Last week yours truly came back from the Chinese city of Yanji, located in the near-vicinity of the Sino-Korean border. Over the last decade, such trips have typically been a part of my annual schedule, but this time exactly two years had passed since I’d been in China’s remote north-east.
Every trip to Yanji and its adjacent areas is useful, and every visit offers an opportunity to see what is changing. This time, the transformation was especially remarkable: for two decades the area has served as the second largest center of economic interaction with North Korea (the first such center, by a large margin, was Dandong, nearly 1000 km away).
North Korean people and things were once present everywhere in Yanji. This is still the case, but it is clear that dramatic events of last year have had a major impact on the city: the North Koreans are leaving, or, rather, are squeezed out.
I still vividly remember days, around 2005 or so, when Yanji largely consisted of one-story brick buildings, with often unpaved alleys where running rats could easily be spotted. Now it is modern for a rather remote Chinese city, if still somewhat chaotic and kitschy. It boasts an impressive number of large modern buildings, and traffic is heavy.
Every night it also becomes the brightest lit city I’ve seen in my life: every building in the central part of the city, as well as its numerous bridges, are brightly lit with colored lights.
North Korean people and things used to be present everywhere in Yanji
This prosperity has been brought about by cooperation with South Korea, both through investment and the large-scale migration of younger Koreans who go to the South to make money, and then come back to establish businesses, buy real estate, and provide for the education of the next generation.
SIGN OF THE TIMES
And until recently around dozen North Korean restaurants were present in the city, all highly visible and largely frequented by the South Korean tourists. A few thousand North Korean workers quietly labored at the local factories. They were seldom seen on city streets, since regulations banned them from leaving work premises without a valid reason and proper authorization.
Instead, one might frequently encounter a confident looking North Korean official in a good suit, distinguishable from their South Korean peers only because of the obligatory Kim Il Sung badge.
This is no longer the case. All North Korean restaurants have closed in recent months. The only exception is an establishment whose owner is a Japanese citizen, so technically the restaurant is not related to North Korea in any way, even though it serves North Korean food and is stuffed with North Korean waitresses.
However, one can only guess for how long these girls will continue their work. In recent months Chinese entrepreneurs who use North Korean labor have been notified that the Chinese authorities will not extend work visas for North Korean citizens, so they will have to leave China once their visas expire.
Until recently around dozen North Korean restaurants were present in the city
The visa period is normally one or two years, so by late 2019, there should be no more North Korean workers in China.
Their exodus has already begun, since most visas are going to expire much sooner, within this year. One of my contacts recently saw such returning workers in Pyongyang and even had a chance to talk to them.
They were angry. Their salaries and work conditions are far superior to anything they can realistically hope for at home, so they are unhappy about being forced out of their lucrative and prestigious, if precarious and dangerous, jobs.
Thus the people my friend met in Pyongyang were upset, cursing the ‘evil Americans’ who, they believe, are inflicting yet another hardship on North Korea’s workers and peasants.
However, curses are not going to change much: the age of the large-scale export of labor to China is seemingly over, for the time being at least.
There is little doubt that the Chinese government takes the sanctions regime very seriously, so trade with North Korea is suffering tremendously. In Yanbian one hears stories of the Chinese businessmen who cannot receive goods they paid for before the new sanctions were in force.
Their merchandise is stuck in North Korean storehouses, often virtually on the other side of the border, but their chances of getting it to China are slim. The small Chinese factories and workshops which operated in Rason SEZ until recently are also closed.
Given that trade with North Korea played a major role in the local economy, these new measures have produced much annoyance among the businesses in the area. However, China is not a country where such discontent can be expressed freely.
Unconditional support for the sanctions is, of course, the policy of the central government and is, essentially, unchallengeable. In the new situation, smuggling is booming, but it has clear limits, too, especially when one deals with bulky and cheap items like minerals.
By late 2019, there should be no more North Korean workers in China
The days of the mass cross-border movements are long gone. Around 2000, well over 100,000 North Korean were hiding in the sparsely populated areas around Yanji. Now the number of such refugees is, likely, in the hundreds or, at the very most, the low thousands.
Some of them are North Koreans women living in de facto marriages with the Chinese citizens (a rather common arrangement in remote villages where the shortage of the local brides is acute). Others are on their way to Seoul, doing ‘commercial defection’, which is normally paid by those family members who had moved south before.
The decline in refugees’ numbers has been a result of many factors, including the palpable improvement of the economic situation in North Korea in recent years. Local observers usually emphasize that so far even the new, harsh sanctions have failed to produce a noticeable impact on the lifestyle of the North Koreans, even though the sanctions are likely to be felt soon.
Another reason for the decline in the refugees is an increasing level of the border control. I still remember the days, in 2005 or 2006, when one could easily approach the Sino-Korean border pretty much at any point.
The border was unfenced in those days and, essentially, unprotected on the Chinese side, with border patrols almost nowhere to be seen.
This is not the case anymore. Much of the border is protected by a high barbered wire fence, which was built in 2011-12. It is heavily patrolled. Once I arrived at the city of Tumen, sitting straight on the border in front of the North Korean city of Namyang, I was immediately approached by a group of Chinese soldiers.
Unconditional support for the sanctions is, essentially, unchallengeable
They did not merely asked for my ID, but took pictures of my passport and my Chinese visa. There is no shortage of soldiers on the border, too, even though until a few years ago they were virtually nowhere to be seen (the first time I was asked to produce my ID in Yanji was as recently as 2013).
A rather annoying new regulation is the ban on taking pictures of the North Korean side. This ban is mentioned on large posters which are placed along the border, and soldiers also warn the foreigners against taking pictures of the North. This is new: for a decade I have taken hundreds of pictures of DPRK territory.
This time, however, it was almost impossible, given the ubiquitous presence of the military and security cameras. It seems that such ban on photography exists only in the north-eastern part of the border: a colleague who visited Dandong in mid-January had no problems taking photos of the North Korean side.
My major impression was simple: the Chinese authorities are taking extraordinary measures to comply with the new sanctions regime, increasing border control and squeezing North Korean businesses and workers from an area which for two decades has been their major feeding ground. I will leave it to our esteemed readers to decide whether that is good news.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons
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