Two rivers, the Yalu and the Tumen, together form the 1400km long border between China and North Korea. China has invested heavily over the past 15 years to open up this remote border area in Northeast China. The North Korean side of the border, on the other hand, has remained largely undeveloped. China is the gate to the outside world for North Korea. The border has ~15 crossings, consisting of simple railway bridges or traffic bridges, often constructed by the Japanese in the 1930s and 1940s.
In June 1994 I made a trip along the Chinese side of this border (see borderline cases # 1 – 6), still quite difficult to reach at the time. I visited a large number of border crossings. I conclude this series with a short report of my experiences in Ji’an, set against recent developments.
Ji’an June 1994
The steam train takes me at snail’s pace from Tonghua to Ji’an, a remote city with an estimated 150,000 inhabitants, of which ~7,000 are of ethnic Korean origin. Ji’an is located over 100 km south of Tonghua, directly at the Yalu. On the other side of the river, diagonally across from Ji’an, is the North Korean Manpo, an important North Korean border town. Manpo is connected by rail to the capital Pyongyang.
About twenty men in uniform are extremely surprised about my presence in the train. They are border guards who are on their way back to their post after a weekend leave. Two men in their twenties, Yu and Dong, start to chat with me. In Ji’an there is little to see and nothing to do, they let me know. Their work is deadly boring, nothing actually happens. That makes them even more curious why I am coming to this remote corner. I tell them I am searching for Japanese, Russian or Korean cultural influences and architectural relics in the area.
While the train winds slower than slow through the green hills, large chunks of wood can be spotted lying piled up along the tracks. Dong confirms that the timber comes from North Korea, but adds that trade via the old railway bridge between Ji’an and Manpo is very limited. Most trade goes through Dandong and Tumen (see border cases # 3 and # 5). To my surprise, he invites me to visit his border post. My arrival does perhaps offer an unexpected, welcome distraction. Or maybe Dong just likes to keep an eye on me, who knows.
We arrive after a ~4 hour trip around noon in Ji’an: Dong agrees to pick me up at 3:30 pm at my hotel (Ji’an Shiyuan Bingyuan). I decide to explore the town a bit by myself before that time. A bicycle taxi brings me to the nearby Yalu shore: women are washing clothes, children are playing in the water. The river is pretty narrow at some points, only about 100 meters wide. I can also see people bathing on the North Korean side. Peaceful scenes in an area that, according to recent foreign reports, is being chosen by more and more North Koreans for an escape.
The pedicab driver claims that there are currently 20 North Korean sales representatives in Ji’an, but according to him there are no joint ventures or intensive trading activities with the neighbor. Ironically, not far from my hotel a Chinese-South Korean beer brewery (Gaogouli / Koguryo) has been built up, one of the first JVs set up by South Koreans after diplomatic relations between Beijing and Seoul were established in 1992.
Goguryeo or Koguryo is the name of an ancient and powerful Korean kingdom that in the first centuries AD controls almost the entire Korean peninsula, parts of the Russian Far East, Manchuria and Mongolia. Ji’an is one of the important centers of the Koguryo kingdom: later on the center of gravity of the royal power shifts towards Pyongyang. In today’s Ji’an, only a few remnants of this Korean rule can be found: the mountains around Ji’an do contain ancient ruins and graves from the Koguryo era, but they are not yet open to the public . That fairly hidden place is not advertised as a tourist destination at the time of my visit. Unaware of the importance, number and size of these ruins, I decide (unfortunately !!!!) not to go on a quest …
There are not many noticable Korean influences in this border town: hardly any Korean restaurants, Korean road signs or street posters. It doesn’t have the Korean atmosphere of Yanji (see border cases # 6), nothwithstanding the remainders of a city wall dating back to Koguryo times that can be found on the outskirts of Ji’an. The city also seems to have benefited little from China’s economic reforms: donkeys, bicycles and motor taxis dominate the traffic. Buses are rare: for covering longer distances, mainly old jeeps are used.
