Chinese unconcerned about threats across river

A network of uneasy alliances and ancient enemities on display in Tumen, across the river from North Korea

A container lorry trundles across the bridge from Tumen to North Korea, slowing to allow for speed bumps. At the far side a large portrait of North Korea's founding father Kim Il-sung gazes down from the customs station on the Tumen River that divides China from North Korea.

The Tumen River is beginning to thaw although there are still patches of snow and ice. Farmers are burning dry grass in the fields as spring begins to take hold.

“I’m not worried about the war. The North Koreans won’t start it because China and Russia have told them they don’t want conflict and chaos on their border,” says Lu Deming, a businessman who works for an engineering company in Changchun.

“Also the North Koreans wouldn’t direct the war at us. We are their allies,” he says as we look across at the scattered barracks and apartment buildings on the North Korean side of the river. There are four lorries at the customs post, but there is little activity, save for some cyclists on the mountains behind.


Lu says business has dried up in the past few weeks, and what trade there has been involved Chinese companies that work in North Korea buying equipment in Tumen and taking it across the border.

Several weeks ago, he visited an army zone in North Korea to do an after-sales visit for some military machinery his company had sold.

He speaks in awed terms of a massive set of binoculars on top of the observation tower, which showed every move made by those below

Ethnic Koreans
A visit to Tumen shows what a powder keg this corner of east Asia is, a geographical network of uneasy alliances and ancient enmities.

The northeastern province of Jilin is home to more than a million ethnic Koreans and many of them live in the city of Yanji. The city’s streets are full of signs written in Chinese and Korean, and there are Korean restaurants and coffee shops everywhere. The Communist Party slogans on banners are in both Chinese and Korean characters.

North Korea – led by Kim Jong-un (30), the third generation of the Kim family to run the secretive country – has raised fears of serious conflict in the region after issuing threats of war against the United States and US-backed South Korea since the United Nations imposed sanctions after its third nuclear weapon test in February.

Its anger has been compounded by weeks of joint military exercises by South Korea and the US, which it sees as a direct threat to its sovereignty.

People here refer sarcastically to North Korea’s young leader as “ Jin Sanpang” in Chinese – which translates as Kim the Third Fatty – while in the local dialect he is known as Kim San-wang or King Kim the Third.

China is North Korea’s only major ally, “as close as lips and teeth”, and relationship between these ideological brothers was “sealed in blood” as allies in the Korean War (1950-1953), which resulted in the division of the peninsula along the 38th Parallel.

But the relationship has been testy in recent years, and China recently backed sanctions after its neighbour’s third nuclear test, which happened against China’s wishes.

“North Korea is like an oil drum. If it’s full, it makes no noise, but if it runs out of oil, it becomes very noisy indeed,” said one middle-aged Korean man, surnamed Kim, or Jin in Chinese. He works in Yanji but he didn’t wish to reveal further details of his identity.

On the Chinese side, a barbed wire fence was installed in the past few years to deter defectors from crossing the shallow part of the river. The numbers coming across were proving an embarrassment to the Chinese and their North Korean allies.

Kim escorts us to a point farther down the river where you can see the train station, which is being renovated, possibly ahead of yesterday's anniversary celebrations to mark Kim Il-sung's anniversary.

Fresh paint
Workers are putting the finishing touches to a banner across the top of the station, and another portrait of the Great Leader has been freshly painted.

In an underground bunker in front of the station, a soldier stares at us across the river, smoking furiously, wearing a fur cap against the cold. “It’s a good job you’re not American,” quips Kim.

“The military can do what they want over there, it’s not like here in China. And we’ve started talking about civil rights in China in the last few years, but they don’t discuss that at all,” he said.

Kim does not believe war is coming, saying it was all bluster. “If you’re a real gangster, you’re not going to tell everyone about it, are you?”

What has happened here is a kind of role reversal. The Tumen River marks the border with North Korea and in the 1980s the Chinese used to buy electricity from across the border and import consumer goods in what was then a relatively prosperous state.

But the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1989 hit North Korea hard and now the North needs to buy goods from China, as well as fuel and food.

In the Yanbian international tour agency, sales agent Wu Lianhua says they have just cancelled a five-day trip that was to start on April 27th because of the “war situation” in North Korea.

“The next trip is next month maybe, but we don’t know. People are coming in looking to go to South Korea more than North Korea,” she says.

As we speak, three women come into the office asking about travelling to South Korea to work. They ask about “all the options – legal or unconventional” – to get there.

Wang Dong, who works at an agricultural products and machinery sales company, says that sometimes North Koreans come over to buy tractors and other machinery. "But for them the price is high here, because they don't get a government subsidy. But they do come and pay cash," he says.

Jin Yongcheng, an ethnic Korean who was born and grew up in Yanji, has an aunt living in the North but has lost touch with her. He complains that many men find it hard to get a wife here, as so many women are going to South Korea to work.

Gender imbalance

Often this is because of China’s o

ne-child policy of population control, which leads to a gender imbalance, but he says the policy does not apply to ethnic Koreans. “It’s just that there is more money in South Korea. In the 1980s North Korea was much better off than China. Now we sell them second-hand clothes and used mobile phones,” he says.

There are signs everywhere in Yanji and Tumen of major infrastructure development, such as new rail lines and improved bridges. Clearly the Chinese do not see the current situation as anything more than a blip in long-term development plans.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing