences.

Why does this matter?  Because such incidents have the power to rile up Chinese public opinion very quickly, mushrooming into a storm of criticism of both North Korea and the way in which China handles its alliance with that country.  Netizen comments on the story on Sohu website focused in on the question of corruption, asserting that the “business delegation” was a bunch of lazy and corrupt cadre from the Chinese provinces off spending public funds in the DPRK.  Other netizens were quick to critique the very notion of China promoting tourism in North Korea, calling Pyongyang “the equivalent of a second-rate Chinese city in the 1980s” and underscoring North Korean dictatorship.

Imagine the firestorm that would occur if seven Chinese tourists were killed in Japan, particularly if there were some implication of Japanese negligence or wrong doing.

How did this accident occur?  Why would two buses, minutes apart, essentially crash in the same place?  Who are the North Koreans who were killed?  Why did the Chinese embassy release the basic information right away, and then have no further reporting on the issue?

The need to fill the empty space and questions with some kind of neutral if not helpful content for the Chinese was seen in the dispatch sent by the PRC Embassy in Pyongyang on Nov. 28, describing two tearful Chinese in the Pyongyang hospital who, when the Chinese ambassador came to visit them, demanded that Liu Hongcai convey a few packs of cigarettes and hard liquor to the tomb of the unknown Chinese solider in North Korea, recalling the deep bonds of mutual obligation and protection forged during the Korean War.

Chinese People's Volunteers monument in South Pyong'an, DPRK, photo courtesy Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang, liquor and cigarettes courtesy Tupac Shakur/Chinese traffic accident victims

I am very curious to see where this story goes.

For the time being, all relevant links to the facts and interpretations above, including the Netizen responses, are on my Twitter feed (not that I have attention deficit disorder, quite the contrary: I’m off to San Diego where I may meet with a few experts whose views may or may not be shared later on the blog).  Careful out there on those roads.

Tremors and Premonitions from the Sino-Korean Borderlands

On September 30, 2011, celebrated defense intellectual Zhang Zhaozhong [ 张召忠 ] visited the small but important and growing Sino-North Korean border city of Dandong, giving a talk about China’s national defense.  Zhang, described by the trustworthy JustRecently blog as a bit of a hard-liner prone to suspicion against US-Japan-South Korea military alliance, got a good look at China’s frontier defenses, such as they are, on that section of the border with North Korea. The news item about the professor’s visit was rather brief, but it does indicate Dandong’s growing importance in the Chinese security landscape, something which I wrote about back in February 2011 when border forces there were beefing up.  Dandong’s military committee heads spent a few days bucking up their ideological bona fides last month in Tibet in yet another example of cadre in frontier zones learning from one another about how to repress popular revolts and intimidate (or otherwise seduce, we can hope) neighbor states.

Around the same time, Dandong was reshuffling its high-tech bureaucracy to bring more talent to the city in an effort through an organization called “Friends of the Yalu River.”  The Xinchengqu project is rather immense, and it is largely about high-tech machinery.  Borrowing selectively from the large light- and high-tech industry hub in Shenyang, Dandong seems poised in a few years to flood (if you will forgive the sloppy and contextually inappropriate metaphor) North Korea with microchips and intricate electronic devices.

I get the feeling that the CCP is a little miffed at North Korea at present, though precisely why is hard to say.  The opening of the DPRK to Russia was probably a bit alarming  (if predictable from the North Korean leader once known as Yura), and there may be other reasons, but my money is on the obscure, in Pyongyang:

After lavishing unprecedentedly sycophantic praises for China’s October 1 National Day, KCNA, the North Korean news agency, comes out and asserts that Korean civilization, with its epicenter in Pyongyang, is older than Chinese.

Here, for South Korean readers for whom this material is verboten, is the full dispatch:

Tangun, Founder of Ancient Korea

Pyongyang, October 6 (KCNA) — An event took place before King Tangun’s mausoleum on Monday to commemorate the Foundation Day of Korea.

The memorial service for Tangun, ancestral father of the Korean nation and founder of Ancient Korea, the first state in the East, takes place annually before the mausoleum.

Tangun had been known as a myth but he was confirmed as a real human being when his remains were discovered in Kangdong County, Pyongyang, in Juche 82 (1993).

He was born in Pyongyang 5011 (±267) years ago as of 1993.

Succeeding to his father as patriarch, Tangun gradually revamped the primitive structure into a ruling tool for controlling confrontation among classes and tribes. He then founded Ancient Korea in the area with Pyongyang as the centre in the early 30th century B.C.

Ancient Korea became a strong country after conquering small neighboring countries and expanding its territory.

Under the rule of Tangun, the Korean nation put an end to the primitive ages and entered the age of statehood and civilization, developing into a homogeneous nation.

This goes to prove that Ancient Korea was founded in the almost same period with ancient states in the Nile River basin and Mesopotamian region, known as birthplaces of human civilization, and earlier than those in the Indus River basin and Hwang Ho basin.

Tangun was confirmed as the ancestral father of the 5 000-year-old Korean nation under the wise guidance of President Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jong Il.

If you think this kind of assertion doesn’t rankle Chinese scholars and leaders, spend an afternoon with me sometime soon in the PRC Foreign Ministry Archive, and I will show you how, during a very friendly 1962 visit by Liu Shaoqi to Pyongyang, an obscure North Korean journal threw the Chinese into a minor fit by asserting that Korea had never submitted to the Mongols (in other words, had thrown off for a period of a couple hundred years the Chinese tributary system).

Calling one’s country the oldest brother in East Asia is a particular right that China likes very much to reserve for itself.

On the other side of the ledger, Chinese regime-media approved bloggers posted a bunch of photos of life in the North Korean countryside and concluded that Chinese poverty cannot even begin to compare of that in the DPRK, once again rendering North Korea into an entertaining and momentary spectacle that allows good Chinese to recall how much better their own lives have become since, say, 1976.

Lower-level functionaries celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 in Pyongyang last month, marking the emergence of a No. 2 figure in the PRC embassy there named Guan Huabing [关华兵], pictured here with North Korean colleagues in the DPRK-China Friendship Association.

Guan Huabing in Pyongyang, 30 Sept. 2011, image courtesy Chinese Embassy in DPRK

At least 80 Chinese students and language teachers are living in Pyongyang, working and learning at institutes like Kim Chaek University of Technology.  When they party at the Embassy and try out their basketball moves in a 3-on-3 tournament (damn you, David Stern!) it doesn’t appear that they are allowed to bring North Korean friends along.

More importantly, it appears that the visit of Prime Minister Choi to China and Nanjing appears not to have yielded any kind of breakthrough or consolidation of ideals and projects previously agreed to.  And Choi brought a rather large delegation with him, certainly the largest I have seen in recent times. In a minor sign that all is not necessarily going smoothly, Wen Jiabao opened his remarks at that meeting with a nod to “knotty areas (错综复杂的地区)” which might be taken as a nod to island zones or the local environment.


Borderlands Gudgeon

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.


Thus the difficulties of working with North Korea are highlighted, and Chinese tactics in dealing with those difficulties.  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.

North Korean Lorry Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy Noko Jeans, Stockholm-Pyongyang

China’s New Bridge to North Korea

Recent scenes from Xinchengqu (New City District, 新城区), Dandong, Liaoning province, PRC, across from maritime North Pyong’an province, DPRK.  All photos by Adam Cathcart; please use proper attribution if linking or reproducing.

On the way to Xincheng, an island developed on PRC territory


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

Things Seen and Heard in Dandong

Updated: With apologies for the writer’s block (now fully shattered, one can hope), here are my impressions in the present tense from my recent time “roughing it” in Dandong and Kuandian, a Manchu autonomous county to the east and north which is pictured in these photos of PLA operations, and describe some action perceived and intimated in nearby Sinuiju, North Korea’s stunted “twin city” to Dandong.  An impressionistic mode seems appropriate…

Avant le deluge/ Prelude to the Afternoon of a Flood

– Night falls over Dandong on August 20. North Korean entrepreneurs wrap themselves around their PLA patrons on the sidewalk outside the Pyongyang restaurant warbling with songs of  “Arirang.”  The Dandong Riviera is being interlaced with a light drizzle, but no one seems concerned.  There is, after all, meat to be consumed, deals to be consummated, relationships to be forged, and exploitation to be avoided, mostly.  The lights eventually go down in the restaurant, but the cooks and staff sit under a few flourescent bulbs and eat slowly, while a couple of girls in t-shirts rehearse a new number on the drum set and a Casio keyboard, their rhythms and melodies unusually stilted and not yet ready for foreign patrons.  After all, as Chairman Mao said twice to Stalin, insisting that his ambiguity could be understood in the warmth of the Kremlin in winter 1950, “one has to clean the house before inviting guests.”

Someone is crying in the park across the street.  Between the waves of traffic, you can hear her sob.  But the North Koreans are all smiling.  The end of the day has come.  They are in Dandong, and life is good.  Three waitress-performers emerge out of the restaurant, arm in arm, all wearing the same patterned dress: black and white stripes, with white polka-dots.  They see the species of Western male in the window of the coffee shop; they smile and wave, not knowing he is finishing an essay about Kim Il Song’s bequeathal of Mausers to his defeated band in Manchuria.  But that was a long time ago.  Tonight, everyone is going home, and so even the imperialist deserves a wave and a smile.

Suddenly one of the polka-dotted girls runs back to fetch her umbrella, a pink and sturdy thing.  It has begun to rain.

The rain continues; it accelerates; it deepens on the road. Plainclothes policemen now circulate along these businesses fronting the Yalu River: You will need to evacuate, they say, the bullhorns limp in their hands.  Engines continue to run, but traffic dwindles.  The rain picks up.

I wander out of the coffee shop and over to look more closely at the Yalu: it is swollen; whole trees, roots and all, are riding the current down to the Yellow Sea.  Nothing will get in in the river’s way; it has achieved a kind of monolithic power, hypnotic and deadly.  All of Earth’s vitality and vengeance seems to be gathering up from its crouch; tendrils of current move wildly about on the surface.

It begins to rise; it has been beginning to rise; it seeks to end this beginning of a regenerated city; the river has a will; the face of God is smeared with mud.

I leap over the plastic police tape; the voices of the vendors are long gone; there is no one here.  There is no memory; the river’s urgency has destroyed recollection of anything other than itself.  I run from the river, but its presence remains palpable.  To be alone with this river with no regard for time is to invite annihilation.  Something reminds me of this.  Otto Rank, Freud’s underrated disciple, writes about man’s emancipation from water, from the mother figure, as a heroic act signifying birth and rebirth and creation of the self.  But the Yalu River is neither a mother nor a return to a pre-birth: in this moment it may as well be a guillotine, hoisting itself up a million long centimeters at a time.  Gravity will only protect us for so long, after all.

Just hours ago, the Yalu River bridge had been joyously lit, with processions of North Korean trucks moving north into the promised land!  Now it is blackened, the auburn lights on the bridge’s lower tracks almost swallowed by the torrent below.  On the Chinese side of the bridge, I stand under its stone pylons for a moment, pausing to admire the Japanese stone work.  Bulwark of imperialism, of Japan’s integrative impulse, this thing, too, might be swallowed.  The puddles underneath the bridge almost seethe with osmotic anticipation of being joined into something far more aggressive; a Sea of Water recalls a Sea of Blood, but the water is more numinous.

And of numbers: Wen Jiabao is in Gansu, the Dandong mayor is on the phone, and Kim Il Sung is dead.  The police are gone.  Minutes remain to the imaginary countdown to midnight, to August 21.

Suddenly North Korean music blares out from behind a door, a last spurt of defiance at the coming flood.  I run from it, and toward the main park on the Yalu River.

A brigade of volunteers is moving toward the coming flood and I move to join them, wondering what happens when the river breaks over wall.  Will it swallow these statues?  Chinese People’s Volunteers stand in bronze along the length now of this section; do their feet begin to corrode?  Can a statue drown?  What happens when a bronze monument to a war that saved a dying country goes unsaved, toppled by biology?  When nuclear seismology conceals nothing, when dams no longer can hold back the furious mockery of a planetary system far more capricious than even a North Korean dictator?  Why don’t the statues just put down their damn rifles and get to moving sandbags?

A cop sees me and realizes I am not a volunteer.  There is nothing to explain as he shouts at me; in Chinese fashion, I ignore him while doing what he wants.  I run back toward the city, hoping to get in through the new levy before they close it.  It is, thankfully, open, and midnight is falling.  A nearby banner reminds me that China is defending its border, which is to say, a little propaganda seems in order when Chinese traders are getting shot in their boats on the south shore of the Yalu and North Korean MiG jets are flying willy-nilly over the border.  But no machine guns seem able to solve the current dilemma.  Water doesn’t care for bullets.  Even a nuclear weapon would have little effect on this river.

