China’s Ground Game in Dandong and North Korea
The tempo of bilateral meetings appears to have stepped up between China and North Korea. PRC Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Sun Weidong’s meetings with Choe Sun-hui in Pyongyang yesterday is the latest evidence of that trend. This meeting follows on the heels of have been Kim Jong-un’s autumn parlays with Liu Guozhong in Pyongyang, and the visit of Vice-Foreign Minister Pak Hyung-ho in Beijing in December 2023.
But what about China’s ground game in North Korea, and in the key border city of Dandong?
Prior to attending the meeting with Sun Weidong and Choe Sun-hui yesterday, China’s Ambassador to North Korea has had a busy few weeks. Dedicated watchers will recall that Wang Yajun (王亚军) was appointed to his post in December 2021 in Beijing and then finally got into North Korea in March 2023, making him, in the words of the South China Morning Post, “the first known diplomat from any country to enter North Korea since the pandemic.”
Wang’s recent activities are clear indicators that China is trying to revive or rev up cross-border trade. Wang recently touring firms in Sinuiju, and earlier this month he also toured a number of economic firms in Dandong — where the ease with which he crossed over into and back from Chinese territory should in itself send a message. Naturally these same activities could be interpreted under the generic banner of Xi Jinping’s September exhortations to increase cross-border economic trade in the services and manufacturing sectors.
In turn, Dandong’s top CCP official, Pei Weidong (裴伟东) was in Pyongyang on January 9 for a visit that appeared to be about promoting accellerated trade within the framework of the 75th anniversary of PRC-DPRK diplomatic recognition. Pei is a Han Chinese who has been in post in Dandong since 2020, previously having served in significant posts in the heavy-industrial city of Liaoyang (once a great city in its own right, and now effectively a spoke off of the Shenyang hub) and the port city of Huludao. His public comments in Pyongyang were fairly standard, with no announcements of specific projects or firms promoted, but again this is more connectivity between Pyongyang and Dandong. It does not appear that he has yet met Kim Jong-un — so we can mark the North Korean Supreme Leader’s stop in the border city and meetings with local officials in Dandong in 2019 as a certain high water mark.
So who is helping Ambassador Wang to hold down the fort in Pyongyang?
The PRC’s Attache [参赞] at the Pyongyang embassy is Zhou Changting [周长亭], a specialist on economic exchanges with the Korean peninsula.
Zhou’s early biography is not easily publicly available, but it is clear that he was previously serving at the Chinese Embassy in Seoul as an economic attache [中国驻韩国大使馆公使衔经济商务参赞]. He was very active from 2011-2016 doing an array of events around economic linkages between the Republic of Korea and the PRC, including talking up the “Belt and Road.” He appears to have moved to China’s Embassy in North Korea in the aftermath of the CCP’s Nineteenth National Congress in 2017.
In 2021 he was at one of the few economic events with North Korean officials in Pyongyang, namely Kim Song-Nam, who Sino-NK has previously analysed for his long-standing linkages to Chinese figures and joint ventures — certainly one of the more important survivors of the great Jang Song-taek purge of 2013.
Another figure who recently reemerged in Pyongyang was the head of Chinese business association in North Korea [朝鲜中国商会], Liang Tongzhun [梁彤军]. Liang is a bicycle manufacturer from Tianjin whose joint venture was established in DPRK in 2005 and which captured a reported 70% of the bicycle market in North Korea by 2011. Liang was named the head of the Chinese business association in North Korea at the time of its establishment in the golden era of 2012, when it represented some 40 Chinese businesspersons in the DPRK.
In May 2023 he was back drumming up support in Vietnam, looking a little older and wiser. His firm’s joint venture looks ripe for renegotiation, given that the initial period of 20 years of cooperation with Chinese chairmanship and ownership of 51% of assets (roles and percentages which mirror the Soviet model of working with the early PRC) is due to expire in October 2025.
When it comes to Chinese business in North Korea, we note the possible reemergence of Ma Xiaohong (马晓红), a rare female CEO in the realm of China’s commercial ties to the DPRK. Radio Free Asia (Korean) reports that Ma and her Hongxiang firm may be back and active in the Dandong region, and thus back from the political wilderness that Ma’s demotion from CCP organizations and accusations of corruption in Liaoning back in September 2016 indicated. Ma was sanctioned by the US in September 2016, and another federal indictment of she and the Dandong Hongxiang firm emerged in 2019 with further details about her financial activites.
Given the current need for both sides to accelerate economic interactions along the border, if Ma Xiaohong has revived her fortunes, it stands to reason that the Chinese state has determined she could be useful in achieving that goal. In terms of her investigation, the Chinese state has a long track record of rehabilitating capitalists it has previously punished or put under legal duress; the main fact of her expertise is what is useful here, even if her networks may have atrophied. Ma Xiaohong’s previous functionary role at the provincial level points to the role of anti-corruption investigations in Liaoning – that is, that the CCP appears to be capable of carving out corrupt actors in the province without impairing commerce with North Korea, but North Korean partners also need to be aware that these partners could fall under suspicion.