Yongusil 84: Christina Kim on Reworking the Frame in Dandong

By | April 18, 2016 | No Comments

Dandong (R), a place of "last hope and the future" just across the Yalu River from that elusive target, the DPRK and one of its border cities, Sinuiju (L). | Image: Destination Pyongyang

Dandong (R); place of “last hope and the future” just across the Yalu River from that elusive target, the DPRK and its main border city, Sinuiju (L). | Image: Destination Pyongyang/Sino-NK

Dandong is a “place of last hope and the future.” This is how Kang Ju-won, a visiting scholar at Kyungnam University, described Dandong to me1)Christina Kim is a PhD candidate at New School for Social Research (NSSR) and a USIP Peace Scholar. before my first research trip to the Chinese border city in the summer of 2011. It was a phrase Kang had heard many times from South Korean entrepreneurs living and working in Dandong. The phrase refers to the state of desperation but also hope the entrepreneurs felt when they came to the city in the years following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, suffering from unemployment and bankruptcies. Dandong was on the verge of urban development with a newly established ferry route in 1998 connecting the city with Incheon, South Korea. Here, these entrepreneurs saw a glimmer of hope in doing business with the “last frontier”: North Korea. As Kang writes in his book, Today, I am making and breaking borders: a cultural anthropological guide to reading the border city of Dandong (introduced by Christopher Green), the economic activities of South Korean entrepreneurs along with Chinese entrepreneurs, primarily ethnic Korean Chinese (Chaoxianzu; 朝鲜族; 조선족) and overseas Chinese from North Korea (huaqiao; 华侨; 화교), played a significant role in defining the city as a hub between China, North Korea, and South Korea.

It was this dynamic web of networks and practices with North Koreans that drew both Kang and me to the city for research. Unlike what we were told about North Koreans in popular media, school and conventional narrations – that they are isolated and clueless about the world — we saw North Korean workers and agents roaming the streets of Dandong freely. They dined in lavish restaurants or fast-food chains like KFC, shopped at high-end malls, watched movies at the new IMAX Theatre and used their smartphones to make phone calls and browse the Internet. We met many local entrepreneurs who worked with North Korean counterparts on a daily basis and the emerging networks of people and institutions fascinated us. This collaborative article illustrates a slice of these networks.

Dandong inspires hope in many of those who pass through it. | Image: Destination Pyongyang

Dandong inspires hope in many of those who pass through it. | Image: Destination Pyongyang/Sino-NK

Kang and I had two goals in writing “Reworking the frame: analysis of current discourses on North Korea and a case study of North Korean labour in Dandong, China,” published by Asia Pacific Viewpoint2)Christina Kim and Kang Ju-won, “Reworking the frame: analysis of current discourses on North Korea and a case study of North Korean labour in Dandong, China,” Asia Pacific Viewpoint 56 (2015): 392–402.. One was to rethink the conventional approach to North Korea as a “hermit kingdom,” and two, to offer ethnographic examples of how they are already entangled in the global economy. In doing so, we also wanted to highlight how Dandong is emerging as an intermediary city connecting North Korea to other countries. As we explored and researched more, the phrase – “place of last hope and the future” – came to have multiple meanings. It was not only about the entrepreneurs’ last hope and future but also our own hope that the on-the-ground practices in Dandong would shed renewed light on North Korea and occasion more attention on the furturing practices around it (including construction of special economic zones, joint ventures, infrastructural development, etc.).

In the article we explore existing representations of and discourses around North Korea and suggest that a consideration of how North Korea and its people are already integrated into the world presents a new way of thinking about North Korea. The first example is about North Korean laborers in China:

The majority of North Koreans in Dandong hold work visas, with the duration of stay ranging from one month to two years. These workers earn anywhere between $US200 to $US345 per month. Compared with workers in the KID who earn between $US70 to $US120 per month, workers in Dandong earn significantly more (Cho, 2013:13). However, they still earn less than local Chinese workers in Dandong, whose average wages of $US480 per month are relatively low compared with other parts of China. The North Korean workers, however, do not have claims to all their earnings. According to our interlocutors, who act as mediators between North Korean agents and factory owners in Dandong, these workers are entitled to approximately $US100 per month, while the rest of their earnings are processed as fees and taxes to the North Korean state…. Currently, the majority of North Korean workers are hired by garment factories, food processing factories or electronic assembling factories. Each North Korean factory worker is represented by a North Korean agency that is in charge of managing and negotiating their place and terms of employment. For example, a Chinese factory in need of factory workers would contact a representative from a North Korean agency and request North Korean workers. Once the request is processed and approved by the agency, the owner of the factory and the agent sign a contract that states the terms of employment. (p. 396)

With examples of employment contracts that we managed to obtain, we observe the following.

The North Korean state remains thoroughly involved in granting labourers the permission to work, managing their work conditions and processing their earnings, even in a private Chinese garment factory. Such involvement signals an asymmetry of relations in contracts between private companies owned by individuals in China and the North Korean state agencies, and fails to bring the workers into the capitalist working system as free agents. (p. 397)

We also provide a more in-depth example of a garment factory that employs North Korean workers.

One particular garment factory we investigated in Dandong employs 28 North Korean female tailors. This factory is an interesting example of the many ways in which North Koreans come to work in Dandong. The factory is owned by a Chinese entrepreneur who has leased the space to a North Korean agent. The factory owner sim- ply acts as a landlord and is not involved in man- aging the factory’s day-to-day operations. The North Korean agent, who represents the workers, is the one in charge of obtaining work orders and providing for the 28 tailors. The agent relies on his network of business contacts and agents in Dandong and elsewhere to obtain work orders, which mainly come from Japanese and South Korean clothing companies.


In 2013, the factory was working on an order of utility trousers from a Japanese company. The Japanese company provided all the necessary materials, including buttons, labels, thread and fabric for the tailors. According to the agent, the 28 tailors were producing up to 300 trousers per day. Generally, the tailors at this particular factory worked about 14hours a day and had their meals at the factory site. They each got two days off every month. Some of the tailors were on temporary travel visas and had to return once a month to Sinuiju to renew their visas – a trip they completed as quickly as possible, going in the morning and returning to the factory at night. When pressed to meet a deadline, the tai- lors and the agent stayed up into the morning without overtime pay. Once the trousers were completed, they packaged them in boxes and sent them to Dalian, where the boxes of trousers were shipped to Japan. For the consumers, of course, the makers of the trousers remain face- less factory workers in China. (pp. 398-399)

From these examples and drawing on our research experiences we conclude:

Rather than assume that workers are harbouring an unspoken desire to escape from North Korea, we started from the assumption that North Koreans are aware of how others view their standing in the world: as third-class citizens and as a source of cheap labour. They are them- selves negotiating this image of themselves and their country. Our approach has significant methodological implications, as it pushes us to focus closely on precisely what these workers are doing and how they are doing it. Rather than reifying the familiar notions about North Korea and its citizens’ isolation from the world, this approach allows us to observe in practice the contingent and dynamic ways through which North Korean workers already are relating to and participating in the larger world.


Situating North Korea within the nexus of global capitalism and how its labour travels in the form of commodities raises new questions about how we might understand North Korea and its people, who are too often simplistically portrayed as victims of dictatorship, brainwashing and human rights violations. While these critiques of the regime are significant and at times urgent, they often leave no room for observing and calling attention to the current state of North Korea’s actual presence within the wider world. We are not suggesting we re- place all prior notions of North Korea, but rather arguing that we widen it to consider other kinds of issues. From what we observed in Dandong, some of the salient topics might include North Korea’s emerging class of workers and entrepreneurs, as well as notions of and practical workings of citizenship for North Koreans living abroad. In addition, we observed a number of issues that affect many other nations as well, such as labour conditions in low-paid industries and the division of gender within the workforce. (p. 400)

As mentioned, this article is just a slice of the emerging networks and relations along the border of North Korea and China. There is still much research to be done and more areas to explore. Conceptually, small-scale economic activities as well as larger infrastructural developments along the border challenge us to rethink the workings of borders, their multiple forms, functions, experiences and senses. Regionally, these practices and the networks through which they occur pose questions about the future as well as the present form of regional political economy. What are the effects of the newly strengthened sanctions? What new ways of bypassing the sanctions are being enacted and imagined? To what new challenges do current forms of border crossings point? How are present geopolitical relationships being reimagined through differing and collapsing ideas about the future direction of East Asia? These are just some examples of questions we may ask as we delve deeper into the regional politics reverberating through the daily lives of those living and working near the border.


1 Christina Kim is a PhD candidate at New School for Social Research (NSSR) and a USIP Peace Scholar.
2 Christina Kim and Kang Ju-won, “Reworking the frame: analysis of current discourses on North Korea and a case study of North Korean labour in Dandong, China,” Asia Pacific Viewpoint 56 (2015): 392–402.

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