This is the second of two articles exploring the North Korean goods available for sale in Yanbian. You can read part one here.
In his store in a quiet side street a short distance from Hunchun’s main commercial district, Mr. Kou leans on one of his large freezers in a leisurely manner, his shirt rolled up to his chest in a traditional northern Chinese practice for keeping cool in the summer. It is morning, a quiet time of day for traders of North Korean seafood, and so he has time to chat.
“Nothing much gets here until the afternoon,” he observes. “The catch is made overnight, picked up from Rason by our trucks in the morning, and gets here after lunch.”
Along one wall of the shop a row of sizeable glass-fronted water tanks bubbles in anticipation of the day’s arrivals. These will range, as Mr. Kou explains, from compact Chinese mitten crabs, also known as hairy crabs, to larger king crabs and gangly long-legged ‘board crabs’ (ba’rxie), as well as a selection of octopuses, shrimp, clams and other bivalves. A colorful frieze depicting these and other species decorates the shop front.
The daily traffic to-and-fro as trucks traverse the smooth road between Hunchun and Rason (the stretch from the border crossing point at Quanhe-Wonjong to Rason’s port was itself built by the Chinese) is one indicator of the commercial inter-connectedness of these two locations.
From the very earliest days of China’s involvement in Rason, seafood has been part of the equation
China’s interest in the outlet to the sea provided by the maritime northeastern DPRK is in large part driven by a desire to ship goods out from its otherwise mostly landlocked and economically straitened northeast. But the proximity of the ocean here also means relatively straightforward access to the marine produce which is, today, increasingly valued by wealthy Chinese consumers keen to dine on foods which carry an air of luxury and exclusivity about them.
From the very earliest days of China’s involvement in Rason (which is a contraction of the names of the two nearby towns Rajin and Sonbong) seafood has been part of the equation. Mr. Kou paints a mixed picture of how this business has developed over his two-decade-long involvement in it.
“When I was first going over there in the late 1990s it was amazing,” he recalls with misty-eyed nostalgia. “Back then you could buy up hairy crab for 7 or 8 yuan [today $1.20, even less back then] per kilogram. But today it’s very different, we have to pay around 200 a kilo now.”
Mr. Kou put this change down mostly to North Koreans having learned how to do business.
“Yes they understand things better now, unfortunately,” he laughs. “Actually some of them drive a really hard bargain these days.”
In addition to price rises resulting from increased DPRK economic literacy, seafood costs are also subject to shifts unrelated to local developments in Rason or Hunchun. As reported recently by NK News, Yanbian’s crab dealers have been feeling pressure because of a recent rise in North Korean fuel costs, a change which has had a knock-on effect on the cost of buying marine produce from fishermen and forced them to put up their own prices.
Mr. Kou, too, has felt this pressure.
“It’s definitely getting more expensive all round,” he notes.
“The main reason we used to be able to buy things so cheap there was because everyone was so desperately poor,” he continues. “To be honest that’s mostly still the case now, but some of them – the bosses – have become very rich through trading.”
Mr. Kou’s perception of the emergence of a capitalist upper class among North Korean fisherman is more believable because he himself is a regular visitor to Rason.
Plenty of DPRK seafood is still enjoyed by Yanbian locals and visitors to the region
In further indications of the burgeoning cross-border linkages here, he, in fact, runs his own packaging plant on the North Korean side which is able to process and pack seafood for immediate freezing and transport in refrigerated trucks.
He is as a result not solely reliant on the daily catch, and although fresh goods remain the most popular items here in Hunchun the contents of his freezers provide stock which can be sold on a more flexible and continuous basis.
Indeed, a short distance down the same quiet street – in common with many Chinese towns, shops operating in a single line of business tend to cluster together in Hunchun – another vendor named Ms. Liang provides an indication of the benefits of offering both fresh and frozen goods. Her shop also stocks Russian seafood – including spiny sea cucumbers for which Hunchun is well known – and her comparisons with the situation in Russia are revealing.
“The catch from both Korea and Russia can be really unreliable,” she notes. “Depending on ocean currents sometimes there’ll be days when nothing much comes in, and so stocking frozen produce is a good idea to ensure a steadier income.”
That said, it is striking that meteorological shifts appear to be the only limiting factor governing how much can be caught in DPRK waters.
“There are basically no laws in North Korea,” she continues. “You can catch fish or crabs any time, and at any stage of their life. No need to wait until they are grown. In Russia, on the other hand, they’re much stricter and force us to wait until the animals have had time to reproduce.”
For this reason, she notes, Russian seafood is sometimes more prized.
“That’s where the really big crabs come from,” she says. “And because the sea is cooler there, facing towards the North Pole, it takes even longer for the crabs to get to that larger size. But people say that the slow process makes the meat taste nicer.”
Ms. Liang’s is a larger emporium than Mr. Kou’s and as well as many more tanks and an imposing dark wooden desk at the back of the shop, the space features a low table carved out of a tree stump where she offers tea to customers whilst negotiating a sale.
“There are basically no laws in North Korea”
Deals cut over this table – which also features a small population of leering ornamental toads over which one pours tea during ceremonial drinking rituals – are important to Ms. Liang given the larger scale of her operations. In addition to selling locally, she ships her produce within China to southerly locations such as Wenzhou and Shanghai.
Even places much closer to their own areas of sea are evidently acquiring a taste for exotic North Korean or Russian produce which is often seen as coming from waters which are cleaner and less polluted than that of China’s own coasts. A chunky machine for vacuum-sealing goods in plastic stands in one corner of Ms. Liang’s shop next to a pile of styrofoam and cardboard boxes.
But even if diners elsewhere in China are learning of its charms, plenty of DPRK seafood is still enjoyed by Yanbian locals and visitors to the region. Customers here are enticed into restaurants specializing in crab and related delicacies in a variety of creative and colorful ways. These include some advertisements which, appropriately, make playful reference to China’s fraught maritime politics.
Outside one restaurant, life-sized cardboard cutouts of former-U.S. President Barack Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former-President of the Philippines Benigno Aquino III kneel on the ground. Whilst Aquino urges customers to come in quickly and eat as much crab as they can (“it’s all yours!” a placard on his chest declares), Abe and Obama between them are depicted apologizing for their wrongs and confirming that the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands belong to China.
“Me and Abe are sons of bitches,” a speech bubble next to Obama declares. “I shouldn’t have offended China, I’m so sorry!”
“I’m a bastard! I shouldn’t listen to Obama,” says Abe in his own speech bubble.
Obama’s placard also notes that “the South China Sea, the Diaoyu Islands and the Philippines all belong to China,” a reference to China’s territorial claims elsewhere which provides a curious counterpoint to its relationship to North Korea.
Plenty of DPRK seafood is still enjoyed by Yanbian locals and visitors to the region
At times Yanbian locals are keen to assert that they should not have to import seafood from North Korea or Russia at all since, by rights, China’s territory here should extend all the way to the coast.
Mostly Russia is blamed, its annexation of land through the ‘unequal’ Peking Treaty of 1860 is cited as having deprived China of its rightful coastline. But almost as often one hears statements to the effect that China should just take over Rason completely to secure unmediated sea access.
“The North Koreans are so poor and they’re not using their resources properly,” one local questioned in Yanji observed. “Really China should just grab that bit of land as we can do far more with it.”
Vendors too communicate a sense that, although the North Korean seafood trade is profitable and their access to it easy in the DPRK’s seemingly lawless waters, they might engage in other areas of business if there were more options here in Yanbian. Being limited to the business activities permitted by an often uncooperative DPRK is described as holding the place back.
“Hunchun would be like Hong Kong if we had full sea access and Russia and Korea weren’t blocking us!” Mr. Kou grins, echoing a common refrain.
But Mr. Kou’s air of relaxation on this hot summer day leads one to suspect that he personally does not mind too much about the slower pace of life of Hunchun as it is now. Certainly his exposed midriff, a style known to some as the ‘Beijing bikini’, would likely be seen as less acceptable locally if Hunchun were a coastal metropolitan powerhouse rather than a way station for North Korean crabs and clams.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News
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