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


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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Building Manager / Head Porter

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Medical Copywriter / Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join an awa...

Recruitment Genius: Transport Clerk / Debriefer

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading temperature contro...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketer

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific