Buckling Down in Dandong

By | May 14, 2017 | No Comments

PRC Customs House in Dandong (March 2016). | Image: Adam Cathcart/Sino-NK

As Xi Jinping waxes poetic at the “One Belt, One Road” summit in Beijing, we take a look at Dandong, the buckle on whatever belt the CCP Chairman is able to lash onto the Korean peninsula. After all, if the “One Belt, One Road” framework is to have any meaning for North Korea, Dandong is an obvious point to investigate where reality meets rhetoric.

What steps and statements have both China and North Korea made of late with regard to this crucial city?

To most outside observers, the key issues are sanctions and sanctions enforcement, and to a lesser extent the presence of North Korean workers in and around the city. The fact that the US Congress appears poised to mandate regular Executive-branch reports about sanctions enforcement in Dandong, along with renewed attention by the New York Times, indicates as much. Even though there has been zero follow-up by Western reporters on the Hongxiang case in 2017, there is still a huge appetite for such stories.

But writing about sanctions enforcement is, in a sense, a bit of a dead end. It shuts one off from more interesting questions such as “How is China preparing for a North Korean collapse?”

Along those lines, a document alleged to be from the Dandong city government began circulating wildly online on April 24, the day before another falsely anticipated North Korean nuclear or missile test. As reported from Seoul, it looked like this:

A Chinese town near the border with North Korea is “urgently” recruiting Korean-Chinese interpreters, stirring speculation that China is bracing for an emergency situation involving its nuclear-armed neighbor.

The Oriental Daily, a Hong Kong-based news outlet published the story on Apr. 27, including a photo of a Chinese government document ordering the town of Dandong to recruit an unspecified number of Korean-Chinese interpreters to work at 10 departments in the town, including border security, public security, trade, customs and quarantine.

The document did not specify the reason for the unusual, large-scale recruiting. But experts and local citizens said the move indicated that China was bracing for a possible military clash between the United States and North Korea [which] might trigger a huge exodus of North Koreans to border towns in China.

While this questionable document generated a wave of speculation, the explanation for it got far less attention — but was also intriguing, in its own way. In a Guanchazhe (Observer) article, a Dandong Foreign Affairs Office official confirmed that the document was genuine, but that its “language had been imprecise, and therefore misinterpreted.” The headline was that the document was “standard work, [and] not a secret.” Shenyang’s top state security academic on Korean peninsula affairs, Lu Chao, was enlisted for comment, and complained that “government bureaucrats often work through the night…this was just rainy-day [未雨绸缪] planning.”

Sometimes, when it rains, it pours in Dandong.

On the same day that the city government was urgently (yet routinely) seeking Korean-language interpreters, the city Party Secretary was fired after only seven months on the job. On April 24, the CCP Party Secretary Liu Xingwei was demoted to the head of CCP organizations and vice-dean at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences in Shenyang.

Liu was replaced by Ge Haiying, the slightly older survivor of Anshan and Fushun’s sometimes brutal political world of corruption-and-coal, state-owned steel companies, and foreign investment in Liaoning. We will see how long he lasts, and where he ends up next, as this is now becoming something of a pattern under Xi Jinping: Dandong Party Secretaries survive in post for not more than sixteen months and are demoted to academic administrative positions.

Liu was, naturally, not accused of any crimes of corruption, but there is plenty of that possibility still about — an unpleasant potential amid the waves of central investment coming into Dandong.  At the very least, Xi’s calls for transparency ought to be amplified by the new city leadership.

In other Dandong news, the problem of illegal drugs appears to be alive and well; a relatively small drug bust occurred on May 8, and more systematic electronic cross-border surveillance seems to have some people breathing easier.

But as ever, the most intriguing crime is the one that may never have happened — that is, the North Korean-alleged meeting of South Korean intelligence agents in Dandong with a Chinese businessman intent on assassinating Kim Jong-un. The wild North Korean document, published on May 5, was such a brain-scrambler that no one has thought to parse it in great detail, but its overt inclusion of an accusation that South Korean agents are moving freely in Dandong is clearly in line with previous documents of similar vintage.

If you’re a North Korean inside of the DPRK reading or watching state media, the official image of Dandong being imparted here is a city that is a hotbed of international espionage and a launching point for individuals bent on killing the Supreme Leader, or blowing up the very expensive statues of his predecessors. No one seems to have a clue if Xu Guanghai (徐光海), the Chinese businessman fingered by the North Koreans, actually exists, but the Qingdao company that allegedly provided a front for his Kim-killing activities was established in March and focused on “chemistry equipment,” according to the Hong Kong Dagongbao.

“One Belt, One Road”? How the fact that North Korea’s primary discussion of Dandong this past week was to imply or demand the extradition of a Chinese businessman allegedly using the city as an espionage base? Somewhere between the lines of Xi Jinping’s speech, there must be a hairline fracture of frustration.