Blind Legacy: Jang Sung-taek and North Korea’s Invisible Cross-Border Bridge

By | December 09, 2013 | No Comments

Inching closer to completion: the new bridge between Dandong and Sinuiju, a symbol of economic development more associated with Jang Sung-taek than Kim Jong-un | Image: PRC Embassy in Pyongyang

Inching closer to completion: the new bridge between Dandong and Sinuiju, a symbol of economic development more associated with Jang Sung-taek than Kim Jong-un | Image: PRC Embassy in Pyongyang

Kim Jong-un arrived back in Pyongyang at this past week, having spent a period of time in cold and northern Kanggye, his grandfather’s favorite historical bolthole in which to wait out violence of various kinds in the capital. Yesterday, amid heightened public propaganda extolling his virtues and those of his father, the young and vengeful leader (who appears to have bloated in weight while in the north) chaired a meeting at which North Korea embarked upon on its most dramatic political turn since the death of Kim Jong-il.

The venomous purge of Jang Sung-taek, the uncle of Kim Jong-un and the ostensible “No. 2” in the DPRK, will ripple into various fields, including North Korea’s openness to the outside world, the personality cult around Kim Jong-un, and the character and already-limited scope of cultural construction in the DPRK. Things appear to be tilting in a more conservative direction than ever.

But what does Jang’s purge mean for North Korea’s foreign policy? Bruce Klingner (paywall) indicates that Jang’s fall will have little substantive impact in this area. But Klingner’s argument for policy continuity, though almost certainly true with respect to the United States, takes on a very shaky character indeed when applied to North Korean policy toward China. Why?

Among the key items for which Jang Sung-taek responsible was the joint committee on developing Hwanggumpyeong Island Special Economic Zone – a borderland development space that Sino-NK has previously analyzed here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Just prior to Jang’s fall, the North Koreans announced another new SEZ in Sinuiju, indicating their desire explicitly to step back from Hwanggumpyeong more or less entirely, and absolutely undercutting Jang’s leverage in Chinese eyes. Someone prescient might have even seen this as a foreshadowing.

The following essay wondered aloud why the North Koreans were so silent as regards the bridge from Hwanggumpyeong to China, and that the structure – easily the most impressive “public work” constructed in the Kim Jong-un era – was closely associated with Jang Sung-taek.

As it turns out, the DPRK leadership had its reasons for not publicizing the bridge’s existence to their fellow citizens. It would have puffed up Jang’s apparently inflated prestige, in addition to revealing North Korea’s ambivalent attitude toward economic interpenetration with China.

Jang’s interactions with the Chinese, and the closely related fate of the potentially transformative SEZ near Sinuiju, will continue to be debated on this site and beyond. Within that debate, the bridge from North Pyongan province into Dandong will remain one of its most curious elements. — Christopher Green, Co-editor

Blind Legacy: Jang Song-taek and North Korea’s Invisible Cross-Border Bridge *

by Adam Cathcart

Masik-wrong | In the past couple of months, Kim Jong-un, the North Korean state media, and foreign reporters have shown the greatest possible interest in a quixotic project in remote Gangwon province: Masikryeong Ski Resort. Amid the intoxication (either of Kim Jong-un’s brilliance, or, in the case of foreign reporters, the ostensibly risible yet tragic irony the project seems to spawn), no one seems to have pointed out that Masik has yet to earn a single cent of foreign exchange. Few economists have tendered estimates as to the cost of the project, nor has anyone offered any notion of where the money might be coming from.

It seems, however, that the goal of the North Korean state has been served. With Masik, the West is transfixed by something novel which generates free publicity (not unlike the alcohol-fueled junkets of Dennis Rodman) and a counter-narrative that has very little to do with a genuinely distressing UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights or the growing united front that opposes North Korean nuclear development. No less, through Masik, the state is allowed to preen itself as modern and even potentially reformist, reminding outsiders of Kim Jong-un’s Swiss background, without in any way obligating itself to do anything resembling structural change.

