A Yanji Sketch, and Notes on the Dandong Leadership

By | December 25, 2011 | No Comments

Along the frontier between North Korea’s North Hamgyong province and the PRC’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region, journalists, according to Chosun Ilbo, have been encountered problems with Chinese police.

Not so for Jeremy Page of the Wall Street Journal, who files a report which, amid all the other often completely baseless bloviating about rumors in Pyongyang, actually points the way forward to change of a sort in North Korea.

Entitled “Trade Binds North Korea to China,” Page’s dispatch virtually lays out a blueprint for further research and observation.

Among the questions prompted by Page’s work: Are North Korean cross-border traders an effective and powerful interest group in the DPRK today?  Is their relationship to provincial officials in North Hamgyong and North Pyong’an adversarial or symbiotic?  Does Jang Song-taek represent the interests of the trading elite, or an otherwise “pro-China” or “China-leaning” faction in Pyongyang? And, to be just a bit insouciant, why do the North Korean officials in or passing through Yanji prefer the Liujiang Hotel (which does not have a DPRK state-affiliated restaurant) when they could stay at the Rason Hotel (which assuredly does)?

To answer the question about Jang Song-Taek and the “new” (in the sense of “newly emergent”) Pyongyang elite and their relationship with China, it behooves us to look at the players on the Chinese side.

Dandong Leadership Watch (Part I) 

Last week at SinoNK, we discussed the role of the past Vice-Director for Public Security in Yanbian, and today, the provincial official in focus is the Secretary of the Dandong CCP Committee, Dai Yulin.

Dai Yulin / 戴玉林, CCP Party Secretary in Dandong

The highest-ranking CCP provincial and city leaders, or the most successful ones at least, are technocrats, and they tend toil away in provinces distant from their personal power bases.  Dai Yulin, born in 1959, is indeed a technocrat — with a doctorate in finance and two subsequent professorships in the same field — but he has been firmly entrenched in Liaoning province since at least the late 1980s, operating primarily within the tri-cornered circuit between Shenyang, Dalian, and Dandong.

In other words, he is a peninsular creature — that is to say, of the Liaoning peninsula, that economic counterweight to Kyonggi-do, which has the western part of North Korea caught in a kind of inevitable pincer of economic ties.

In particular, Dai is a Dalian man, having arrived there in 2001 and being promoted to vice mayor to the gregarious Bo Xilai [son of Bo Yibo], China’s most famous “princeling” and now in charge of Chongqing, in 2008.  Dai’s success in Dalian — a city which, in spite of three massive oil spills and a major chemical spill in the past 14 months of so, foreign columnists like Thomas Friedman still like to depict as a kind of ecotopia worthy of emulation by American mayors — resulted in his being thrown into Dandong at the unique historical juncture of August 2010, as plans began to materialize for accelerated ties with North Korea.  He was re-upped for the position by the CCP Party Congress in Beijing in July 2011.

Dai’s new office is in Xinchengqu; the entire city government has been moved out there.  The famous Yalu River bridge, as was pointed out by Tang Longwen in a very nice Shijie Zhishi article earlier this year, is a relic of Japanese imperialism, and hardly has the capacity for the kind of extensive mega-city and multi-national trade that China ultimately has planned to flow via Liaoning and North Pyong’an and onward to Pyongyang and points well south and east.  In other words, Dai’s new office is near the new $250 million bridge to Korea, which was reported on by the present author in dispatches from Dandong in June (here) and August of 2011.

(More photos of the construction in Xinchengqu are here, and then subsequently with more documents, thanks to Curtis, at NK Economy Watch).

By way of closing the argument about local ties and the relation of Chinese provincial officials to Pyongyang,  this analysis from September 2011 bears repeating in full:

At first I wondered: even in the midst of North Korea’s biggest wave of Chinese aid and investment since 1958, isn’t it a little bit unusual for the mayor of Dandong to go to Pyongyang?  And for KCNA to throw down not one, but three stories about the friendly visit?

And then I read a new piece in the Daily NK (which unlike so many DailyNK stories has much more than a just single source breathing rumors into a borderland cell phone) which describes a major purge going on in Sinuiju and surrounding North Pyong’an province.

…Occasionally one’s cross-border counterparts will simply disappear, and with them the claims to capacity or access of various kinds.

