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Mark Robertson is an alias for an NK News correspondent based in northeast China.
Amid a dizzying succession of recent DPRK-focused summits, much of the world has been swept up by optimism over a potential thaw on the Korean peninsula and the opportunities they might bring. Publications as diverse as the New York Times, China’s People’s Daily and South Korea’s Choson Ilbo, rarely used to singing from the same hymn sheet, all vaunted the “historic” nature of the inter-Korean summit at Panmunjom on 27 April.
Further talks between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping in China on 27 March and 8 May, and a meeting in Singapore between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump now scheduled for 12 June, have given analysts numerous other grounds to speculate positively about future prospects.
Some parts of the China-North Korea border, whose fortunes often rise and fall in line with shifting relations between regional powers, have shared in a localized version of this optimism.
As Reuters reported earlier this month, for example, real estate prices in the Chinese town of Dandong at the western end of the border have seen increases of up to 50% as investors bet on a thaw in relations and an “opening up” of North Korea.
Yet further east in an area remote from the high-level pageantry and handshakes, other local Sino-Korean communities remain, at best, cautiously optimistic about longer-term outcomes.
A recent visit to Northeast China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, which borders both North Korea and Russia, revealed that this location has also seen its own uptick in property speculation, but a notably more modest one than in Dandong.
In the border town of Hunchun, locals noted that prices had been on the rise, and reports circulating on Chinese social media app WeChat suggested increases in the order of 20-40% in some areas compared to a year previously.
Until a few short weeks ago soured Sino-North Korean relations looked likely to doom the area’s business prospects for the foreseeable future
But while local real estate agents pointed to thawing inter-Korean relations as a significant cause, it should also be noted that Hunchun has been targeted for development as a regional logistics and trade hub in recent years, and so rising prices in many areas of the local economy have had much to do with the massive Chinese government investment which has accompanied this.
Moreover, many locals remain keenly aware of that fact that, whatever the upsurge in interest from certain investors, until a few short weeks ago soured Sino-North Korean relations looked likely to doom the area’s business prospects for the foreseeable future.
Hunchun and other towns have suffered severely from a tightening of Chinese restrictions on imports of North Korean goods which began in earnest in late 2017 and early 2018.
As reported last year by NK News, Yanbian towns have long done a brisk trade in a wide array of DPRK products, from seafood to dried mushrooms and hard liquor. Yet while several locals hinted that it was still possible to obtain goods from traders with special connections, for many the new import limits have had a substantial impact.
Shops offering imported North Korean consumables are now left selling off the last of their dwindling stocks, and while some seafood dealers have managed to switch to Russian supplies, several emporia have been forced to close. As a testament to this, the remains of several Hunchun storefronts now stand gutted in the midst of being repurposed.
Therefore while local Yanbian reporting has suggested in recent days that import restrictions may be lifted imminently, these recent hardships have clearly tempered locals’ optimism regarding Kim Jong Un’s whirlwind diplomatic tour.
Indeed, several locals approached by NK News remained reluctant to talk about anything to do with North Korea at all, rapidly changing the subject when the topic was raised. Those who were happy to discuss the neighbors made it clear that they were not holding their breath for a utopian future of an “open” DPRK.
Ms. Zhe, the middle-aged owner of a shop trading in North Korean alcohol, as well as spirits imported from Russia and domestic Chinese brands, said she hadn’t sold a single bottle of DPRK product for weeks.
Shops offering imported North Korean consumables are now left selling off the last of their dwindling stocks
“Nothing at all has been coming across,” she said from behind a cluttered desk piled high with account books. “It’s our own government that’s done it, of course, these new Chinese restrictions mean we can’t get hold of anything.”
From across the room, her shop assistant chimed in on a more optimistic note. “But Fatty Kim [‘San Pang’ a derogatory nickname for Kim Jong Un] came to China didn’t he, so maybe things will be better now?” she wondered aloud.
“Possibly,” said Ms. Zhe, looking unconvinced. “The thing is,” she added, “lots of this trade was never that formal anyway. Plenty of what we sold was just stuff people had brought over the border privately in their personal luggage. And even back in the good old days they’d sometimes get stopped and have things confiscated.”
Some of Yanbian’s trade with North Korea has been acquiring a more organized and professional character in recent years, with higher-quality packaging produced in Chinese-fitted factories in the DPRK’s Rason Special Economic Zone, and many products bearing official-looking bilingual import labels.
These factories, too, have suffered under the latest import restrictions.
“These new Chinese restrictions mean we can’t get hold of anything”
Yet as Ms. Zhe noted, the illicit draw of a special line of hairy crabs sourced direct from the fishermen, or a chunky bottle or two of domestic Taedonggang beer (rather than the smaller, shinier bottles of the export variety) continued to retain an allure until sanctions hit.
And so, where trade is at-most always a blend of the official and the illicit, and where momentary shifts in the policies of far-away governments may force you to shut up shop and leave town, it is understandable that many locals are reining in their excitement over recent developments.
“Basically nothing with North Korea is ever simple,” Ms. Zhe concluded, and this seemed a fitting summary for much of the at-best cautiously optimistic conversation currently circulating in Yanbian.
As is often the case at this crossroads of worlds, long experience of being swept up by the shifting geopolitical currents has lent locals a decidedly pragmatic perspective.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News