A few locals are standing around in front of the customs house which reads in huge letters CHINA DANDONG.  Less than a block from the levy, where cars are squeezing through, an army reservist is arguing with a group of ten or eleven cops.  He is being exhorted to heed the commands and go throw down some sandbags.  He is not willing to do it.  He is livid with fear and anger.  Voices rise into pushing which rises into volleys of pugilistic knocks; the guy’s friend arrives to wrap up his buddy at the knees, attempting to tackle him for his own good.  Then even this last figment of a “harmonious society” flips when the cops start beating on the friend as well, who then joins in the collective thrashing.  Three minutes of blocked traffic later, two men are in a police van off to the jail, and the business of evacuation continues.

The argument virus has taken hold, however.  Around the corner two horrendously drunk men are shouting their brains out in the thickest possible Kanggye accents.  Although their voices contain every indication of an incipient outbreak of violence, they are holding one another like lovers.  Whole life stories are unfolded.  It is time for a settling of accounts.

I weave around them and stride off past the railway station, looking for the husk of a city block that marks my temporary neighborhood for the night.  The Dongyuan Hotel, after all, is being gutted by men who get up at four and are yawning by noon; dirt piles sit next to fake plants in the lobby; the place is abandoned to future commerce.  My new hovel instead sits across the street from a half-destroyed cluster of buildings from the late colonial period.  50 yuan a night.  Chimneys stick out of it like wartime Chongqing; in the lightning its strewn staircases are revealed as having no end; shades of David Copperfield’s climb.   Plants are growing wild all over the carcass of the ruins.  They luxuriate in the rain.  The rain pelts down outside the inn.  I have found it, but the door is locked.

Immediately a woman appears out of the blackness — “follow me,” she says, “they already sold your room here; thought you got out of town already.”  She looks enough like the sister of the innkeeper, about fifty-five and entreprising, and all my belongings here are on my back in any case.  Why the hell not?  In a city that is about to flood, there’s no use complaining when a roof over your head is offered.  No sense in sleeping in the ruins with rats and wild dogs; that’s to be done in cities that deserve such treatment, like Paris.

I wondered as I wandered, with whom the North Koreans would stay, because they nearly all of them lived near the river in the evacuated zone.  Perhaps the anticipation of their evacuation is why they had all been in such high spirits that night.  To see China in crisis mode, in action, to enter the society through a differing aperture — so long as one didn’t end up under the waves — would be a pleasure.  And the promise of a day off, of singing songs for oneself, of story telling, of useless time.   Once the mudslides hit the doors however, the future might be in doubt.   Thus whole years of experience are shoehorned into a single night of chance.

The lady moves efficiently into a doorway; I follow her, stepping over a bicycle into an inn with no sign and a peeling floor and past a comatose attendant.  Why are young men sometimes so much more asleep and oblivious than their matronly counterparts?

There is no need to take off one’s shoes in such a place.  The lady leads me forward like a patron saint or a small capitalist.  It is as if she has a candle.

We end up in a small room, the last one, she says.  “Just give me 30 yuan,” she gestures amiably, “I don’t need to see your passport.”  The world is going to hell and there is no need to run through the normal procedures. Under the light of her cell phone, she finds some exposed copper wires, sharpens them up, and jams them joyously into a plug which has been hanging precariously from a fan on the ceiling.   Things are in motion, including her, as she disappears.  I look around in my cube.  The walls are uneven; the floor exists in a state of wild disrepair; a centipede chugs steadily up among the skids of a wall corner.  But I love the place, because within its obtuse belly lies an object worthy of contemplation: a globe.

At that very moment trash begins to seep up the river walls.  The river is gorged with trash, flecked by millions of plastic bottles and bags.  It is the detritus of Chinese poverty and prosperity.  Kuandian, that afternoon, had been so strewn with trash in every river and stream bed.  It is as if the trash, pasted upon stones and impossibly high tree branches, testifies of the coming of something akin to a glacier, but swifter.  Layers of civilization in the trash.  Who knows what will wash up on the North Korean shore next week.  Presuming that they still have a shore.

In the room under a single light bulb, I sit and contemplate the globe.  When one is in Dandong, one can be found one’s place upon the globe’s surface.  Dandong is the place where the colors change, where the wedge of the sea begins to narrow, where the effluvia finds its way outward.

The next day I find my way outward.  I sit with a handful of PLA air force officers.  They remind me that the North Korean MiG rocketed all the way to Fushun because of “mechanical failure.”  A television reporter takes glorious shots of a helicopter taking off with aid in it while ten air force officers sit around drinking tea in a lounge with a 25 yuan minimum per-person drink charge. The ride to Beijing is turbulent, entirely.  I arrive in Beijing to see that the levies have apparently been punctured in Dandong.

