Dead on Arrival? Taking Trade Notes in Dandong

By and | October 20, 2015 | No Comments

For all the media buzz gathered around China-DPRK relations this autumn, there is a mystifying absence of stories in English about Dandong and the China-North Korea trade fair that just took place there. The one foreign journalist who did tackle the subject wrote an essentially credulous acceptance of China’s English-language releases, while the Straits Times in Singapore called it “an early positive sign” of renewed impetus in China-North Korea cooperation. In sum: If China says the opening of another new trade zone is going to help to make the region more prosperous then it will do exactly that, and the trade fair is thus part of a larger picture of successful Chinese opening to its ally.

Yet Dandong is much more than this. It is the ideal place for testing hypotheses about how the bilateral relationship is trending on the ground, away from the capital-city diplomacy of September 3 and October 10. Hypothetically, if China were opening the investment spigots to North Korea in the twin lee of important trips — Choe Ryong-hae in Beijing and Liu Yunshan’s in Pyongyang — Dandong would be the prime location from which to sit and watch it happen.

Of course, business in the city utilizing North Korean labor goes on unabated. On October 19, an outstanding article on the subject appeared on one of South Korea’s prolific and proliferating online media sources, Pressian. Written by a trained anthropologist with a wealth of experience doing research in the city, it characterized Dandong, “The Other Kaesong Industrial Complex,” as a liminal borderland territory where “the May 24th Measures have no effect.” There are an estimated 20,000 North Koreans in the city, where they labor in Chinese-run enterprises manufacturing “high-end suits” and other goods for export.

However, grand projects requiring investments of political as well as financial capital seem to be a completely different matter. The shiniest new bauble on the Chinese-North Korean frontier, the Guomenwan trade zone, which opened on the same day as the trade fair, provides a case in point.

Guomenwan: Ghost Town | It stands to reason that if North Koreans are to make money from the new Guomenwan trade zone, they will need to physically go there. Chinese press releases about the opening of the facility, conducted in parallel with the trade fair, totally elided the fact that very few of their cross-border counterparts seemed to show up at all. Instead, the “there is a delegation of 400 North Koreans in Dandong for the trade fair” statistic was peddled again, providing scant cover for what looks like a token number at the opening of Guomenwan.

Opening the Guomenwan Free Trade Zone on October 15, 2015; image via Dandong City Government.

Opening the Guomenwan Free Trade Zone on October 15, 2015 | Image: Dandong City Government. Note the use of the old Yalu River Bridge as symbol.

While the Chosun Ilbo occasionally gets China-North Korea stories spectacularly wrong, the conservative Seoul paper’s colorful writing about a “practically deserted” trade area soon after the opening was justified. Even the handful of official Chinese photos made it look like a ghost town, one where police threatened to outnumber shoppers; it was quite a contrast to comparable events in 2012, where row after row of plastic chairs was filled with North Koreans. The Daily NK, at least, was optimistic that two things — a lack of State Security Bureau observation of Guomenwan and the possibilities for future trade with South Koreans in Dandong — justified a more bullish view of the enterprise.

At least the DPRK did send a ranking delegation, thus befitting a slight warming in bilateral relations. But, as we shall see, its composition and the meetings that were held in no way justify grand statements that things are “back to normal” with China, much less positively trending as they seemed to be in the late Kim Jong-il era.

Boots on the Ground: Officials in Formation | The Dandong municipal government website covered the opening of the Dandong Trade Fair in useful ways. Look past all the verbiage about realizing the “One Belt, One Road” strategic line and increasing tourist ties in the year after North Korea closed the border due to an Ebola scare; the paragraphs that really matter are about personnel. Who actually turned up?

The DPRK chair of the opening ceremony [of the Dandong Trade Fair] was Vice-Chair of North Pyongan People’s Committee Hong Gil-nam (洪吉男), Chair of Sinuiju City People’s Committee Ri Jong-yol (李正烈), the Consul of the DPRK at Shenyang Kim Kwang-hun [金光勋], the Head of the DPRK Foreign Investment Bureau Park Ong-sik (朴雄植), and Vice-Consul of the DPRK in Shenyang Kim Yong-nam (金永男).