The Masik Pass resort therefore serves its function: It is loud, it is big, it is unmistakably Kim Jong-un’s, the Army skitters through any amount of mud upon his hale command, Western reporters given access to the place go home with the scoop they richly deserve, and no one has any clue what its economic impact will be.

What matters is that people are talking about it.

From Despair to the Bridge to Where? | Contrast the above case, then, with an actual instrument of foreign trade, financed by the People’s Republic of China, a long rising ribbon of infrastructure that dwarfs anything yet attributed to Kim Jong-un. The bridge being built outside of Sinuiju, spanning the Yalu River, is now nearly complete.

A recent trade fair in Dandong (the “second annual” iteration of something that almost didn’t happen in the first place) was the occasion for the PRC Ambassador in Pyongyang, Liu Hongcai, to take a trip to China’s main port of call for North Korean goods and services. The bridge was hardly the focal point of the discussions, but its status will surely aid as a major lever in opening the northwest of the DPRK, and in facilitating North Korean exports to China, in the event that sufficient exports can be manufactured.

The Ambassador’s office put out some astonishingly bullish figures from the trade fair, claiming that “more than 10,000 Chinese and foreign businesspersons” had attended, discussing over 200 specific investment projects, of which 93 “expressed an intention” to go forward at a total investment of $1.6 billion (just over a billion of which would be via trade-related projects).

In keeping with its domestic media propensity to downplay foreign investment, the North Korean news media covered the trade fair without any such specific figures. This shrouded method would be in keeping with the treatment of the Mongolian President’s public visit to DPRK, during which the President’s speech about foreign investment and trade rules was hermetically sealed off at the Yanggakdo Hotel and not conveyed in the least via state media. If unthreatening Mongolia is unable to pose itself at the vanguard of reform and foreign direct investment, then less still is China able to do so within the DPRK’s boundaries.

Therefore North Korea’s state propaganda has been absolutely silent about the bridge, although it might be absolutely central to Kim Jong-un’s ability to deliver on his promise to build “a rich and powerful country, a country we can be proud of to the world.” Of course the Respected General has yet to so much as travel openly to Sinuiju, much less Rasun, and if there is a North Korean personality to whom this project can be attributed, it is his uncle, Jang Sung-taek.

Foggy Sulphurous Clouds: Conclusion | Like the clouds of smoke from northern China drifting ever-sulfurous over the Korean peninsula, the bridge from Dandong represents the intrusion of external realities into North Pyongan province. Development and its dislocations loom; but Koreans, especially those in the north (including on the Chinese side of the border), are accustomed to the idea that movement and opportunity are connected.

The idea of transnational migration over frontiers which once were controlled by Japan brings to mind Kim Il-sung. Today along the banks of the Yalu River, we are witnessing the struggle between Kimist conceptions of what is possible along the frontier. North Korea’s founder despised foreign trade as a necessary evil, and saw North Pyongan foremost as a granary, arms depot, and “rear area” into which he and his forces could retreat in the event of another invasion from the South.

What Kim Il-sung and son shared was a distrust of the region; a rebellion in Sinuiju in 1945 could have derailed Kimism before it got its feet planted, and Kim Jong Il escaped a train explosion in the northwest in 2004 that was probably an assassination attempt. But Kim Jong-il still pushed, if abortively, for a Sinuiju Special Economic Zone in 2001, even if implementation on the North Korean side has been beyond spotty ever since then.

It is this ambivalence that the Chinese bridge seeks to eradicate. Arriving at the same time as the resort at Masik Pass, its utility is the ultimate fact. The velocity of interaction may increase mightily thereby, but then again, it might not. As Kim Il-sung said in 1961, “there is nothing more difficult than transforming people.” Perhaps he was right. But things are happening now that might bring long-term change to North Korea, whether they are being trumpeted or not.

* This essay was first published as a guest column, “North Korea’s Invisible Bridge,” by Daily NK on November 8, 2013.

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