No one in the capital seems terribly concerned.

Borderland Banditry

The Chosun Ilbo reported today, via Voice of America:

China says it has filed a formal complaint with North Korea about the killing of three Chinese citizens last week by a North Korean border guard.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang says a fourth person was wounded when the guard opened fire from his post across the border from China’s northeastern town of Dandong last Friday. Qin says the four Chinese citizens were shot by the North Korean guard on suspicion of crossing the border for illegal trade activities.

Why we as readers are considered unworthy of a direct quote here, much less a link to Qin Gang’s original statement, is beyond me.  (Fortunately, Sinoglot has some very good ideas today about why we generally lack translations or links to things Chinese in the Anglophone press.) Of course,  the English-language site of the Foreign Ministry has yet to include a translation, and, true to their track record, will probably neglect to translate the sensitive stuff about North Korean-Chinese relations.

Qin Gang, Pretty in Pink in Beijing

So instead we have to go to the Chinese version of the Foreign Ministry page where we find that Qin Gang was terse in the extreme.  But he certainly didn’t say “no comment” [translation by Adam Cathcart]:

问:据韩国媒体报道,在中朝边界发生了枪击事件,有中国人死亡,请确认。中方对此有何评论?Q: According to South Korean media reports, an incident with firearms occurred on the Chinese-North Korean border in which a Chinese person died.  Please confirm.  Does China have any criticism toward this [report/action]?

答:6月4日凌晨,辽宁省丹东市居民因涉嫌越境从事边贸活动遭到朝鲜边防部队枪击,造成3人死亡,1人受伤。事发后,中方高度重视,立即向朝方进行严正交涉。目前此案正在进一步调查和处理过程中,相信有关部门会适时发布有关情况。A: Early in the morning on June 4, citizens of Dandong city in Liaoning province whom [we] suspect of crossing the border illegally for trade activities were shot by a North Korean border patrol, killing three people and wounding one.  After this incident, to which the Chinese side attaches high importance, [we] sternly negotiated with the North Korean side.  Now an investigation of this incident is continuing, and we trust that the relevant departments will publicize the relevant situation in due course.

Since Chinese people cross the border all the time, it’s possible that Jang Song-taek ordered this incident to coincide with his formal elevation to Vice-Chairman of the National Defense Commission.  Jang has taken credit in the past for tightened regulation on the border, and shooting Chinese capitalists accords about with his documented distrust of market activities on the northern periphery of the DPRK.  (Just in case you hadn’t heard, the best source of Jang Song-taek reporting and news aggregating in English is available on Mike Madden’s NK Leadership Watch; Madden’s report today is particularly relevant.)

Daily NK, even the Chinese version, has no reports on this border shooting incident yet, and One Free Korea, who is usually on this kind of story with alacrity, at least has some action in the comments section of his blog, with the standard gratuitous attacks on John Feffer and Christine Ahn.

Although the rollback crowd thinks it’s all bunk (probably because “中方高度重视”  means nothing in particular to them, and they don’t read Huanqiu Shibao or spend time in Chinese circles, much less work annually at the PRC Foreign Ministry), I wouldn’t underestimate the extent to which North Korea is steadily alienating China.  Perhaps with enough aid from the UN, seduction of the new Europe, a little bit of intriguing new tourism, and ongoing work in illegal economic sectors, the DPRK can limp along and fund its military-first policy without China’s full-throated support.  After all, at least last week, that throat appeared to be filling with blood.

Something tells me the Chinese Ambassador in Pyongyang is going to be busy with a lot more than the annual photo op on the collective farm outside of Pyongyang:

Courtesy Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang; click image for story (in Chinese) and photo gallery

Or perhaps the powdered beauties of Pyongyang singing foreign songs for Embassy officials like “Without the Communist Party there would be no New China,” all the frustration with the DPRK will simply be lost in the belly of a golden drum.  But it’s unlikely.

Finally, back to the big picture:  If you can read the full text of the PRC Foreign Ministry press conference, it’s evident that China is trying to play down the border incident and keep the focus today on cementing good ties with the new Japanese administration.  North Korea’s aggressive missteps on the North Pyong’an/Liaoning border seem to reinforce the idea of China’s increasingly parallel, if far from wholly congruent, interests with Japan as the DPRK’s northern border again bristles with arms.

