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China's Frontier Towns

China bets big on border town with Russia, North Korea

Rob Schmitz Nov 16, 2015
China's Frontier Towns

China bets big on border town with Russia, North Korea

Rob Schmitz Nov 16, 2015

Just east of Hunchun, there’s a tower full of Chinese tourists who have come to this lonely outpost to catch a glimpse of the world. Fifty feet to their north is Russia’s far east. Across the river to their south is North Korea.

Chinese tourists pay the equivalent of fifty cents to look through binoculars towards North Korea. (Rob Schmitz/Marketplace)

Xu Gang, a tourist from Beijing, gazes south. The brown hills in the distance look different from those on this side of the river – they were stripped bare of their trees in the 1990s when starving North Koreans chopped them down for fuel, eating their bark. Xu thinks about what China must look like from the other side of the river. “They’re probably a little jealous,” he said. “We all look the same, but they must wonder why there’s such a big difference in living conditions. I bet they reflect on that a lot.”

Pretty soon the North Koreans will have more to reflect on. China just built a seven-billion-dollar bullet train to this city. Leaders hope to extend the line to Vladivostok, in Russia, and maybe someday, to Pyongyang.

China’s border crossing with North Korea, known as the port of Quanhe, is busy with trucks shipping goods from China to North Korea, and mostly seafood from North Korea into China. (Rob Schmitz/Marketplace)

And while Hunchun is in the heart of a region with the slowest economic growth in China, the city of just 200,000 people attracted more than $17 billion of investment last year alone. Part of the reason can be seen in the distance from the tower on the border: the Sea of Japan.

Past a barbed-wire fence and the Tumen River from China is North Korea, where many of the hills are bare of trees. Starving North Koreans cut them down in the 1990s during a terrible famine. (Rob Schmitz/Marketplace)

Though Russia and North Korea have coastlines along this part of the Pacific, China does not, and it has to rely on the North Korean port of Rason to ship goods from this part of China. For the Chinese, good relations with Pyongyang are crucial for business. “Generally speaking, they want to push as much stuff into North Korea as possible,” says Adam Cathcart, a lecturer of Chinese history at the University of Leeds. “It’s a leverage they can use with other countries such as the U.S., the U.K., everybody who wants to sanction and punish North Korea. They’re doing a lot of business along the frontier, and they want to keep it going.

There have been roadblocks, though. The uncle of leader Kim Jong Un was North Korea’s point man on China, favoring closer business ties across the border. His exuberance for his country’s northern neighbor, though, was one reason his powerful nephew abruptly had him executed as a traitor two years ago.

Relations have warmed since then.

At a Korean restaurant in downtown Hunchun, young women sent by the North Korean government sing songs about their dear leader and their glorious motherland. A couple of blocks away at a wet market, Chinese vendors sell crabs, shrimp and clams fresh from the waters off North Korea’s coast. “Their prices aren’t very stable, but their seafood is cheaper and better quality,” said vendor Lang Ming.

Crabs from the coast of North Korea lie waiting for buyers at a market in Hunchun, China. Chinese consumers prefer North Korean seafood because its considered toxin-free, due to the absence of industry in the country. (Rob Schmitz/Marketplace)

Lang says seafood from across the border is popular because it’s clean – the dismal state of the North Korea’s economy means there isn’t much industry to pollute the habitat. Lang’s husband runs a casino in the North Korean port city of Rason. Gambling is illegal in China, so his customers are rich Chinese tourists who come to North Korea to have fun.

A shop along the Chinese border with North Korea sells bottles of North Korean liquor made with the penis of fur seals. (Rob Schmitz/Marketplace)

Lang complains about her husband’s North Korean business partners. “They’re so sneaky!” she said, smiling. “A while ago, there was a disaster in the town, so they asked us to just give them 5,000 tons of cement and 1,500 tons of rebar! All for free! What are you going to do? It’s the price of doing business there.”

Russian dancer Larissa Mikalovna sits onstage at Beerlin, a bar in downtown Hunchun that caters to Chinese and Russian businessmen. Mikalovna has lived in China for several years because she considers life in Hunchun safe and affordable. (Rob Schmitz/Marketplace)

Lucky for Hunchun, people from across the other border are a more reliable source of revenue. A Russian singer in a tight dress belts out a Russian love song at a nightclub named Beerlin. Later, several other Russian go-go dancers join her on stage. Chinese and Russian businessmen tip the women to come to their tables for a drink.

Russian dancers entertain Chinese and Russian businessmen at Beerlin in Hunchun. (Rob Schmitz/Marketplace)

Larissa Mikalovna, the singer, is from a town near Russia’s Lake Baikal. She says many Russians have come to Hunchun because the cost of living is low, as is the cost and quality of health care. She intends to stay. “I’m not saying it’s terrible in Russia, but as a woman in my hometown it can be dangerous to walk around town on my own, whereas here it’s no problem at all,” said Mikalovna. “The main difference between the two countries is that Chinese people work very hard, and in Russia, not so much.”

Back at the tower surrounded by Russia and North Korea, tourist Xu Gang thinks about these differences, too. “Over here in China, the market is prosperous; the living standard high, and our quality of life, quite good,” he said, gazing at the bare hills of North Korea. “Now that I’m here at this three-country border, I’m finally able to appreciate how fortunate I am to be Chinese.”

With that, Xu bids farewell to the Russian and North Korean landscape, steps into his black Audi sedan and drives home.


The Hunchun Railway Station (with signs in Chinese, Korean, and Cyrillic) now offers bullet trains that connect the small city to China’s massive high-speed rail network. China hopes to extend the railway to Russia, and possibly, to North Korea someday. (Rob Schmitz/Marketplace)


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