About the Author
View more articles by Lawrence Steele
Lawrence Steele is the pseudonym for an NK News correspondent on the China-North Korea border.
DANDONG, China – Dandong New District looks like a city of the future, its collection of minimalist skyscrapers making the old city nearby look drab and antiquated in comparison. But stroll among its sweeping avenues, and you will be hard pressed to meet another soul. On a November afternoon, this city within a city is practically empty.
The development, built almost from scratch for 500,000 people, is one of several initiatives established to showcase Dandong as a teeming hub of Sino-North Korean cooperation and trade. Instead, it comes across more as a monument to unfulfilled potential.
At Guomenwan trade zone, a 24,000-square-meter section of the district specially designated for duty-free trade between North Koreans and Chinese, there are few signs of people, much less bustling commerce.
At a bathroom fittings shop, the proprietor blames poor business on the delayed opening of a $350-million bridge that connects to Sinuiju, North Korea’s city across the Yalu River.
“Not enough people invest here or buy houses here, so these kinds of fittings are not easy to sell,” she says. “I am quite disappointed but I’m looking forward to seeing the bridge in use.”
‘People in Dandong have personal motives to do business with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, especially import-export companies’
While neither government has given an official explanation for why the massive structure remains unused some 15 months after its scheduled opening date, North Korea has yet to build an immigration office and roads on its side. Observers have speculated that Pyongyang remains nervous about the potentially destabilizing influence of Chinese business interests.
“People in Dandong have personal motives to do business with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, especially import-export companies – 600 of them in Dandong; local authorities have a quite ‘local’ perspective on this too: they want to further develop their city in an uncertain domestic economic context,” said Théo Clément, who has done research in the city for a Ph.D. on China-North Korea economic relations at Lyons Institute for East Asian Studies. “On the other side, where the economy is obviously much more centralized, the issue at stake is not only local economic development but rather the role of Sinuiju in the larger framework of the DPRK’s economy.”
Dandong, home to more than 70 percent of China’s trade with North Korea, has long been hyped as the perfect vantage from which to witness a future economic opening by Pyongyang, made visible in booming cross-border commerce. Indeed, there is no mistaking North Korea’s hand in this city: trucks stream across the colonial era Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge from Sinuiju in steady procession; countless shops trade in an albeit predictable assortment of North Korean products such as ginseng and mushrooms.
But these signs of cross-border trade seem meager next to the grand aspirations of Chinese officials.
“I hope Dandong will serve as a departure point for a new Silk Road,” Dandong Mayor Shi Jian proclaimed at the opening of the 1-billion-yuan Guomenwan trade zone in October.
As if to confirm immodest expectations, one residential complex in the district bears the lofty title “Singapore [email protected] River.”
But considering an economic blastoff will take its fuel from across the border, Sino-North Korean relations have seen better days. Economic cooperation in particular is believed to have suffered since the execution of Jang Seong Thaek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle and a key manger of business dealings between the countries. Several months after his death, the Yonhap News Agency reported that cross-border trade and investment were being hit by increased customs checks by North Korea.
Taking us through the deserted streets of the new district, our taxi driver laments Jang’s demise: “Kim Jong Un’s uncle had a good friendship with the Chinese government, so he helped us. He was willing to cooperate to build houses and do commerce.”
Even so, those doing business here seem to retain a stubborn faith in the long game. A common refrain is that business will pick up soon – or at least sometime.
“Business will be hot from next March. Lots of people will come to buy furniture,” says a shop owner at nearby Guomen One Home & Life Square, a gleaming four-story complex packed with outlets selling plush home furnishings.
On this day, however, the staff far outnumber the handful of customers that have come to browse the 80,000 square meters of retail space.
A woman working at the information desk tells us that as-yet-absent North Korean products will be arriving from next month, after which things will be “busy.”
Such assurances are unlikely to shake the skepticism of many outside observers.
‘There is this deeply anchored Sino-centric belief among Dandong businessmen that someday the DPRK is going to “open up” like China’
Clément said that high expectations followed by disappointment has become a routine feature of China’s economic dealings with North Korea.
“There is this deeply anchored Sino-centric belief among Dandong businessmen that someday the DPRK is going to ‘open up’ like China did and that is will almost mechanically solve every issue for both sides of the Yalu,” he said.
“This belief and the fact that the DPRK sticks to its guns generates a vicious circle of mistrust and frustration. People economically engage the DPRK not for what it is but for what it could be or even what they want it to be, which obviously leads to disappointment.”
All pictures: Lawrence Steele