Yongusil 78: Borderland Flows and The Capitalist Unconscious
How bad are China-North Korean relations today? Consider the New Yalu River Bridge (신압록강대교) at Dandong-Sinuiju, a span which has been complete for months on end. Despite an upcoming trade fair and an accident on the crucial old bridge that links the two border cities, DPRK officials and businesspeople (those who are ostensibly “economy-first”) have proven incapable of forcing the new bridge open. Add the collegiality shown by leaders Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping at Tiananmen Square on September 3 this year. Plait together these geopolitical and economic data points and you may readily conclude that Sino-DPRK relations are in a state of profound stagnation, or worse.
Precisely this — connecting local data points to a grand narrative of poisoned relations — happens regularly. Contextualizing the recent shooting of a Chinese civilian by a lone Korean People’s Army (KPA) soldier on the Chinese side of the border with its traditional ally, reporter Kim Se-jin states:
DPRK-China relations rapidly cooled after North Korea’s third nuclear test and the execution of Jang Song-taek, since when there has been a string of incidents involving the North Korean military in the border region.
The events of the past year are held to constitute a distinct pattern in which armed KPA, often deserters, murder Chinese nationals. In January four Chinese-Koreans were killed in Nanping in Jilin Province, and in March a hostage situation involving a second deserter took place in Dandong. The linkage of these incidents to the broader narrative of decaying relations implies that North Korea is antagonized by the positive tone of China-South Korea relations and is reacting to it within the (limited) range of its capabilities by instigating cross border incidents that harass its putative ally at the margins.
Conversely, for Hyun Ok Park, a professor of sociology at York University in Canada, borderland events are seen in much broader temporal terms. In her new text, The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea (Columbia University Press, 2015), links are made between incidents from the Minsaengdan Incident of 1932-36 to present-day concerns along the Tumen River valley. Surveying the terrain, looking at Chinese-Korean communities in Seoul and Korean-Chinese ones in Yanbian, Park sees beneath the bluff and bluster of old-fashioned geopolitics a set of impersonal neoliberal forces that have already unified the Korean peninsula.
For her, contiguous crises of capitalism beset the two Koreas in the 1990s, compelling an end to welfare provisions of various kinds and yielding to flexible/precarious labor and unfettered capital movement. If North Koreans move across the river, they are, in a sense, performing the type of “osmosis” of economic migration described in her previous work, pressured by economic imperatives and operating within a cultural framework wherein the socialist project of modernization meets the most profound pressures. The vision of higher living standards across the Tumen River quickly gives way to the difficult realities of life as a displaced migrant. There is little room here for an interpretation of border crossings as a lever for a new mass politics or cultural nexus that might fundamentally alter the political and diplomatic bilateral relationship between China and either of its Korean interlocutors.
Park urges us to look at the role that transnational capital plays in relations between China and the Koreas, and the fact of their present level of de facto integration — even when that integration depends heavily on contravening the will of the state, illegal border crossings, and huge wage and political differentials. However, when we leave aside questions of citizenship and ethnic identity (which is, admittedly, leaving aside quite a lot), there are times that disjuncture rather than unification prevails. Borders are far from open, and the majority of North Koreans on the Chinese frontier shall never cross over to the other side. It is here that the role of politics needs to be more closely interrogated.
Go and sit at the foot of the New Yalu River Bridge in Dandong’s new (yet somehow hallow) Xincheng district, and your thoughts will instinctively turn to politics. The reason is simple: the giant empty white bridge at which you stare is a symbol of bilateral relations; a political project par excellence. Much wringing of hands greets the fact of this project’s frozen status. But go east (young man) and you find economic engagement all along the bilateral frontier: at Ji’an-Manpo, Changbai-Hyesan, Tumen-Namyang, and Hunchun-Rason. These are not political projects, at least not as political as they are economic, and for this they continue apace.
It seems rather questionable to claim — as Park does — that the peninsula has been unified by neoliberal capital and transnationalism. After all, a single toppled truck on the ancient bridge across the Yalu was enough to paralyze legal trade into the city, and North Koreans who attempt to cross the Tumen River to ply trade or make the indirect and perilous leap toward South Korea are all-too-often prevented by force from doing so. But at the same time, Park’s writing adroitly highlights the possibility that apolitical trade and capital flows are slowly unifying Northeast Asia as an economic entity and wrestling the power from the region’s leaders — elected and unelected alike. Dandong’s new transportation links with South Korea, announced just as the October 1 Sino-NK workshop was going forward, highlight as much. Amid these changing narratives and dichotomies, the truth is likely somewhere in between. Subjective histories and monetary flows can co-exist, mingle, meet, and diverge. Reconfiguring relationships is not always a zero-sum game.