Sea of Blood in the City of the Red Chamber: North Korean Opera Troupe Hits Beijing

On May 2, the Sea of Blood Theater Troupe arrived in Dandong.  Aren’t they lovely?

via Huanqiu Shibao front page; click image for mini-gallery

Of interest are a few Chinese netizen comments on the opera troupe, most of which are rather sweet, with occasional mild criticisms: “Of all these beautiful women, don’t you think there will be an opportunity for one to stay behind?”, or, the old adage “Northern women are best paired with Southern men [北女南男], or,  “It’s too bad that these performers have to suffer the long trip in a non-sleeper car!”, or, (in a comment perhaps by a North Korean netizen writing in Chinese, I’ve been advised this is more and more common!) “环球不太平 有米国走狗 捣乱 大家小心 [Huanqiu readers, don't be too at ease: America's running dogs are looking to cause a disturbance, everyone be careful!].”

Not long thereafter, Kim Jong Il crossed over as well.  Contrary to the misinformation on American NPR, Chinese media are in fact reporting that Kim is in China, they’re just doing the ventriloquist bit whereby the reports are ascribed to “South Korean and Japanese media.”  And regular readers of this blog will know that it’s simply bunk to ascribe real ignorance (e.g., “a media blackout” to the Chinese people as regards Kim’s trip, which is stated in otherwise-awesome reporter Barbara Demick’s Los Angeles Times report on Kim’s visit.   Just because Kim Jong Il doesn’t roll like Carla Bruni doesn’t mean that laobaixing is walking around blindfolded.

And the combination of opera troupes with dictators, evoked the following passage in a text which has gripped me badly of late, even twisting my own syntax: Thomas Carlyle’s nigh-hallucinogenic evocation of the French Revolution, describing the peregrinations of a King doomed by his own opulence, traveling, like Kim Jong Il, with an immense retinue:

Time was when men could (so to speak) of a given man, by nourishing and decorating him with fit appliances, to the due pitch, make themselves a King, almost as the Bees do ; and, what was still more to the purpose, loyally obey him when made.  The man so nourished and decorated, thenceforth named royal, does verily bear rule ; and is said, and even thought, to be, for example, ‘prosecuting conquests in Flanders’, when he lets himself like luggage be carried thither : and no light luggage ; covering miles of road.  For he has his unblushing Chateauroux [e.g., Marie Antoinette], with her bandboxes and rougepots, at his side ; so that, at every new station, a wooden gallery must be run up between their lodgings.  He has not only his Maison-Bouche, and Valetaille without end, but his very Troop of Players, with their pasteboard coulisses, thunder-barrels, their kettles, fiddles, stage-wardrobes, portable larders (and chaffering and quarrelling enough) ; all mounted in wagons, tumbrils, second-hand chaises, — sufficient not to conquer Flanders, but the patience of the world.  With such a flood of lout jingling appurtenances does he lumber along, prosecuting his conquests in Flanders : wonderful to behold.  So nevertheless it was and had been : to some solitary thinker it might seems strange ; but even to him, inevitable, not unnatural.

As for how his Chinese interlocutors are perceiving Kim Jong Il, perhaps another extract from Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, centering upon the increasingly ineffective and motion-induced French King, is fitting:

But what agitates his Highness d’Orleans?  The rubicund moonhead goes wagging ; darker beams the copper visage, like unscoured copper ; in the glazed eye is disquietude ; he rolls uneasy in his seat, as if he meant something.  Amid unutterable satiety, has sudden new appetite, for new forbidden fruit, been vouchsafed him ?  Disgust and edacity, laziness that cannot rest ; futile ambition, revenge, non-admiralship : — O, within that carbuncled skin, what a confusion of confusions sits bottled! [Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1989) pp. 95-96.

Relevant citations:

Adam Cathcart, "North Korean “Dream of Red Chamber”: Chinese Netizens Comment / 北朝鲜领导做梦的红楼," Sinologistical Violoncellist blog, 11 December 2009.

Nancy Guy, Peking Opera and Politics in Taiwan (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005).

Adam Cathcart, “North Korean Hip Hop?  Reflections on Musical Diplomacy and the DPRK,” Acta Koreana Vol. 12, No. 2 (December 2009): 1-19.

Adam Cathcart, “Respect-worthy Friends or Duplicitous Snakes? Chinese Views of North Korea,” Korean Quarterly Vol. 13, No. 4 (Winter 2010): 12-13.

Anything by Leonard Schmieding, ein Held des Geschichtes Hip-Hops im DDR [a heroic historian of hip-hop in East Germany and the brains behind this film history entitled Here We Come: Hip-Hop in the German Democratic Republic]: