Bullet Trains and Wood-Burning Trucks

By and | May 01, 2014 | No Comments


China’s new high-speed rail line on the outskirts of Tumen, looping towards Hunchun, Jilin province. | Image. Adam Cathcart/Sino-NK

Travellers to Northeast China quickly understand why those familiar with the region call it the 21st century “Western Frontier” or “Wild Wild West.” Not unlike the great transportation and infrastructure development projects of mid-19th century America, China is attempting to bring the three provinces of its northeast frontier “up to speed” with the more developed coastal regions. In the hinterlands between and around major cities of the region, one gets a sense of the vital role infrastructure plays in connecting the nation and spurring economic development.

The Chinese government, unlike its North Korean counterpart, appears to understands this process acutely. In addition to the building development projects transforming the region’s cityscapes, a high-speed rail network is being developed with the end goal of connecting regions of the northeast together and to the rest of the country. Just across the Tumen River lies a vision of a possible North Korean future. However, the likelihood that DPRK visionaries, whoever they may be, are able to realize such a future remains slim. In this cross-posting from Daily NK, we recall what we saw whilst traversing the region. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor 

Adam Cathcart and Steven Denney, “Bullet Trains and Wood-Burning Trucks,” Daily NK, April 28, 2014* 

A Tale of Two Countries | Eastern Manchuria, for decades a cold and industrially declining region, is now a site of huge infrastructure development. Time and space between the three northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang provinces are shrinking. Meanwhile, North Hamkyung is whittling away with dysfunctional infrastructure and marginal growth at Rason.

A recent trip to the border region reveals two things. One, North Korean business in the northeastern provinces has hardly atrophied since the fall of Jang Song-taek. There is plenty of business activity taking place: North Korean run restaurants and joint venture hotels remain busy collecting valuable foreign currency and are poised for potential growth. Two, China is flexing its infrastructural muscles, radically altering the status quo of development in the region.

Foremost, a high-speed train project is bursting through mountainsides in eastern Jilin, with tunnels perfectly rounded, apertures indicating progress. Alongside this development, smoke from small fires of Chinese peasants mingles with the ubiquitous dust raised by the construction.

North Korean consciousness of Manchuria is strong, but it is so heavily focused on the past so as to obfuscate present realities. The old train lines laid by the Japanese and tended by the CCP after a hard-fought civil war twist around and through woods and fields, triggering imagination of the past anti-Japanese guerilla struggle. The new train line, by contrast, punches through an irresistibly straight line, shortening the distance between the North Korean border and the urbanized spine of Manchuria.

A North Korean entrepreneur could, hypothetically, board a train in Hunchun and navigate to any number of international trade hubs with ease. Kim Jong Il’s slow train trips in 2010 and 2011 hinted that North Korean media might take note of such opportunities in the Northeast, thus allowing North Koreans to see the region as something more than a cesspool of defectors, Christians, and special agents.

A comparatively massive government building under construction in Tumen, PRC, just behind the old colonial-era footbridge to Namyang. |mage: Adam Cathcart/Sino-NK

A comparatively massive government building under construction in Tumen, PRC, just behind the old colonial-era footbridge to Namyang. |mage: Adam Cathcart/Sino-NK

If the North Korean state, out of whatever motivation, wishes to connect with this aspect of the Chinese industrial behemoth, it has every opportunity to do so. The western line from Pyongyang has recently been discussed as the first priority for any possible connection; but the eastern line, which would potentially connect North Hamkyung to China, bears watching and is in some ways as important. As it stands domestically, even privileged party officials can barely traverse Chongjin to Pyongyang in a span of 24 hours. Across the river in North Korea, wood-burning trucks sputter along and children gather stones to be used in construction work.

If inter-Korean business competition can be said to exist in the Northeast, the DPRK is losing badly. The ubiquity of South Korean culture and business ties in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture is palpable. South Korean remittances into Yanji, for example, play a vital role in the city’s ongoing development. By contrast, North Korea offers a couple of decent hotels and the potential for importing low-skilled labor into the prefecture.

On the Tracks to Nowhere | North Koreans are capable of owning, maintaining, and profiting from business activity in the Northeast. Moreover, there is a subtle undercurrent of affinity between ethnic Koreans residing in the region and North Korea. We would hardly expect North Korean state media to sing the praises of the Chinese Communist Party and its full embrace of state-led market capitalism. Pyongyang is, however, more than willing and in fact hungry to accept remittances from North Korean businesses aboard. But they need to treat their human capital with the same level of intensity that China treats its infrastructure. Otherwise, North Korea will stay on the slow train to the end of the line.

* This essay has been modified to meet the style and formatting standards outlined in the Sino-NK Style Guide. No substantive changes have been made.


This piece is published as part of a project documenting the cultural and political strategies used by the DPRK government to promote its policy agenda and create strategic discord abroad. This research is supported by an Academy of Korean Studies Grant (AKS-2013- R-11).

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