For Chinese officials in the northeastern provinces, the lesson is clear: always have friends in Pyongyang (preferably a handshake away from the Dear Leader), because the provincial cadre (even the ones you took out to karaoke, warbling away on the Dandong riviera) may not have your back after all.

And regardless of what North Korea does, money in the meantime is still flowing in Dandong, the little city with international ambitions. Not to veer into boosterism, but the city has indeed created an attractive investment environment for electronics and flat-screen manufacturers; a recent visit to the city of a representative from Philips was a focal point for Dai Yulin on December 15.

The interest in Sinuiju and the new Special Economic Zone — passed into law by the DPRK only on December 9 — is properly the subject of another post, one which will probably introduce SinoNK’s new Economic Analyst, Alan Ferrie.

Finally, a tip of the hat is due to Michael Madden at North Korea Leadership Watch, whose outstanding work (like this post on PLA-KPA renewed cooperation in November 2011 and this essay, which refers to North Korean security agencies possibly operating in China) on the biographies of North Korean leaders, above all Jang Song-taek, has really provided a model how and why to focus on the cadre who make up the sinews of the current bilateral relationship.

Dandong as East Asian hub. The loop to Pusan is not to be forgotten: Tian Baozhu, the CCP's head at the Consulate in Chongjin and a point person for the Rason project, is a former Consul-General there, meaning that economic encirclement of North Korea, as well as the country's possible salvation, also continues from Dandong. Image courtesy Dandong City Gov.

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  1. Re: the purge. I came across a item on a google news search (unsaved, and from a source I’ve never ecnountered before/not hard) about NKers in China who weren’t’ too keen to pack their bags and return for the funeral. Succession paranoia.

  2. Fascinating.

    I think you may have meant Bo Xilai in this sentence: “In particular, Dai is a Dalian man, having arrived there in 2001 and being promoted to vice mayor to the gregarious Bo Yibo, China’s most famous “princeling” and now in charge of Chongqing, in 2008”

    Also for whatever it’s worth, despite having been the mayor of Dalian (whatever his title was), Bo Xilai wasn’t a Dalian man himself.

  3. Never heard of the first source, but this morning LATimes provides the same in slightly more detail.
    Anyway, you would have seen the above on twitter.
    This is best site around at present. Way to enter 2012.

  4. Great post, although I think you mean Bo Xilai when you write Bo Yibo. Bo Xilai is the current party secretary of Chongqing, and Bo Yibo is the name of his father.

  5. I do indeed appear to be living in the 1950s! Absolutely, correction will be noted. Thanks. Ich bin ein bisschen unterwegs mit Redaktionen jetzt im China! Immer sofort.

  6. I just arrived in Florida for my Christmas vacation. I will go back to China after the Super Bowl.
    This new website is very good; looking forward to more great articles about the China-North Korea border region.
    I don’t know what project you had in mind for me but I haven’t infiltrated the Huangjinping (黄金坪) area border since the fence went up.

  7. I have no idea how the elite factions in NK interact which each other in times of raging sorrow, but to me, it looks as if opening the borders for supplies could as well be a mere necessity to survive from hand to mouth, rather than vested trading interests, as the WSJ report suggests. I can also see the point in the trade company’s official that it’s turn grief to strength this time, and the difference between 1994 and now – but that, too, may be a matter of mere survival, rather than a development strategy or the result of lobbying.

    I do feel that the article adds aspects to the kremlin astrology applied, but I can hardly believe that Kim Jong-un will take bold decisions, and at least the dynasty, if not the Workers Party‘s own rule, would be at stake in that case (as Page mentions himself). What I can see for sure is that Page reports from the side of the border where everyone hopes that these more positive clues could turn into a trend. It might all look very different if they weren’t reporting on the Chinese side of the Sino-Korean border, or right from the other side of the border, but actually from far in NK’s hinterland, as Page also says himself.

    He apparently chose to emphasize the encouraging aspects, rather than the discouraging ones. One can do that – but this would also imply a boldness on the part of Pyongyang which would hardly blend with the co-existing paranoia. Sure – there’s quite some paranoia in China, too, when it comes to external relations, but China is a big country, and still self-sufficient if need be.

  8. Possibly a somewhat different interpretation of the grief-to-strength-approach, in German: Kim kann sich eine Trauerphase nicht leisten, by Johnny Erling, Die Welt‘s China correspondent.

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