YANJI — It's a geographic and political paradox. North Korea, one of China's official allies, is within easy reach, but it's China's southern ally that authorities in its Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture are courting. At the end of September, they rolled out the red carpet for China's new South Korean Ambassador Kim Jang-soo, and dozens of South Korean companies have already established themselves there.
Jang-soo's presence in Yanbian, just a few dozen kilometers from North Korea, probably didn't please North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Appointed in February, Jang-soo isn't an ambassador like any other. The right hand of South Korean President Park Geun-hye is a four-star general, a former defense minister and deputy commander of the U.S.-South Korea joint task force. But most importantly, in 2014 he headed the new national security office that Park created to supervise security issues, especially with North Korea. Suffice it to say that his visit to Yanbian is proof of emerging relations between China and South Korea, also a U.S. ally.
South Korean investments have been highly courted since Beijing and Seoul signed a free trade agreement In June, which both countries described as "historic." China is already South Korea's most important trading partner, and exchanges between the two countries — $250 billion a year — are 35 times higher than the $7 billion in exchanges China and North Korea.
The entire region — the "Tumen Triangle," where the Chinese, Russian and North Korean borders meet — could become an ideal logistical platform towards outside markets if North Korea was more open and Russia more dynamic.
Yanbian's capital Yanji — Photo: Discott
Sometimes called the "third Korea," the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture plays a particular role in the complicated relationship between China and the two Koreas: This Chinese territory in the Jilin province, a bit larger than Belgium, is home to a significant population of Korean origin whose presence dates back to the Qing dynasty. At the end of the 19th century, the empire decided to regulate the colonies of Korean farmers, hoping to block Russian progress. They now represent a major part of the 2 million Chinese of Korean origin. And thanks to their dynamism, they have turned Yabian into one the most urbanized regions in northeast Chinese. More than half of the 800,000 residents of Yanji, the capital of Yanbian, has a Korean background.
A mini Seoul
Since the policy of openness launched by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979, Yanbian has prospered thanks to its relationship with South Korea. Chinese-Korean families started very early sending their relatives to work in the Yanbian's factories and services, and most of those who live in Seoul's Chinatown are Chinese people of Korean origin. Korea's economic success in the 1990s and the popularity of South Korean culture in China drove the most dynamic of these migrant workers to return to Yanji and open restaurants and businesses, turning the autonomous region into a mini Seoul on Chinese soil. As for the young Chinese-Korean graduates from Yanbian, major Korean companies with established factories on the Chinese Shandong coast aggressively recruit them.
On the other hand, the proximity with North Korea is a source of frustration and false hopes for Yanbian residents: The border is still a dead end, as there is only a handful of much-regulated frontier posts between China and North Korea. The Tumen River, narrow and shallow, remains the crossing point for most North Korean refugees. Dandong, the large Chinese border city to the west, serves as the main logistical corridor for cross-border business.
But Cui Zhehao, a Chinese-Korean economist from the University of Yanbian, says the special North Korean economic zone of Rajin-Sonbong, on the other side of the border, has suffered less from the deterioration of relations between China and North Korea than the rest of the country. "North Koreans are trying to make Rajin-Sonbong adopt a Chinese model and, for that, they depend on the presence of the Chinese and its economic support," he says. "As for China, it needs an access to the ocean. So, on both sides, there are many reasons to cooperate."
Attacks on local residents
President Xi Jinping visited Yanbian in July, and experts say the visit was designed to show that the central government would support Yanbian against an economic downturn, which is hitting China's industrial northeast hard. They say it was also an effort to allay the security concerns of residents: There have been several recent cases of deadly incursions of North Korean soldiers in China, and underground nuclear tests that Pyongyang has conducted so close by are also threatening.
Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Yanbian in July — Photo: Ju Peng/Xinhua/ZUMA
Since September 2014, three attacks by North Korean soldiers on residents in Chinese border villages have left nine people dead. These incidents shocked the population, even though China made sure to limit news reporting about the attacks. In the latest one, in April 2015, three Chinese people were murdered in Longcheng village by three North Korean deserters. More recently, after Xi Jinping's visit in September, shots were fired on a Chinese vehicle near the border, wounding its driver.
"These murders have fueled a feeling of resentment," says professor Jin Qiangyi, who head the Asia research center at the Yanbian University. "Ordinary people have been attacked, and this has had a lot more impact than just petty theft. Residents of Yabian have attachments on the other side of the border, so anything that concerns North Korea prompts emotion. But people also built up resentment because the openness never actually happened."
The "Chinese Korea" is clearly enjoying close relations with South Korea. The question now is what the consequences will be for the recluse to the north.