North Korea declares that one her cities will become a special zone. There will be no censorship there, all media will be free and freedom of speech will be secured. The economic system will be capitalist – that is official. Moreover, foreigners will be allowed to visit visa-free. Sounds impossible – but this is no fantasy nor an alternate history novel. That is what actually happened in 2002, when Kim Jong Il started his most daring reform project, so bold that it surpassed even Deng Xiaoping in its audacity. Sadly, this project was later aborted – but not because Kim Jong Il had second thoughts.
This story starts in 2001, when Kim Jong Il visited Shanghai. Chinese authorities, who showed him the city, tried to impress him with China’s economic success. Some analysts said that this goal failed – but nothing could have further from the truth. Kim Jong Il was stunned by the images of Shanghai’s skyscrapers and the flourishing economic life of the city. When he met with the then-Chairman of the PRC Jiang Zemin, Kim said, “From the time China started to implement the policy of openness and reform, it achieved a tremendous success, especially in Shanghai. This proves that this policy of the Communist Party of China is a correct one.”
Another thing that caught Kim Jong Il’s attention were greenhouses. Kim Jong Il was impressed by the idea of year-round farming and thought that maybe this by using this technique North Korea would be able to overcome its food shortage – the Great Famine had ended only two years prior. So Kim Jong Il asked whose greenhouses they were – and after he learned the name of the master, Yang Bin, he instructed his subordinates to create contacts with this individual.
When Kim Jong Il’s envoys contacted Yang, he was quite enthusiastic about the idea of duplicating his successes in the North
Yang Bin was not just another Chinese businessman – in fact, he was one of the richest persons of Chinese origin. Yang was born on February 11, 1963 in Nanjing and lost his parents when he was 5. He grew up with his grandmother, graduated from one of the Chinese naval academies and after he served for some time as an officer in the PRC’s navy, he immigrated to the Netherlands and started his business. After some years, Yang Bin naturalized there as well. The business went very well and Yang became extraordinary wealthy.
When Kim Jong Il’s envoys contacted Yang, he was quite enthusiastic about the idea of duplicating his successes in the North. Yang Bin and his colleagues went to Pyongyang and constructed the sample greenhouse there. But this was only the beginning.
On January 21, 2001, Kim Tong Gyu, the North Korean official from the Party’s Central Committee who was in charge of negotiations with Yang, suggested to him another, much grander cooperation project. Kim said that in the 1980s North Korea created a Special Economic Zone in Rason. It, said Kim, failed utterly. So North Korea is thinking about creating another zone, which will occupy 27 square kilometers in Sinuiju. Would comrade Yang Bin be interested in becoming this zone’s director?
Comrade Yang Bin, was, of course, deeply surprised. He said that he could not make the decision on the spot. Kim Tong Gyu assured him that there was no rush, but added that if Yang Bin joined in, he had to promise that this zone would not end in failure. Yang Bin told that he would give it a thought – and left North Korea.
On his next visit to Pyongyang, Yang Bin said that he agrees in principle, but he has several conditions – and so the negotiations started. First, Yang asked that the zone would be enlarged – for 27km² to 82km², so that the bridge which connects Sinuiju with China would be included in the Zone as well. The North Koreans agreed. Second, Yang Bin said that this should not be a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) – but rather a Special Administrative Region (SAR). Yang explained the difference between the two terms: the SEZ is a place with a special economic regime, which is still subordinate to the central government. Meanwhile, the SAR is independent in everything except military and foreign policy, it has its own legal system, democratically elected parliament and a separate government. China, continued Yang, has two SARs – Hong Kong and Macau, both of which were established only a few years earlier, and both are the most economically successful cities in the PRC.
The North Koreans were reluctant to agree at the latter suggestion. Both Chinese SARs were created from ex-colonies, while Sinuiju was just another North Korean city. But Yang Bin pushed this idea: His main argument was that the foreigners are already familiar with the SAR system, so they would be ready to invest money. Finally, the North Koreans said: “But can we create a SAR but call it SEZ?” Yang Bin, however, was adamant; he insisted that the name would also be important and signal to the foreigners that Sinuiju is a place as autonomous as Hong Kong. The foreign money argument worked perfectly – and Yang Bin also negotiated that Sinuiju SAR would have its own Basic Law, which would be published in open sources, that the SAR would issue its own passport and even have its own flag and coat of arms.
Two variants of the symbols for the new SAR were presented by the North Koreans: one of green gamut and one of red. Yang Bin chose the former, the one very similar to the flag and coat of arms of Macau.
Finally, the negotiations were over. The Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the DPRK promulgated the Basic Law of the Sinuiju SAR (its original text in Korean is available in the Internet) and appointed Yang Bin its chief executive. A date was set when the law would come in force and Sinuiju would be separated from Kimland and rejoin the free world: September 30, 2002. North Korean media, including the state TV and local newspapers, announced the creation of the SAR.
He added that South Koreans would not have a language barrier and that he planned to appoint one or two Southerners to the Legislative Assembly
Yang Bin called a press conference and talked about his plans. He said that 300,000 of the half-million population of the city would have to resettle to the southern part of Sinuiju, which was not part of the SAR, while the rest would stay and become SAR residents. The United States dollar would be the currency of this North Korean city and all foreigners would be allowed access visa-free. A South Korean journalist asked Yang: “Chief Executive, you mean South Koreans as well?” Yang Bin reassured him that it is indeed the case. He added that South Koreans would not have a language barrier and that he planned to appoint one or two Southerners to the Legislative Assembly.
THINGS FALL APART
So Sinuiju was ready to become a new world, free from autocracy, censorship, repression and the personality cult. However, on September 30, 2002 nothing happened. Yang Bin said it was because, first, Pyongyang was displeased with the idea of letting the South Koreans into Sinuiju just like that – and that would be rectified by issuing them a “compatriot document,” similar to the one Taiwanese citizens get when they visit Mainland China, and second, because the fence which was to separate Sinuiju whom the rest of the DPRK was to be completed. In late October, he planned to move to Sinuiju permanently.
However, on October 4 Yang was suddenly arrested in China – and later sentenced to 18 years in jail for tax evasion. We do not know whether his arrest was a result of the political decision by Beijing, but Yang Bin did say before this that he had problems with the Chinese tax inspectorate.
Therefore, the Sinuiju SAR died out – less than a week after it was formally created. We may never know what would have happened if this project would have been set in motion – but North Korea would not have been the same place. By 2015, there may have not even been a North Korea, as the regime may have not survived such a breach in the iron curtain.
The moral of the story is both romantic and cynical. There is one force in this universe that is stronger than the iron grasp of dictatorship. This force goes boldly to the darkest corners of Earth. This force feeds the hungry, gives clothes to the poor and inspires hope in the hearts of those in despair. This force breaks the chains of the enslaved ones and holds the torch of liberty so high that all can see its radiant light. People call this force “money” and time will tell when this force brings something more permanent to the North than Sinuiju.
North Korea declares that one her cities will become a special zone. There will be no censorship there, all media will be free and freedom of speech will be secured. The economic system will be capitalist – that is official. Moreover, foreigners will be allowed to visit visa-free. Sounds impossible – but this is no fantasy nor an alternate history novel. That is what actually happened in 2002,
Fyodor Tertitskiy is an expert in North Korean politics and the military and a contributor to NK News and NK Pro. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Seoul National University, and is author of "North Korea before Kim Il Sung," which you buy here.