Surveying the Security Environment on China’s North Korean Frontier

By | December 22, 2011 | No Comments

Since the death of Kim Jong Il, very little reporting has been done from or about Yanbian, the Korean Autonomous Prefecture on the border with the DPRK’s poorest and most restive province, North Hamgyong.  This post is an initial effort to fill the gap.

Yanbian in the “Social Management” Discourse — Jin Yongmo [金永默], the Party Secretary of the autonomous prefecture, spent the first week in December at a conference on “social management” in Beijing, taking pointers from a head honcho of law-and-order in the PRC (e.g., head of the Party’s legal committee), Zhou Yongkang [周永康].

Zhou Yongkang, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, addresses a seminar on social management innovation attended by leaders from nine northern provinces and autonomous regions in Beijing, capital of China, Dec. 2, 2011. (Xinhua photo and caption/Rao Aimin)

Zhou, as David Bandurski reported yesterday, has been very busy in December keeping eyes on a local revolt in Guangdong, and it seems likely that, just as “counter-terror” tactics spawned in certain American localities spread to others, that the national discourse on repressing unrest is likely to be felt also in Yanbian.

Local revolts and the national discourse on “social management” as led by Zhou Yongkang are clearly things which analysts must take into consideration with respect to China’s stance on the North Korean issue.

Given that the CCP still evidently has problems with Falun Gong practitioners directly on the Sino-North Korean border, it seems logical to project more local concerns onto our understanding of the matrix of motivations that make up China’s North Korea policy, aims, and public statements.

Local Cadre at the Center of Cross-Border Ties– Kim Jong Il may be history, but the second-tier cadre that form the sinews of the Sino-DPRK relationship are still working.  Except for one rather important figure: Last July, Li Zongqin, the Han-ethnicity vice-director of the Yanbian Public Security Bureau dropped dead of a heart attack; his obituary in slightly stilted English provides a nice overview of issues facing the Bureau.

Like Kim Jong Il, Li Zongqin had been rather busy in the months prior to his death.  From April through June, he was at the center of the cross-border local ties between Suifenhe (Heilongjiang province, PRC), Nanjing (Jiangsu Province, PRC) and Rajin (Special Economic Zone, DPRK).  Nanjing has been playing a major role in the Chinese drive to expand “sister-city”-like relations with the DPRK, but it is rather interesting that Yanbian cadre are, in fact, the officials who seem to have the know-how necessary to pull off the task.

Money Laundering Issues — Li was also an expert in breaking money laundering rings — like this major scam broken up on Christmas Eve, 2009, just as Korean-American missionary Robert Park was walking across the Tumen River in a blizzard with a message for Kim Jong Il.  He was also best known for cracking an online banking scam run from South Korea via Yanbian.  If the United States and its allies are truly serious about sqeezing North Korea on the financial front, and want China’s help to do so, having a few friends in the Yanbian Public Security Bureau wouldn’t hurt.  While that’s hardly likely in the short term, the North Koreans know that there are quite a few Chinese who understand where the money is coming from.

Heightened Border Security —  The day after Kim Jong Il’s death was announced, the provincial government in Jilin sent Han Qiyang [韩起祥], its vice-minister of inspection, out to Yanbian to buck up local cadre about the need for more work in the areas of “law-abiding propaganda [and] defense against common crimes, financial crimes, and corruption.”  Han seems to show up in Yanbian about every four to six months anyway, but his appearance on December 20 could be noteworthy.

A word about the frontier: we are very likely soon to see reports from Chosun Ilbo and other concerned media about a “military buildup along the Chinese frontier with North Korea.”  But it is important to distinguish between a “military buildup” (which, to my mind at least, would imply the concentration of tens of thousands of troops from Shenyang and other parts of the Northeast and North China) and merely heightened security measures.  Almost certainly things are already being tightened along the lines of this post-border-jaunt analysis by an American diplomat just prior to the Olympics.  (One editorial note about the linked cable: the presence of a PLA vehicle outside of Longjing does not represent an escalation: there is almost always a PLA vehicle outside of Longjing!)

Finally, it bears repeating that, as analyzed here by Michael Rank and here by Adam Cathcart, Chinese media finally began reporting last July more in-depth about the dangers and problems posed by North Korean refugees for local residents on the Chinese side of the Tumen River.

[Update 1: In yesterday’s post to their essential “Witness to Transformation” blog, scholars Marcus Nolland and Stephan Haggard describe ongoing Chinese issues with North Korean drug trafficking, which, insofar as the frontier with the PRC is concerned, mainly flows through the rather wide North Hamgyong-Yanbian corridor.]

[Update 2: On December 19, the Yanbian Public Security Bureau declares “One Car, One Cop” policy for “preventing traffic accidents” by new drivers, which would appear to indicate more of the expected road patrols and random checks in the PRC’s Korean Autonomous Prefecture.]

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