Hard Times for Expat South Koreans in Dandong

By | March 01, 2016 | No Comments

Dandong Railway Station. The gateway to North Korea is overlooked by a statue of Mao. | Image: Wikicommons

Dandong Railway Station. The gateway to North Korea is overlooked by a statue of Mao. | Image: Wikicommons

Dandong is hot news these days. Yonhap reports that North Korean vessels have been banned from docking at the city’s port, and UPI brings unconfirmed news of an incident in which a North Korean consular official killed three of the city’s residents in a drunk driving incident at the beginning of February. Donga Ilbo declares that banks in the region are cracking down on transfers to or from the North and/or the accounts of North Koreans, and RFA has evidence of a KPA-run trading company double contracting on a deal sealed by the late Jang Song-taek.

Here at Sino-NK, we have not been idle amidst the excitement. In addition to an impending repeat of our own research forays up to the borderland, February 24 saw the publication of a Jangmadang that deftly sidestepped the great power back-and-forth at the UN to look squarely at pending issues through the lens of Chinese sources. Go marginally farther back into the archive and a slice of Korean perspective is also available thanks to a translation of one of anthropologist Kang Ju-won’s late-2015 articles for Pressian. By the by, there are thirteen more articles where that came from, all from much the same period.

Seizing the nettle, South Korea’s Kyunghyang Sinmun has now entered the fray, sending a special correspondent to Dandong at the end of February. What Park Eun-kyoung finds in the city is a dwindling and seemingly rather disheartened group of South Korean expats. Once optimistic about the future of inter-Korean trade relations, they have witnessed the effects of the global financial crisis and May 24 Measures, and now find themselves washed up and waiting for improvements that seem unlikely to come. Indeed, there is the fear that life may be about to get even worse — and that it could finally be time to get out of Dandong altogether.

What follows is the second of Park’s special “Frozen Dandong” reports for Kyunghyang, published on March 1. The first one is here.

Park Eun-kyeong, “Endured the financial crisis and May 24th Measures, but now helpless” [[얼어붙은 단동]금융위기-5.24조치도 버텼는데 이젠 막막], Kyunghyang Sinmun, March 1, 2016.

Once, more than 3,000 expat South Koreans (한국 교민) lived in Dandong. Factor in the floating population and the number rose to 5,000. But now it has shrunk to a level of six or seven hundred.

There have been a number of crises. Some departed as the global financial crisis caused exchange rates to rise sharply and profitability to decline; then, having withstood that for less than two years, the May 24 Measures were announced in the aftermath of the Cheonan incident. As the Measures continued, banning new investments in North Korea and putting a halt to South-North exchanges, the number of expats abandoning Dandong increased. Now, the next UN Security Council sanctions resolution awaits all those who have thus far resisted the urge to leave.

A businessman with more than a decade of experience doing business with North Korea in Dandong, “Mr. A.” said with a wry smile:

“I endured and endured, but now I fear I have reached the end of the road.  Since I can speak Chinese I should look for something else to do, either some other business or just work as an interpreter.”

“When the May 24th Measures weren’t lifted [5.24조치가 풀리지 않자], everyone who was going to leave, left. We had thought [the Measures] would be lifted when the government changed, you see, so we waited for that, but it didn’t happen. Then there was a glimmer of hope last year when they reached the August 25th Agreement and held separated family reunions. However, now they are saying that even bigger sanctions are coming and that everything that is left will be stopped.”

Having reached agreement with the United States on a strong new sanctions resolution, Beijing adopted an aggressive position, saying they would implement the sanctions in full. That is why the expat Koreans and businesspeople in Dandong are even more apprehensive than before.

However, some expect China to actually be less assertive when it comes to practical implementation. Pointing to loopholes in the resolution, they say that it won’t be that effective. “Mr B.”, who has lived in Dandong for nigh on twenty years, says he is worried by the sanctions, but:

“There is no way China can abandon North Korea completely. North Korea is a little shit; they’ve no manners and no credibility. The Chinese must hate them; but China’s own interests are linked with North Korea, so there is just no way.”

He expects China to implement the resolution but with “one eye closed” to give North Korea some breathing space.

Foreign media including the New York Times point to weaknesses in the resolution and seem also to doubt its efficacy. They point out that the resolution is tough [수위가 높다], but it cannot put a stop to North Korea’s main ways of bringing in hard currency, namely, remittances from exports of labor and cross-border trade between North Korea and China. Moreover, they raise the point that even if North Korea’s exports of natural resources are stopped, exports that support ordinary livelihoods [생계목적] are exempt.

Amidst all the fears, anxieties and hopes, as of February 29 it looked like nothing in Dandong had changed. Just like any other day, Chinese and North Korean trucks plied back and forth across the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge that links Sinuiju with Dandong. The previous day when I went to sillyu commercial district, North Korean people were buying up Chinese goods just like before. North Korean traders often head to the district, which is akin to Dongdaemun in Seoul, for clothing, cosmetics and other sundry items. Some Korean expats reckon that the North Koreans are panic-buying goods in preparation for the time when it becomes more difficult to do so, but there is no sign of hoarding.

Source: Park Eun-kyeong, “Endured the financial crisis and May 24th Measures, but now helpless” [금융위기-5.24조치도 버텼는데 이젠 막막], Kyunghyang Sinmun, March 1, 2016. Translation by Christopher Green.