Hwanggumpyong, Thy Name is Mud
by Adam Cathcart
Devoted readers of the North Korean-Chinese relationship will readily recall the excitement of June 2011, when a personage no less than Jang Song Taek, the presumptive regent-in-waiting, arrived from Pyongyang for an opening ceremony for a new Special Economic Zone on Hwanggumpyong Island (황금평/黄金坪) at the mouth of the Yalu River. But after the red carpet was rolled up, and the inflatable gates drained of air, and the officials on both sides retracted back into their various compounds and bureaucratic thickets, what was left? Promises, mainly. On this island prone to flooding, the Chinese side appears concerned that the North Koreans have not and will not take physical steps to shore up and protect the presumed Chinese investment in the physical plant, none of which has shown any signs of arriving yet. The fact that China went ahead with a public embrace of this idea in spite of open doubts about the viability of the investment, not to mention after so conclusively scotching a larger version of it a decade ago by jailing its foremost advocate Yang Bin, might indicate that the PRC was sufficiently nervous about assuring a stable succession in Pyongyang that they pushed it ahead anyway. In this somewhat “pell-mell and wait” scenario, China’s North Korea policy embraces the logic and long-term imperitive of somewhat illogical economic development decisions on the frontier, mixed with a few improvised and potentially harmful muddy cocktails.
A few declarations in North Korean media in the last seven months have at least indicated that the DPRK is working on a more palatable legal framework for the Chinese businesses that would ostensibly set up on Hwanggumpyong — perhaps with cheap North Korean workers. The DPRK also developed and publicized a new law on natural diasters which may be related. But, by and large, the lack of movement by China in terms of constructing much of anything on the island tells the story. A major Sino-North Korean cultural and trade festival which was to have taken place in June 2012 has quietly been backed up to October 2012; the only consolation prize given was a rare performance in Dandong on May 28 by Pyongyang’s finest opera troupe, the Sea of Blood ensemble, a sure indication that Kim Jong Un is lavishing some attention on the Dandong-Sinuiju binary, even if South Korean reports that he was wandering around in Dandong in March and April of 2011 (based purely on the reasoning that security was tight near the city’s best hotel) are almost certainly false. And the North Korean state had little time to celebrate Chinese-North Korean relations in early June, anyway, the entire propaganda apparatus being too busy consolidating the new youth, which looked a bit like the old youth, to lavish praises on the northwestern frontier. In both propaganda and reality, the long and tortured story of the Sinuiju SEZ, like so many things involving the North Korean economy, is a story of possibility, and of waiting.
Rumors Repeated, Rumors Denied | Exquisitely timed to coincide with the Korean War anniversary, reports circulated on June 25 that the Chinese were fed up and had cancelled the project. On June 26, the Huanqiu Shibao (via National Defense News) quickly confirmed the existence of the theme and of tensions surrounding the island, but did not deny the story. Yesterday, the KCNA took the highly unusual step of publishing a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement in English before the Chinese themselves did, spokesman Hong Lei’s June 26 press briefing. Since the Chinese Foreign Ministry has yet to release the English version at the time of this writing, KCNA necessarily gets out in front of this story with alacrity:
Spokesman for Chinese Foreign Ministry Dismisses S. Korean Media’s Misinformation
Beijing June 26 (KCNA) — Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, answered a question put by Phoenix Satellite TV Holdings Ltd., Hong Kong, China as regards a Korean issue at a regular press briefing in Beijing on June 26. He dismissed south Korean media’s report that the Chinese government suspended an agreement on Hwanggumphyong between China and the DPRK.
The relations of cooperation in the economy and trade between China and the DPRK are favorably developing and the plan on Hwanggumphyong and an agreement on two economic zones are being regularly promoted at present, he noted, adding that what the media concerned reported is totally unfounded and irresponsible.
Which is, with the addition of the Phoenix tie-in (KCNA seems to have developed a bit of an attachment to the gift-giving Hong Kong conglomerate), a decent enough translation of what Hong Lei actually said, minus the scare quotes around the phrase “two economic zones”:
Without getting too speculative here, it certainly bears noting when the North Korean news media reacts so fast to a spreading perception, faster, even, in fact, than their Chinese counterparts. For their part, Chinese state media did not ignore the story (Xinhua outlets being more than perceptive when it comes to being told to pretend that something is not happening), but picked it up immediately, and spread the information further via a fairly prominent trial balloon. (It turns out the Huanqiu Shibao is useful for all sorts of things.)
Enter next the perhaps-allegorical story reported approximately simultaneously in North Korean state media: It concerns a young girl who died in a flood to save two portraits of the Kim family. Chinese netizens are of course all over this, with some fairly harsh and predictable comments, but consider for a moment a kernel message at work in the North Korean materials, even if it has been stated before: Floods bring out our people’s belief. We are not afraid of a little water. Related to the SEZ thread? Perhaps not at all. But if there is actual disagreement between China and North Korea on the Hwanggumpyong Island SEZ, and if that dispute involves actions which ought to be taken by North Korea as regards flood protection, then, having been given so little else, we would be foolish to ignore the trope for what it signifies, if only in the realm of symbolism. In a state that can create a labor gang virtually whenever it wants to, the collective will of a zealously unified people can be held up as the answer to any problem, or the withholding of any aid.
But if KCNA divination is not your bag, and more solid data be needed, there is probably no better factual backstop to this story than the article by Tang Longwen in Shijie Zhishi (World Knowledge) on the dangers of flooding for China’s investment in the SEZ. Fortunately, that piece of evidence was translated by Matthew Bates and posted on this site back in April; a short exerpt provides some very helpful grist in the light of recent events and/or non-events:
The Specter of Floods | In reality, in these two free trade zones that the DPRK is establishing, the effect of floods from the Yalu river is very great, because these two islands lack basic dam defences, when the flood approaches, decades’ worth of construction achievements and huge capital investment can in a moment be turned to nothing (literally, “but soap bubbles”).
In Dandong,to prevent and mitigate against the flooding from the Yalu River, as early as the 1930s and 1940s, flood control dams had already begun to be constructed along the river basin.
Since the reform and opening policies (initiated by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s), the country has again put great financial strength into constructing and extending protective dam projects, to make Dandong City’s degree of safety continually increase, but North Korea in this regard has invested extremely little, and as a result, every time a flood comes, all suffer its harm.
In the 2010 Yalu river flood hazard for example, due to the widespread rainstorm in north eastern China, the water level of the Yalu river quickly rose to its upper reaches, and located its lower reaches, North Korea’s Sinuiju and Wihwa Island were encountered severe flooding, the like of which comes once in 30 years.
In the event that upon the island various kinds of businesses and public facilities were constructed, if they suffered such bitter flooding, it would cause huge damage. From the significance of this it can be said that if these two islands become free trade zones, then of necessity floods must first be protected against.
And managing the floods will require build huge flood-defensive dams, that is to say, will require huge capital and financial resources investment as a prerequisite.
But these kinds of resources are not abundantly available, and the development value of these two small islands is not at all great, and if investment exceeds productive value, whether or not the project is worthwhile still needs to be demonstrated.
Furthermore, the North Korean system, law as well as other factors possess risks which must also not be underestimated. These need repeatedly to be expounded upon to those Chinese firms interested in participating in this development project.
In addition, we are still able to try borrowing from the experience of North and South Korea’s Kaesong Industrial Park. It can be said that in the absence of China’s support, North Korea would find it hard to have the huge economic strength to develop the two islands, but without North Korea’s complete economic opening, the actual significance of the development of the two islands is not at all very great.
As a consequence, the key point is not whether or not the DPRK’s two islands are developed, but rather whether or not the DPRK is really prepared to open up.