The border crossing
My pedicab driver confirms that in the area of Ji’an North Koreans occasionally try to swim across the river. According to him, almost all are caught by North Korean soldiers or sent back by Chinese border guards. Border guard Dong picks me up at 3:30 sharp at my hotel and takes me to his border post. During my arrival, a dozen guards are assembling in a roll call at the square in front of the canteen. The young men shuffle without much enthusiasm to the center of the square.
Dong takes me to the railroad crossing, the only connection between Ji’an and Manpo. Just like many other bridges in this border region it was constructed by the Japanese in the late 1930s. An old Japanese watchtower serves as a reminder of those days. In the 1950s during the Korean War the Chinese troops and goods were sent to the front via this nearly 600-meter railway bridge. American bomber planes tried in vain to destroy it, they only succeeded in completely demolishing a nearby wooden pedestrian bridge. That second bridge connection was never restored.
Dong allows me to walk onto the bridge, which only has a single rail track. The Yalu is deeper here than the spot I visited earlier in the day. Dong quickly shoots a few pictures of me on the bridge and then invites me to come and eat at his place. Of course I cannot decline such a friendly offer: in the evening I am treated to a lavish meal in the company of Dong’s wife and 2 somewhat timid colleagues. Dong is clearly higher in rank than the other two, who are mostly silent during the dinner. They utter just a few, barely hearable murmurs in such a strong northern accent I can’t understand them. The conversation never really gets started, the more so since they are not eager to talk about their work or private life. After finishing the excellent food, I opt for a quick yet polite goodbye.
The next day I take another trip along the Yalu bank with a different pedicab. The driver takes me much further away into the woods through which the Yalu river flows. During the bike ride I see a few boats loaded with wood sailing from the North Korean side towards the Chinese shore. The chauffeur leads me to a spot where the river is very shallow and full of rocks. The river is only a few dozen meters wide. Through the trees I can see a North Korean lookout post on the opposite hills. The driver says that there are many more of such armed posts between the trees on the North Korean side: escaping from North Korea is less easy than it seems. He says he is unaware of any successful escapes. He adds that Korean Chinese from Ji’an can visit the neighbor at least twice a year without too much administrative fuss. They have a privileged position with regard to trading with the North Koreans, according to him.
There is little to keep me in Ji’an. After this last tour, I decide to take the steam train back to Tonghua in the afternoon. This time I am accompanied by two South Korean businessmen who are exploring the province of Jilin, looking for good investment opportunities. The wind blows in the soot and dust right through the open windows as soon as we enter a tunnel. The South Koreans burst into coughing and curse the old train. But hey, doing business in China requires stamina, endurance and patience, as they also know. After calming down they profess to put up with the smog and complete their trip…
Ji’an in 2019
The remains of the Koguryo era, consisting of ruins, small pyramids and stone and earth tombs of famous kings and others about 4 km outside of Ji’an, have become an important Chinese tourist attraction for Jilin. During the reign of Mao Zedong, the Chinese communist party had little interest in ancient history or monuments. Imperial dynasties and all who preceded communism were portrayed as barbarian, retarded or underdeveloped. Many of the ancient Chinese places were destroyed or looted during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the communist regime was predominantly pre-occupied with survival and economic reform: only gradually the regime began to show more interest in China’s cultural heritage. More money was f.e. made available to uncover hidden tombs in the mountains around Ji’an and to open them up for tourism. In 2004 this area acquired the status of Unesco’s World Heritage Site. That also happened with the tombs found in even larger numbers on the North Korean side of the Yalu. To this day they remain 2 separate World Heritage areas, where the two governments each present their own view of history.
As communist ideology has been losing its appeal, the governments of both countries have mainly been playing the nationalist card. The Chinese communist party is increasingly emphasizing and glorifying the greatness of ancient China in order to further fuel patriotism and solidarity among the Chinese people. China’s cultural heritage is placed in a completely different light than under Mao: the CCP suddenly positions itself as the party that not only cherishes yet also will restore that glorious past!!
