Trading places: the decline of North Korea

Where once China bought electricity from its neighbour, now it sells used clothing. Clifford Coonan reports from Tumen

Click to follow
The Independent Online

An imposing portrait of North Korea’s founding father, the “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, gazes down from the customs station on the Tumen River that divides China and North Korea.

A container lorry trundles across the bridge from the Chinese side, slowing to negotiate speed bumps. The river is beginning to thaw, although there are still patches of snow and ice. Farmers are burning dry grass in the fields as spring begins to take hold.

It is a peaceful scene at odds with Pyongyang’s shrill threats of military action against the United States and US-backed South Korea over the past weeks, following the imposition of UN sanctions in response to the pariah state’s third nuclear test in February.

Despite the heated rhetoric, those working in the trade hub of Tumen, in China’s Jilin province, appear calm.

“I’m not worried about the war, the North Koreans won’t start it because China and Russia have told them they don’t want conflict and chaos on their border,” said Lu Deming, a Chinese businessman who works for an engineering company in Changchun, the provincial capital.

“The North Koreans wouldn’t direct the war at us, we are their allies,” he said, as we looked across at the scattered barracks and apartment buildings on the North Korean side of the river. At the customs post there were four lorries and little activity, save for some cyclists on the mountainside beyond the barracks.

However, it is not quite business as usual. Mr Lu said sales had dried up in the past few weeks, and that the only activity was Chinese companies working in North Korea which were buying equipment in Tumen to take across the border.

At the Yanbian tour agency, sales agent Wu Lianhua said the company had just cancelled a planned five-day tour on 27 April because of the “war situation” in North Korea. “The next trip is next month maybe, but we don’t know,” she said.

Jilin province is home to more than one million ethnic Koreans. Many of them live in the city of Yanji, where street signs and Communist Party banners are written in both Chinese and Korean, and Korean restaurants and coffee shops abound.

On the Chinese side of the border there is little respect for the North’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, the third generation of the Kim family to run the secretive nation. People refer to him as Kim San-wang (“King Kim the Third”) or Jin Sanpang (“Kim the Third Fatty”).

A barbed-wire fence was installed on the Chinese side some years ago to deter defectors from crossing the shallow part of the river. The numbers of defectors had proved embarrassing to both the Chinese and their North Korean allies.

Mr Lu escorted us to a point further down the river, where you can see a train station on the North Korean side which is currently being renovated.

Workers were putting the finishing touches to a banner across the top of the station, and the paint was drying on another portrait of Kim Il-sung.

In front of the station, in a reinforced lookout bunker, a soldier wearing a fur cap against the cold stared at us across the river, taking heavy drags on his cigarette.

“The military can do what they want over there,” said Mr Lu. “It’s not like here in China. We’ve started talking about civil rights here in the last few years, but they don’t discuss that at all.”

Tumen has experienced a transformation in the past three decades. In the 1980s, the Chinese used to buy electricity and consumer goods from North Korea, which, thanks to generous Soviet subsidies, was a relatively prosperous state. But the collapse of the Soviet Union hit hard, and now international sanctions have compounded the country’s problems.

Jin Yongcheng, an ethnic Korean who was born and grew up in Yanji, said: “In the 1980s North Korea was much better off than China. Now we sell them second-hand clothes and used mobile phones.”

Wang Dong, who works at an agricultural machinery company, said North Koreans occasionally crossed the border to buy tractors and other equipment. “For them the price is high here, because they don’t get a government subsidy. But they do come and pay cash,” he said.

In Tumen and Yanji, infrastructure development continues. New rail lines are being built and bridges renovated. For China, it appears the current situation is little more than a blip in long-term development plans.

Kerry: Test would be a huge mistake

United States Secretary of State John Kerry has warned North Korea it would be a “huge mistake” to test launch a medium-range missile and said the US would never accept the reclusive country as a nuclear power.

Addressing reporters after talks with South Korea’s president in Seoul yesterday, Mr Kerry also said it was up to China, North Korea’s sole major ally, to “put some teeth” into efforts to press Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

Mr Kerry, like other US officials, played down an assessment from the Pentagon’s intelligence agency that the North already had a nuclear missile capacity.  Reuters