By Peter M. Beck
A visit to the Chinese border city of Dandong (population 2.4 million) on October 28 and 29 provided the writer with a rare glimpse of North Korea and a chance to talk with North Koreans and Chinese officials. The visit followed a conference on the North Korean economy hosted by the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy and the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences in Shenyang (two hours north of Dandong). North Korea appears to be anything but a country on the verge of collapse, and the border itself felt like the U.S.-Canadian (rather than Mexican) border. However, the contrast between the two cities at night could not be more stark. Dandong is a collection of bright lights and high-rise buildings; almost no lights could be seen from Shineuiju.
To my great surprise, the security in Dandong appeared almost non-existent; there were no security checks in or near Dandong, and only two Chinese soldiers appeared to man the single bridge connecting Dandong and Shineuiju. Our boat on the 200-yard-wide Yalu River would have hit the river bottom if it had gotten any closer to the North Korean shore. North Koreans went about their work, and a North Korean child waved to us. Despite the serene scene, a senior Chinese Communist Party official told me he is much more worried about a flood of North Korean refugees should North Korea implode than about the North’s nuclear program. I did not see any North Korean refugees or teenage panhandlers ("kkot-jae-bi"), but a young ethnic Korean ("Choseon-jok") from the eastern border region informed me that in the past her parents had given food and shelter to the street urchins, but that since the Chinese government’s crackdown last year, they have been forced to just give the children a meal and sent them on their way.
There was a steady stream of traffic across the bridge over the Yalu: mostly empty minivans from the North returning laden with Chinese goods and produce. According to Dandong trade officials, Dandong exports $200 million worth of goods to North Korea each year. At the Chinese customs inspection station, I could see a dozen used Panasonic TVs ready to be loaded along with numerous boxes of fruit. According to the North Korean traders I talked to, the black market exchange rate is approaching 1,000 North Korean won to the dollar; a sharp contrast from the official rate of 150 and the unofficial rate of 500 a few months ago.
For the most part, Dandong officials appear to be looking past North Korea, despite its close proximity. One official told me that he had made more than 20 visits to South Korea, but had never crossed the river or visited the North. Another official informed me that Seoul and Singapore were where he was trying to forge linkages, not Shineuiju. It is still too difficult for Chinese to do business in the North, he insisted. He went on to say that the economic reforms under way in the North have had a positive impact on Chinese-North Korean trade but that until the North can improve its infrastructure the overall impact of the reforms is likely to be modest.
It was refreshingly easy to meet with North Koreans, both on the street and in restaurants, despite my being their first encounter with an American (and a giant one at that). While never asking questions or offering information, North Koreans always politely answered my many questions. Upon being served a Coke at a North Korean-run restaurant, I asked the Pyeongyang-born waitress if Coke was available in the North. When she told me that it was, I expressed my surprise that an American product would be sold there. The waitress pointed to the Chinese side of the can and insisted it was Chinese. When I pointed to the English side and told her that Coke-Cola was the very symbol of American global capitalism, she replied, "When it comes to food, there is no ideology."
***The author works at a small think tank in Washington, D.C. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown and American Universities. The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of his institutional affiliations.
*** Peter M. Beck is ***