Law, Order, and Heroin in Dandong

By | May 20, 2019 | No Comments

Fire Drills on the Banks of the Yalu River, Dandong — Image via PRC Maritime Safety Agency, February 2019.

As a hub for Chinese trade with North Korea, the border city of Dandong maintains an important position for the Chinese Communist Party in its relations with the Kim Jong-un regime. Here on Sino-NK, we have parsed Kim’s strategy for cross-border development in Sinuiju, looked at his meetings with local officials in Dandong and Liaoning, and documented some of the unique aspects of Dandong’s economy open to international sanctions.

Publicly available data about law and order efforts by the government in Dandong are interesting for a few reasons. They provide a different perspective on the city from sources like the Daily NK, a periodical based in Seoul and run by North Korean defectors with probably rather good networks in the area. There is less information about rumors of Chinese smugglers being arrested near Dandong thanks to 5G technology, warmly-dressed North Korean workers being conveyed over the old colonial-era bridge to and from Sinuiju, and “visa fraud” and precarity among North Koreans in China.

What the Chinese sources do give us, however, is a broader sense of the government’s concerns in Dandong, and the legal environment in which North Koreans operate in that river city.

The issue of illegal drugs in Dandong is one where updates from the Chinese side are particularly helpful. An extensive 2014 story from Tania Branigan, then the Guardian correspondent in Beijing, described serious problems in China’s northeast owing to imports of narcotics and other illegal drugs manufactured in North Korea. Sheena Greitens wrote a rather more extensive report on the subject, also in 2014.

But are we in danger of relying too heavily on such reports, which are themselves a compilation of data from early in the present decade?

In December 2018, the Dandong Public Security Bureau published a document dating from May 2018 regarding the city’s efforts to control “drug users and persons with AIDS.” It noted that in March 2018, police broke up a criminal gang involved in dealing heroin; the group had “long been entrenched in Dandong,” and was led by one Zhao Yuangang (赵元刚), a person with a peculiar illness who had avoided arrest (无法羁押的特殊病患人). Beyond the pairing of criminality with disease, the interesting aspect here is that Zhao was accused of being “the channel for supplying half of the raw material for the heroin market in Dandong.” There is no implication whatever here of North Korean involvement, as the market appears to be local.

Dandong mayor Zhang Shuping calls out illegal construction in March 2019, image via Dandong City Government.

This spring, beyond catching up on the local war on drugs for 2018, we have seen more trends which can be easily identified nationally in China — an emphasis on anti-corruption, a crackdown on “black elements” in business and government, an emphasis on patriotic devotion to order generally. The relatively new mayor (shizhang) of Dandong, Zhang Shuping, has pushed to crack down on illegal construction in the city, including in the Yalu River trade zone in New Dandong City. This particular call comes from Xi himself, who was apparently very displeased with lavish Party members building villas off the proverbial grid in the northwestern province of Shanxi. The mayor therefore repeated the same call to Party members in the Kuandian Manchu Autonomous County up the Yalu River, along with some calls for fire protection.

Border security is like other forms of security in Liaoning — things are heightened at the festive times when more ‘outsiders’ are due into the province, so border patrols picked up over Spring Festival. Border security is becoming more high-tech. The head of propaganda for Dandong (who happens to be an ethnic Manchu woman) has said as much this past March. Mayor Zhang recently visited the old bridge between Sinuiju and Dandong and reviewed the surveillance center nearby.  

And in line with maintenance of order along the border, the Dandong Public Security Bureau provides evidence of a pre-May Day mobilization that emphasized linkages between Dandong and the new trade zone, as well as harmonizing disagreements along the way. 


Probably more interesting still was the discovery of some weapons — 90 bullets and a dagger — stashed in a plastic tub buried in the rocks under Taoli bridge (套里大桥) in Dandong. No foreigners or domestic enemies were implicated, but it was as good an indicator as any for the need for vigilance in the fair border city.

90 bullets and a dagger under Taoli bridge (套里大桥) in Dandong

Finally, there seems to have been an uptick in discussion of river traffic around the new Yalu River bridge and elsewhere in the city. The mayor stressed this topic in April. The city released a document in December 2018 (which appears to have been distributed internally on 26 June 2018) replying to an undated order entitled “Suggestion Regarding the Strengthening of Traffic Controls of a Reopened [Sino-] North Korean Border Zone to Establish the Image of Dandong as a Fine International City”《关于加强复朝边贸车管控树立丹东良好国际城市形象的建议》. The document stated concerns about managing traffic around the old Yalu River bridge, the radical, obvious, and permanent solution (根治办法) for which was “to open the new Yalu River port as soon as possible (尽快开通新鸭绿江大桥口岸).” It also appears obvious that the city public security bureau and other agencies were operating in the summer 2018 on the premise that trade with North Korea was likely to expand. 

In the meantime, the view for most cross-border trade will still look rather like this:

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