In other words, not a big change from last year — neither a downgrade nor an upgrade. The DPRK Embassy in Beijing never seems to send anyone, but perhaps this has to do with limited resources. Or, the DPRK Consulate-General in Shenyang is the responsible authority for North Korean trade activities in China’s three northeastern provinces. Shenyang, or someone therein located, merited a stop-over by Choe Ryong-hae en route for Beijing in early September.

Who were the notable attendees on the Chinese side?

Chairing the Chinese side of the opening ceremony was China Council for the Promotion of Foreign Trade Chairman Jiang Zengwei (姜增伟), PRC Ambassador to North Korea Li Jinjun, Liaoning Province People’s Government vice-chair Bing Zhigang, the head of the delegation representing foreign embassies in Pyongyang, Syed Hasan Habib (驻朝大使团团长哈; Pakistan’s Ambassador to North Korea), as well as leading cadre from the International Tourism Bureau, Provincial Trade Association, Provincial Foreign Investment office, Province Foreign Affairs Office, Province Development and Reform Committee, etc., and many [Chinese] reporters.

Like Jilin, its neighbor to north, Liaoning province appears to have acquired a whole new batch of provincial officials in the second half of 2015. The only noteworthy absence was the Liaoning Party Secretary, yet interestingly he was in the city in early October doing some urgent political spade work to prevent any Tianjin-type explosions in his domain and ensure more rigorous inspections of incoming cargo.

  • Bing Zhigang and the Shadow Hwanggumpyeong Island Management Committee | As a consequence of his absence, the top Liaoning official at the meeting was Bing Zhigang. Bing’s portfolio is absolutely gargantuan; it is focused on everything under the sun with respect to economics and trade. Most importantly for observers of bilateral relations, Bing appears to be China’s senior-most member of the “Management Committee for the Hwanggumpyeong Island Economic Zone with DPRK” (对朝黄金坪威化岛经济区管委会) and has oversight over import and export inspection across the province, including Dandong foremost.

As described on his provincial government biography page, Bing has a rather unique background, in part because he has been anchored in the northeast continuously within a Party structure that usually promotes by cross-regional movement. He is a Liaoning native, born in 1957 in the small coastal county of Gaizhou, near Yingkou, and has worked in Liaoning since then. Like Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, he came of age during the Cultural Revolution; he joined the CCP in December 1975 and somehow gained entrance to the Central Academy for Social Sciences in Beijing, which was then being reconstituted after the Cultural Revolution under the leadership of ideologue and Mao confidant Hu Qiaomu. From 1975-78, he worked in the Liaohe oilfields in the director’s office, then managed to succeed in the formidable entrance examinations for 1978 and spent until 1980 getting a degree in political economy in Shenyang. For the next twenty years he worked his way up in the Liaoning province taxation bureau, adding a few Party organizations to his credenza, and has been the vice-governor of Liaoning since 2010. It is unique to carve out an entire career in a single province, and avoid accusations of corruption in the process.

Bing held court on October 14 in a Dandong hotel, but it was an odd set up. As a press release from the Hunchun city government reveals, three of the Chinese members of the Hwangumpyeong Island SEZ gathered, but were not joined by North Korean counterparts to discuss this very contentious and possibly deadly issue.  Whilst we wait for North Korea to reinvigorate the zombie Six-Party Talks we can now watch for their return to this committee overseeing the (non-)development of the Hwanggeumpyeong zone.

Four Lanes: No Trucks | China’s push for “one belt one road’ seems as strong as ever, and reading between the lines of the Chosun Ilbo article, it is not necessarily clear who was expected to turn up to the opening of the Guomenwan trade zone anyway. Seemingly unfazed by the desolation, a zone official claimed that spring 2016 would see more action, as additional businesses received licenses to trade there.

Maybe so; only time will tell. But clearly Dandong has regressed somewhat, with recent cracks in the old colonial bridge over the Yalu acting as a potent symbol of half-hearted bilateral interactions. Amid all the new mock-ups, architectural plans and hype over a trade zone whose tax-free rules apply only to Chinese living within 20 km of Dandong (raising the question of how much dried squid a person can realistically be expected to consume in a year), the New Yalu River Bridge, arguably the one piece of infrastructure that probably would put trade cooperation onto a new level of, as Xi Jinping would put it, “healthy relations,” lies empty.

Source: “Opening Ceremony of the 4th Sino-North Korean Commercial Exhibition and Trade Fair” [第四届中朝商品展览交易会开幕], Dandong City Government, October 15, 2015. Translation by Adam Cathcart.

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