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View more articles by Mark Robertson
Mark Robertson is an alias for an NK News correspondent based in northeast China.
This is part one of a two part series on the North Korean products that can be found just across the border in China.
At the border crossing between the Chinese town of Hunchun and the DPRK’s Rason Special Economic Zone, a few trucks line up ready to pass customs. After clearing they will cross the River Tumen over the completed-in-2016 Quanhe-Wonjong bridge, whose towering stilts dwarf its 1930s Japanese-built predecessor.
With ever-greater concern over the implementation of North Korea-focused UN sanctions in an increasingly fraught international political environment, traffic across the many bridges over the Rivers Tumen/Tuman and Yalu/Amnok has come under much scrutiny of late.
The PRC remains by far North Korea’s largest trading partner and its main supplier of key resources, including coal and oil, and not least because of recent news that Sino-DPRK trade increased by 10.5% in first half of 2017, most attention has been directed at the Chinese goods traveling south.
Reporters are regularly dispatched from Beijing news bureaus to peer at vehicles traversing the ‘Friendship Bridge’ at the western Dandong-Sinuiju border crossing, usually returning with as many questions as they left with, since the contents of these trucks remains unclear.
Yet much less reported on are goods coming the other way.
The expansive ‘Three Countries Meet’ (San Guo Hui) shop on Hunchun’s main shopping street boasts of its wide selection of ‘Chinese, North Korean and Russian’ products and, arguably, undersells itself, since as well as North Korean goods, many South Korean items are also on sale.
The DPRK section occupies a whole wall of the interior and, while the offerings are not as plentiful as the wide selection of South Korean hair products, Russian chocolates, or locally-produced kimchi and instant Yanbian cold noodles, they nevertheless attract considerable interest. All goods on sale here cross the border officially, and carry stickers detailing when and by whom they were imported.
The prominence of the store, which blares out loud South Korean and Chinese pop music, suggests anything but the shadowy image often associated with China-North Korea trade in the media.
Hands on hips, a tall Han Chinese tourist is standing inspecting the shelves. Before him is a selection of alcoholic beverages, ranging from a spirit flavoured with matsutake mushrooms (68 RMB per bottle) to small 150-RMB bottles of a rice wine marketed as ‘mysterious North Korean tiger alcohol’ (the logo, if not the ingredients, features a tiger) and a more expensive Kaesong Koryo Ginseng Liquor (268 RMB (c. $40)).
All goods on sale here cross the border officially, and carry stickers detailing when and by whom they were imported
With luxury items such as foreign alcohol ranking high on the list of goods banned from export to North Korea, it is curious to see the DPRK equivalents of such goods featuring prominently in the official trade into China.
“What’s all this then?” the man asks, gesturing at the bottles and turning to a nearby shop assistant.
“North Korean alcohol,” she replies.
“Ah, so this is the alcohol that fatty-Kim-number-three (Jin san pang) drinks?” the man asks with a broad grin, using a popular Chinese derogatory nickname for Kim Jong Un.
“I’m not sure,” she says, “but this is definitely the water he likes!”
The assistant moves down the shelf and picks out a bottle of ‘Chonghakchon medicinal water’ wrapped in a foil bag. Bubbling out of a spring just over the border in Rason, this product comes from much closer at hand than the Kaesong ginseng spirit and, reflecting the fact that it is bottled there by a joint Sino-DPRK operation, it has bilingual Chinese and Korean packaging. This is of noticeably better quality than the bottles and boxes in which the other drinks are contained.
“Ah, so this is the alcohol that fatty-Kim-number-three (Jin san pang) drinks?”
In both languages, the label advertises the water’s pure and clean properties which are said to include “perfect natural qualities.” This statement is somewhat at odds with the fact that it is distributed here in China by the rather unnatural-sounding ‘Hunchun Huarui Ginseng Biological Engineering Ltd’, an entity whose website presents the visitor with immediate warnings that their computer is at risk of imminent attack by malware.
“Are you sure he drinks this?” the man asks, skeptically handling the bottle.
“Definitely,” she replies, “you can check online!”
It is not clear whether it is the malware-infected site that one should visit to check Kim Jong Un’s water-drinking preferences.
But in any case, the combination of the medicinal water’s apparent association with the leadership and its natural assets mean it is actively promoted here in Hunchun.
When NK News visited, a promotional sale was underway with the water discounted from 15 RMB to 8 RMB per bottle – a steep discount but still around four times the cost of normal Chinese mineral water. Further savings could be made by purchasing a multi-pack of 12 bottles for 60 RMB.
Combination packages of North Korean goods are, in fact, something of a specialty at Three Countries Meet, where for 198 RMB (c. $29) one can also procure a large gift box containing goods of a kind altogether different from alcohol and mineral water: fungus.
The set contains, according to a garish sticker affixed to a stack of boxes, wild black ‘wood ear’ (mu’er) mushrooms, late oyster mushrooms (yuanmo), ‘monkey head mushrooms’ (houtougu) and ‘hazel mushrooms’ (taigu), all of them purportedly preservative- and pollution-free. Two bottles of the medicinal water are also included.
The combination of the medicinal water’s apparent association with the leadership and its natural assets mean it is actively promoted
Like the mineral water, North Korean fungi are valued by Chinese buyers for their apparent purity and cleanliness, a view which reflects both a belief in the low level of industrial or other potentially polluting activity in the DPRK, and a mistrust of homegrown Chinese goods.
From scandals over milk powder to epidemics of exploding water melons, fears around the safety of domestically-produced consumables rank high in many Chinese customers’ motivations for seeking to buy produce from over their country’s borders.
The mushrooms are also available in individual bags which detail their North Korean origins, and state that they are processed by a company named Taihe Foodstuffs Ltd. based in the nearby city of Jiaohe. Distribution occurs via the same Hunchun Huarui company as sells the mineral water.
As vendors point out, in addition boasting cleanliness and a good taste – monkey head fungus is, for example, described poetically as ‘fresh and tender, rich and mellow’ – the mushrooms are also said to have numerous medicinal properties. Traditional Chinese Medicine has long considered fungi to be helpful in improving one’s general health and lifespan, and for curing cancer.
While mushrooms combine good taste and curative side-effects, North Korean goods produced and marketed specifically as medicines are also available in Hunchun, usually being sold at smaller and less specialized emporia and on a rather more ad hoc basis than the larger volumes offered by Three Countries Meet.
At a store otherwise specializing in frozen fish, Han Chinese vendor Mr. Tang lifts a small wooden box of Angung Uhwanghwan tablets off a shelf.
“These are great,” he says, gesturing to the ingredients and instructions listed on the back of the box, which bears the stamp of the DPRK’s Mannyon Pharmaceutical Factory. This is not a product made specifically for the Chinese market, and so this information is provided in Korean and English.
Chief among the listed ingredients is ‘bovine bezoar’ (the uhwang of the medicine’s name), a stony substance that accretes in the stomachs of cows and which, according to the packaging, is “efficacious for coma in high fever, oppressed feeling in the chest and intense uneasiness” and a selection of other maladies.
North Korean goods produced and marketed specifically as medicines are also available in Hunchun
“They really help with all that,” confirms Mr. Tang, “and they’re amazingly cheap! One pill of this stuff in China costs you 200 RMB, but when I buy a box from North Korea it costs me just 80. Normally I sell for 110 RMB [c. $16].”
Unusually for DPRK products of any kind, the label affixed to the light wooden box also includes the tablets’ name in Chinese characters (hanja). This is at odds with almost all written language in North Korea, where the use of hanja in most settings ceased in the 1950s-60s, even if, as NK News’s ‘Ask a North Korean’ feature has documented, citizens today continue to learn some characters in school.
The swirly archaic Chinese script on the packaging is likely designed both to give the impression of luxury, and to suggest that these are a long-trusted ancient remedy. This is further enhanced by the fact that, under the lid, the large pills are sunk into a bed of faux-velvet intended to bespeak quality.
Mr. Tang notes that he sells plenty of the boxes to customers purchasing his fish: strikingly in a China so often preoccupied with novelty and ‘progress’, the appeal of timeworn and eternal cures for diseases remains strong, their attraction all the greater if they hail from somewhere seen as a pure, unspoiled haven like the image which increasingly dominates Chinese portrayals of North Korea.
The popularity of the medicine, and the generally pure image of the DPRK, would likely melt away rapidly if awareness were to spread of the high levels of mercury, arsenic and lead found in these tablets by the Vietnamese Bureau of Food Safety in 2014, a discovery which led to a ban on their import.
Yet without this knowledge, and whilst trucks crossing the Sino-Korean border into the DPRK prove a source of exotic fascination for foreign reporters, it is vehicles coming the other way and the goods they bring with them that are viewed in this light by Chinese borderlanders.
Be it in relation to politics, trade, or the benefits of mushrooms and bovine stomach residue, those living in Yanbian continue to offer a unique perspective on their neighbor to the south.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News