Thursday, February 14, 2013

Watching North Korea

Nuclear fear, Tesco and crystal meth

ON THE Chinese side of the Yalu river, fireworks boom and crackle, every window of every high rise lit up as families celebrate the arrival of the new year. The festive-looking Sino-Korean Friendship bridge stretches out towards an almost perfect darkness. On the North Korean side, a low line of flats sits pitch-black but for a single flicker of electricity, with nothing to break the silence. Between the banks, a boat is inching silently to North Korea from China, smuggling goods. “Clever,” says a watching Chinese resident. “All the police are eating the New Year's Eve meal.”

The border town of Dandong in China's north-east has always had mixed feelings about its neighbour, but North Korea's latest nuclear test has left its residents feeling especially nervy. Their main concern is not safety as such, but whether business will be affected. “Trade [with North Korea] is a large part of Dandong's economy,” said Wu Yang, who co-owns a jade-ornament company that buys some of its precious stones from the other side. “Dandong residents rely on trade to eat. Now I'm worried that will be affected.”

Rice, wheat and consumer basics depart as exports, and non-staple foods and other Chinese-made products are increasingly making their way back to the North Korean nouveaux riche. Ore, coal and scrap metal come out, as well as the seafood for which Dandong’s residents have developed a taste. And that is just the official trade; Chinese border police cannot prevent all of the underground traffic that supplements it. Shadier exports from North Korea include methamphetamine, which Chinese buyers call “ice”.

Should North Korea's latest nuclear test result in a clampdown in the official Chinese trade, explained a local who has invested in North Korean minerals, the result will only be more illegal smuggling. That brings problems of its own. First it enriches smugglers directly, rather than lawful elements of the local economy. Then it can become politically sensitive: tensions flared when North Korean border guards shot dead three Chinese smugglers in June 2010, further straining the two countries’ fraught relationship.

People flow across the borders too. Some North Koreans in Dandong have come legally. They stay for a few years to work, as waiters for instance, and to learn from the ways of China before returning to their homeland. Outwardly they are predictably undeviating (“China is all right, but North Korea is better” says one; asked how many sleep in her dormitory, she replies “it's a secret”). But locals say they are more confident and chatty than their predecessors were even a few years ago.

But there are many more many more who have fled the North by swimming the river—not because they are dissidents but because they are hungry. Their numbers are impossible to gauge accurately. It is evident that the Chinese police are turning a blind eye to their movements, even now. Some of these North Koreans end up working as housekeepers for Chinese families who take them in out of pity. When escapees are rounded up and repatriated, as 16 unfortunate souls were in November 2011, South Korea is quick to censure China for it.

Dandong's special relationship with the other side of the Yalu river is conspicuous. From the counter at the local Tesco that contains a special section selling "Korean goods" for North Korean customers, to the tourism agencies that takes curious Chinese for boat rides on the Yalu—or even for day trips across it (no foreigners, please). Anyone can pay to peer through binoculars at the far shore, or buy the “North Korean” cigarettes, liquor and trinkets that are actually produced and labelled falsely in China. Many Chinese pity the North Koreans but no-one wants to miss a good business opportunity.

Correction: An earlier version of this post identified rice, wheat and consumer basics as "imports" to China, where in fact they are exports: ie, from China to North Korea. This was corrected and some other tweaks were made on 14th February, 2013. (Picture credit: AFP) By Banyan for The Economist

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