Special Economic Zones after the Purge
Immediately following the execution of Jang Song-taek, communications between China and North Korea “had the sensation,” as one anonymous Chinese diplomat put it, “of having been interrupted overnight.” China has since insisted that business goes on as usual, and a deal on the construction of a high-speed railway between Kaesong and Beijing, signed on the day of the purge itself, suggests that for some the interruption may barely have registered. Meanwhile, the purge itself suggested that Kim Jong-un has grown sufficiently confident in his abilities to the extent that he does not need his uncle’s strong business ties with Beijing, and by extension does not need China’s good favor quite as much as before.
“South Korea Anxious that North-South Tensions Will Rise; Sino-North Korean Border Trade Route is Absolutely Normal,” [韩国忧南北紧张升级 中朝边界贸易通道一切正常], Huanqiu Shibao, December 13, 2013.
According to an independent source disclosed by JoongAng Ilbo on December 12, in recent days, US-Japan-South Korea had been stating that “Jang Song-taek’s exit could transform Sino-North Korean relations,” spreading the rumor [that Jang’s exit] would “apply the brakes” to the relationship.
In the past few days, the New York Times voiced that the fall of Jang Song-taek made China uneasy, while Korea Times thought that the North Korean government had released “negative information” to China [via criticism of Jang’s business dealings].
On December 12, Japan’s Sankei Shimbun even quoted “a Chinese diplomat” who said “the channel of communication between China and North Korea has the feeling of having been cut off overnight.”
In all of these cases, the rationale was that Jang Song-taek had been playing a character who was important in the Sino-North Korean economic cooperation [张成泽在中朝经济合作中曾扮演重要角色].
Liaoning Social Sciences Institute scholar Lü Chao went to Dandong on December 12. There he saw that a large number of Chinese goods and lorries were moving into the DPRK; the Hwangumpyeong Island project was also completely as normal [黄金坪合作项目也一切如常].
In comparison to this embodiment of stability in Sino-North Korean relations, Japan and South Korea are evidencing far more worries about their relationship with the North. Yesterday [December 12] North Korea issued a statement condemning South Korea’s purchase of advanced fighters from the US, said it would continue to launch satellites; this brought coded responses from the Japanese media about continuing anti-ballistic missile programs. As Chosun Ilbo put it, “the sword of Damocles” is truly hanging over South Korea’s head.
DPRK requests that “the project go on as scheduled” [朝方要求“项目如期举行]:
On December 12 South Korean JoongAng Ilbo quoted a “responsible person” working on a [cross-border trade] project with Tumen City who said:
The North Korean leader’s uncle was charged with treason and counterrevolutionary activity. Such news is unprecedented, so [we thought] the timing of signing the contract would be likely to be postponed … but North Korean officials said ‘no problem’ (‘没事’) and requested that ‘the project remain on schedule,’ so the two sides signed the contract.
The report stated that the Special Economic Zone in Onsung City [North Hamgyong provice] is being included as one of North Korea’s [new] 14 special zones. Here North Korea will introduce capital from Tumen, set up a tourist resort and convalescence center on an island in the Tumen River (豆满江), and, taking advantage of the North Korean labor force, set up an Onsung County industrial park which [will become] the “second Kaesong industrial park” [第二个开城工业园区].
On December 12th South Korean Korea Daily (《每日朝鲜》) quoted Democratic Party legislator Pyo Hong (洪翼杓) as saying that while North Korea had purged Jang in a meeting on December 8, it had also reached an agreement with China for the construction of a 380-kilometer high-speed railway connecting Sinuiju-Pyongyang-Kaesong and a highway. He explained:
This conveys that North Korea’s most recent open-door policy (最近的开放政) has been fixed by the top leadership, is being promoted according to plan, and cannot be affected by the departure of Jang.
JoongAng Ilbo quoted a businessman (who did not wish to be identified) as saying:
After the explosive news from South Korea’s National Intelligence Agency that Jang had already been wiped out, the North Korean authorities immediately told me: ‘Very soon, major events may occur in our country, but the principles of our business cooperation will not change. Thus, we continue.
On December 11, Korea Times also published an article entitled “The Elimination of Jang–A Message to China.” According to the article, some analysts said that Jang’s fall sent a negative message to China’s political leaders. The report quoted Dankook University scholar Son Tae-kyu (宋太奎) as saying:
Jang carefully developed friendly relations with Beijing, and maintained good long-term relations with Beijing [与北京保持长期的良好关系]. By toppling Jang, Kim Jong-un seems to be insisting that without China’s help, his regime can continue to survive.
On the 12th, Japan’s Sankei Simbun said that with the North Korean domestic political purges (国内的肃清), many people in the China-DPRK relationship were cut off of from communication [中朝很多关系人士联系中断]. Chinese local government exchanges with the DPRK have also been stopped. A Chinese diplomat said that “channels between China and the DPRK have the feeling of having been broken overnight.”
On December 11, South Korea’s Donga Ilbo said that China had strengthened security on the China-DPRK border and increased the alert level. Another source said that local police and border protection patrols had entered a heightened state of alert.
In a December 12 interview with Huanqiu Shibao, Lü Chao, director of the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences’ Korean Research Center, said:
Today I was in Dandong, and saw a large North Korean purchase of Chinese buses bound for North Korea. Customs and border business proceeded completely as usual.
Lü also said that the Jang’s removal from the political stage on December 9 was by no means an unexpected event, for he had already been marginalized in the recent period of time, taking into account the fact that his “henchmen” (“党羽”) had been cut off.
South Korean media said China and the DPRK signed the Onsung contract on schedule. If true, it is a posture (姿态), indicating that relations between the two countries cannot be drastically changed following the outbreak of the Jang incident.
Lü Chao said:
In the two years since Kim Jong-un took office, continuous smooth progress has been made on a number of projects, including the development of two islands [i.e., Hwanggumpyeong and Wihwa], new bridge construction over the Yalu River, and Rason terminal expansion. While Jang played an important role in Sino-DPRK economic cooperation, including his key part in driving the Hwanggumpyeong agreement, the shared policies of China and the DPRK retain strong continuity. As of December 12, the general feeling in Dandong is that the Hwanggumpyeong project remains entirely unaffected (by Jang’s purge and execution).
Lü Chao further said that while some Chinese businessmen are now worried that changes to their pre-existing cooperative partnerships with the DPRK may affect investment and cooperation projects, concrete evidence of this fear still has not yet been seen.
Source: “South Korea Anxious that North-South Tensions Will Rise; Sino-North Korean Border Trade Route is Absolutely Normal” [韩国忧南北紧张升级 中朝边界贸易通道一切正常], Huanqiu Shibao, December 13, 2013. Translation by Adam Cathcart, Morgan Potts, and Emile Dirks.