Around 2006 some Chinese scientists concluded after having discovered more murals in one of the tombs near Ji’an that the Koguryo kingdom had merely been a vassal state of the Chinese empire rather than a fully autonomous, independent state. In other words, Koguryo should only be considered a regional or local regime, started by an ethnic group falling under the Chinese empire and authority. Koguryo is part of Chinese history, in this Chinese view. We see a similar approach around the disputed volcanic mountain Paektu (see article border cases # 4). History is regularly written, rewritten and adapted in North-East Asia depending on the political climate and the wishes of the political elite!
For both South and North Koreans, the Koguryo era symbolizes a proto-Korean state. For these two countries, Koguryo has been indisputably autonomous and Korean and never a vassal of China. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011, even tried to convince his people of his blood ties with these royal ancestors. Chinese ownership claims of the Koguryo history and kingdom no doubt go down very badly in the Kim dynasty in North Korea, though we don’t hear them about it in public.
The South Korean government and media, however, do express their strong dissatisfaction with and outrage over China’s historical revisionism. All these nationalistic sentiments and historical disputes stand in the way of a really warm and close relationship between Seoul and Beijing. South Korean ultra-nationalists even go one step further and call for annexation of Yanbian (= ethnic Korean region in Jilin province in China) including Mt Paektu and the tombs at Ji’an, dreaming aloud of the restoration of a large Korean empire (see borderline cases # 6). https://www.mijngroeve.nl/history/grensgevallen_-6-het-3de-korea/
The remote Ji’an is more accessible than in the past, although not yet connected to the Chinese high speed train network. The border city has been modernized and is ready to expand trade with its North Korean neighbor. After Dandong, Tumen and Hunchun, Ji’an would like to become the most important trading city with North Korea. When Kim Jong-un came to power in 2012, he -surprisingly- agreed immediately to a joint construction of a traffic bridge between Manpo, the North Korean city with 110,000 inhabitants, and Ji’an, which currently has around 230,000 inhabitants. The Korean Chinese remain a minority in Ji’an. However, they still have a privileged position with respect to traveling to the North Korean neighbors (see https://www.dailynk.com/english/chinese-koreans-in-north-korea-take-advantage-of-international-sanctions/
In the early stages of his reign, Kim Jong-un seemed to be receptive to China’s calls for economic reform. But to Beijing’s great dismay he changed his mind and made his nuclear ambitions his priority, at the expense of much-needed economic change. The relationship with China has come under pressure. Kim’s other important contribution in and around Manpo is to have almost hermetically closed off the border with China through fences, barbed wire and cameras. The refugee flow has reportedly come to a full stop in this area.
The new Ji’an traffic bridge was not completed until 2018: China waited till April 2019 for the official opening. After the second Trump-Kim summit ended in failure and the Sino-US trade war escalated further, China apparently felt less compelled to take into account any US feelings about China’s policy towards North Korea. Beijing explicitly claimed during the opening ceremony it would adhere to the UN sanctions policy unaltered. At the same time Kim Jong-un announced that Manpo would be opened to foreign tourism. Nowadays buses full of Chinese tourists regularly can be seen leaving for Manpo. ( see https://www.nknews.org/2019/04/china-opens-new-sino-north-korea-border-crossing-in-jilin-province/
Ji’an surely will play an increasingly important role in the future (economic) traffic between China and North Korea. A revival of economic relations between the two countries will never be able to completely conceal or obscure the problems that are literally and figuratively lying below and on the surface in Ji’an. North Korea currently sees no advantage in escalating any historical dispute with China.
The respective South Korean governments have also preferred not to jeopardize the strong economic ties with China and, for the time being, utter their criticism of China’s historical revisionism in mostly diplomatic terms. But a possible reunification of North and South Korea would put these – for the West – little known historical disputes in the international spotlight. For a united Korea, ancient history would become important for the creation of a new national identity. It is questionable if an increasingly nationalistic China and a reunited Korea will ever produce a shared vision of Koguryo.