Kang Ju-won, a 43-year-old South Korean cultural anthropologist, hopes to break down walls of prejudice in China’s Dandong: a border town filled with tension, with North Korea’s Sinuiju located just across the border.
The Amnok (Yalu) River, which flows between Dandong and Sinuiju, brings the image of a boundary with barbed-wire fences to most South Koreans’ minds. But Dr. Kang wants to challenge this stereotype with his book entitled “The Amnok River Flows Differently” published on October 19th.
“The title means the Amnok River flows differently from how the South Korean society looks at it,” Kang tells NK News. “Many people consider the Amnok River as a ceasefire line like the DMZ and an enclosed space.”
The book mainly follows changes in people’s lives in Dandong since Lee Myung-bak administration’s May 24 measures in 2010, but Kang found out that people continue to live in the same way, despite the new sanctions.
“As always, South Koreans drink North Korean Taedonggang Beer and North Koreans buy milk produced by the South at a market,” Kang says. “They freely break bread together at a restaurant where the flags of three countries are hung. This is Dandong.”
“South Koreans drink North Korean Taedonggang Beer and North Koreans purchase milk produced by the South”
Kang says the four groups in Dandong -North and South Korean people, ethnic Koreans in China, and overseas Chinese people from the North – have played a pivotal role in “connecting South and North Korea” since the 1990s, and that the May 24 sanctions rarely affect the city.
“Dandong is like a second Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) and another cash box (generator) for the North,” he argues. “20,000 North Korean workers earn $300 per month in Dandong.”
“If we simply calculate the labor costs, the income of workers in Dandong is equal to the workers at the KIC. But there are other people who work at the North Korean restaurants in the region. And North Korea sojourning employees even make more money.”
There are 1,000 North Korean employees at 25 North Korean restaurants in Dandong, according to Kang, “and their monthly salary is estimated at $1,000.”
“Dandong is like a second Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) and another cash box for the North”
Kang says Dandong has acted as a bridge between South Korean apparel companies and North Korea factories long before the KIC revved up in 2010, when the aggregate value of the area’s production exceeded one billion dollars.
“Many South Korean companies subcontract out to South Koreans stationed in Dandong. They meet North Koreans and agree to manufacture the products in the factories located in Pyongyang,” Kang says.
“After the clothes are imported to the South from Dandong [after mass production in the North], the products are sold at a market. But these are mainly labeled as ‘made in China.’ South Koreans don’t have a clue that the products are made by North Koreans.”
But the products are also exported to Pyongyang via Dandong.
“If the clothes are in stock even after a clearance sale [in the South], the products have been packed in containers and shipped to Dandong,” Kang says. “North Koreans in Dandong sell the products to Pyongyang, and then Pyongyang residents believe they are buying Chinese-made clothes.”
“Inter-Korean exchanges and people’s life have existed, but the statistics and surveys can’t prove these,” Kang adds. “South and North Koreans buy and wear the clothes without realizing where the products come from.”
“Inter-Korean exchanges and people’s life have existed, but the statistics and surveys can’t prove these”
Kang argues that the scenery on the streets of ethnic Korean neighborhoods in China proves Dandong has been a go-between between the North and the South for a decade.
“There were stores selling South Korean products wholesale on the streets 10 years ago. The North is the ultimate destination of the goods being sold here,” Kang says in the book.
“The number of newly opened stores has been increasing since May 24 measures,” Kang adds. “When I visit a store handling South Korea-made groceries, I realize the selling price is similar to the South.”
CUTTING OFF BUSINESS
Kang argues that the South Korean government should do away with the idea that China unilaterally supports the North in trade relations.
“800,000 people stay in the downtown of Dandong. And almost half of Dandong’s economy is linked to the North – its economy will suffer if economic activities in Dandong are stopped.” Kang says. “Prohibition measures would cause more damages in Dandong compared to the one caused by the shutdown of the KIC.”
“But there are other cities on the frontier including Tumen. Can we compensate for the losses of hundreds of millions of dollars? That would be too much to ask.”
“The Amnok River is deeper than the Yellow Sea”
There is precedence for this. South Korea’s Kukmin Ilbo points outs the cumulative damage caused by the suspension of Mt. Geumgang tour in July 2008 Goseong County in Gangwon Province is estimated at 246.4 billion KRW (US $216 million), and nearly 414 enterprises are closed up temporarily or permanently.
“Goseong County has an only 10-year history with Mount Geumgang tour, but Sinuiju and Dandong have more than 100 years of history,” Kang says.
“The South’s demands derive from the ignorance of historical relationship and the perspective that the North is an isolated country,” Kang adds. “However, we should step out of the current framework, and reconsider the research and media reports of the two cities.”
“The Amnok River is deeper than the Yellow Sea.”
FALSE REPORT OF MEDIA
Kang argues media outlets are also responsible for the spread of this misinformation. Dandong city, for example, has been depicted as a ghost city in the wake of Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test on January 6th.
“3 restaurants are closed up out of 15 North Korea restaurants in Dandong,” South’s national broadcaster Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) reported in April. “Local people and tourists have stopped coming to the place under tougher sanctions against the North.”
But Kang, who has visited Dandong around 25 times since 2004 and had stayed in Dandong for 15 months from 2006 to 2007, dismisses the media’s claims as “incorrect.”
“The restaurants reported to be driven out of business are still operated, but they moved to another place. One is located 100m away and the other is a 10-minute drive away from the original location,” Kang says.
Kang underscores two have a 1000 person capacity out of a total of 25 restaurants, saying “many are owned by Chinese.”
“One or two out of 25 restaurants are shut down regardless of the DPRK’s nuclear test since their businesses are in trouble during the off-season winter months,” Kang says. “Some restaurants are re-operated in April since the six months from April to October are the peak travel season in China.”
Kang says the media should take all variables into account – including the weather.
“When Kim Jong Il died in December 2011, many media outlets reported the North – China border was frozen, arguing there was no one walking along the riverside in Sinuiju,” Kang says. “But they didn’t consider the weather conditions: mo one wants to stand at the riverside if the temperature is minus 20 degrees (-4℉).”
“The pattern was repeated in January 2016.”
“I feel frustrated that I live in an society where most people are unaware of the historical and cultural relations between Dandong and Sinuiju”
Sadly, Kang argues his position isn’t in the mainstream in the South’s academic circles.
“When I give a lecture, people usually say they’ve never come across the information that I deliver,” Kang says.
“On the other hand, I feel frustrated that I live in a society where most people are unaware of the historical and cultural relations [between Dandong and Sinuiju] which have continued for almost 30 years.”
When the South’s Ministry of Unification (MoU) blocked the publication of his report in 2013 because he pointed out the ineffectiveness of the May 24 sanctions, Kang was dejected.
“It’s not easy for an individual to dispel the prejudices against the North through the window of Dandong,” Kang says.
“What I am describing is a raw portrayal of Dandong, and this is the color of the city. My arguments on Dandong have nothing to do with ideology”
Kang confesses he is often attacked for his political beliefs.
“Some people bluntly told me that I had a liberal tendency and showed my own colors (political leanings) through my research,” Kang says. “What I am describing is a raw portrayal of Dandong, and this is the color (characteristic) of the city. My arguments about Dandong have nothing to do with an ideology.”
Kang hopes that people will think of his research, written from the perspective of an anthropologist, when they talk about the issues of unification and inter-Korean relations.
“The eyes of the anthropologist are needed to resolve conflicts and achieve peaceful coexistence.”
Featured Image: North Korean and ethnic Korean living in China playing chess (2016), Credit to Kang Ju-won
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