Thor's Korea Diary
North Korea - The Smell of Rat
@25 September 2002
Note : this article was also published in The Asia Times Online, 2 October 2002
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For related articles see :
North Korea - Pick Your Godfather (2006)
North Korea - The Japanese Card (2003)
Who Wants a Reunified Korea? -- some reflections on war, peace and the armaments business (2001)
Korea, North & South: The Geopolitics of Unification (2001)
North Korea is going to hack off a bit of its backside called Sinuiju, to become a capitalist enclave; (see this Chosun Ilbo news link for a summary).
Does nobody smell a rat? The air is full of oohs and aahs, admiration, a smacking of lips. So a blip on the North Korean/Chinese border is going to be the new Hong Kong. How clever. Sinuiju will have different laws, issue passports, give foreigners full citizen rights. A fast talking Chinese businessman is going to be it's supremo. Wow. North Korea's leadership class are going transform from international pariahs to international darlings, innocent of xenophobia, juche slogans, secretiveness and all the other qualities that have made them smelly.
Now it is true that in politics good things can and sometimes do come out of warped ambitions by unlovable power gluttons. That is, there can be collateral benefit as well as collateral damage. But let us not get our illusions mixed in the North Korean equation. What is really going to happen in Sinuiju? Well the bit about a Hong Kong-cum-Bahrain of North East Asia is a long shot. Other things are more certain.
The first certainty is that almost the entire population of the Sinuiju district is going to be disinherited of their land, their homes, their community, their identity. Yang Bin, the new supremo, says that they will gradually be "relocated" (around 200,000 people according to Chosun Ilbo newpaper, conveniently designated as "mostly military personnel". Who knows? Another report said 500,000). In any case, they are impediments, the unclean masses, and given the dynamics of that country, will effectively become refugees within the North Korea. Since the North Korean leadership has a sudden interest in international image, they may even finesse the 'resettlement plan' in public. This is a political clique that has let millions of its own citizens starve to death, so we can be sure that the actual future of Sinuiju's real citizens will be bleak. It is striking that not a single news report or editorial seems to have picked up on this impending tragedy. All fascination is with the visa free access for carpet-baggers from anywhere but North Korea.
Another certainty is that the Sinuiju experiment is not being mounted for the future benefit of Korea, divided or united. Like Hong Kong, it may turn out to be beneficial sometime in the future. Or it may morph into a strategic nightmare. Regardless, that is collateral to the real interests involved. The real interests of course are those of that ruling clique in Pyeongyang. Cult of the Dear Leader notwithstanding, it is a fair bet that the overwhelming majority of North Koreans would like to tear that clique limb from limb and roast them over a slow fire.
The economic-military mess that is North Korea has reached a point where it can't be much fun even for the dictators. When you have to travel for twenty-four days in an armoured train just to visit the neighbouring potentate, well, the most armour-plated egos must take a hit. Heck, you are not even welcome to spend your ill-gotten gains in the twenty-first century's real palaces. That is, you can't strut in those international luxury hotels which live off the corporate criminal classes and respectable political scoundrels from richer climates. I'll lay five bucks to a container load of soju that Mr Yang Bin has seen this crying need of the Dear Leader & Friends. He has flogged them a dream, to own their own pleasure dome, uncontaminated by dour, hungry Koreans, where the world's glitterati can come to visit and admire. Still more practically, when the real working classes of Korea come baying at Pyeongyang's door with axes, kalashnikovs and bombs, the Dear Leader can scamper to his helipad and make a swift hop to a bolt hole called Sinuiju where Korean law and low class Koreans are not welcome. There is an old Chinese proverb, no doubt familiar to Yang Bin, that a clever rabbit always has three burrows....
Well, what are Sinuiju's chances at glory anyway? In a rational, equitable world they would be pretty poor. A hundred years ago you would have said that about Hong Kong too, since it was little more than a back door anchorage for the drug-running British empire. As it turned out there was more money in opium than any foreigner has made out of China since, regardless of the damage it did to mere Chinese citizens. Let's hope that Sinuiju's contribution is a bit more benign. On the face of it, things don't look good. Not only is the North Korean economy a shambles, most of Manchuria's economy is also a shambles. The heavy industrial cities of Northern China like Shenyang, Changchun and Harbin are a rust belt of polluting, decaying, state-owned factories. Frantic attempts by the Beijing and regional administrations to rid themselves of these liabilities have dissolved into endemic corporate fraud, terrifying levels of unemployment, and frequent, sometimes violent protests by thousands of ex-workers who are looking poverty in the face.
The refrain we hear from Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, Pyeongyang and Moscow is that a Eurasian railroad from Busan to the European seaboard will resurrect this whole region. And Sinuiju of course will be a handy rail junction on the magic express train. Well maybe... The el Dorado theme song from Dear Leaders, East and West, has some odd flat notes. For example, the real dynamic is supposed to grow from an iron umbilical cord between Europe and Japan. The trouble is, this umbilical cord has been there for decades -- and rusting. Japanese companies prefer to send their stuff to Europe by ship, thanks very much, even if the paper calculations say it takes much longer. Why isn't Vladivostok the Singapore of the North Pacific? It is not only the real rail-head of the trans-Siberian railroad, it has an excellent harbour, ice-free for most of the year. Vladivostok is only a short boat hop from Yokohama. Why would any sane Japanese businessman deal in a cut for regional Korean and Chinese pirates when he can ship directly to Vladivostok and just pay off the Russian bear in vodka? The answer, almost certainly and sadly, is in the shortcomings of the Russian rail system and its masters. No champagne party in Sinuiju is going to change that.
* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals, unless stated otherwise.