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Business Along Chinese-North Korean Border Shows Stark Contrast

Business can be brisk and life can be comfortable on the Chinese side of the border with North Korea. But conditions are quite different on the other side.

On the one side of Yalu River is the bustling northeast Chinese city of Dandong. On the other, in North Korea, is the ghostly specter of the once industrial city of Shinuiju. Dandong's location on the North Korean border has made it a window to the outside world for the people of North Korea who can make it this far north. North Korea gets approximately 80 percent of its imported goods and 80 percent of its energy through this narrow channel.

Dandong's prosperity derives from Pyongyang's economic reforms that started in 2002 and eased controls on businesses. Since then many North Korean officials and businessmen have come to Dandong to trade. The businessmen and officials in Dandong are living a life of style and wealth.

Across the Yalu River, which marks the border between China and North Korea, lies what remains of the North Korean city of Shinuiju.

Shinuiju was once an industrial giant. But today smoke no longer billows from the smokestacks of its factories, its cranes stand still and its machines no longer roar. The city is dark and lifeless.

Mr. Park Young-seng is a South Korean businessman who has lived and worked in Dandong for 13 years. He described how Dandong, in contrast to Shinuiju, has transformed in the last few years. Mr. Park says Dandong has undergone a cataclysmic change since 2000. He says the Chinese government has transformed it into a strategic stopover point, building new highways and a long railroad through this city.

Dandong has developed modern buildings and large roads according to Beijing's open economic policy. However, the neighboring city, Shinuiju, is like a dead city.

If you look at the Yalu River at night, it is clear what has been happening between the two cities. One is dark. The other is a tiara on the night's horizon.

There are dazzling lights including colorful neon signs in Dandong, but Shinuiju's darkness is caused by a shortage of electricity. The only visible light is that which illuminates a statue of Kim Il-sung.

In July 2002, communist North Korea announced major reforms to its economy. It stopped subsidizing state-owned enterprises and demanded that workers be paid according to how much they produce. In addition, North Koreans were allowed to sell manufactured products on open markets. Since then, the state's control has been weakening and money has become king. Workers get bigger salaries and the state has doubled its foreign currency reserves.

Another effect of the reforms is that many North Koreans have moved to Dandong. Mr. Yoo Kun-il, the representative of a non-governmental organization in Dandong, says more than two-thousand North Koreans are living in the city.

Mr. Yoo says the official numbers of North Korean newcomers are not known, but the estimate is at least 2,000 North Koreans and one thousand South Koreans are living here permanently.

Every very morning 50 to 60 North Korean 10-ton trucks cross the border into Dandong. Most of the truckers head straight for stores on the square near the Yalu River bridge to buy cigarettes and liquors. After loading up with food supplies, construction materials, heavy machinery, and other goods they head back across the border.

As access across the border becomes easier, many stores and restaurants have opened in Dandong in the last four years. South Korean businessmen manage most of these stores.

Five years ago there was only one restaurant in Dandong. But now six restaurants compete against each other.

Although all the waitresses in one North Korean restaurant came from Pyongyang, none was wearing the standard (President) Kim Jong Il badge. However all of them were singing and dancing to South Korean and Chinese songs.

Some South Korean media have reported that these changes reflect the reality of Pyongyang's economic reform and its effort to go forward. But there is a downside. The gap between the privileged North Koreans and the ordinary people is widening and there are reports of widespread corruption among North Korean officials.

This general store is one of the most popular shops for North Koreans in Dandong. The South Korean owner Mrs. Woo says that 90 percents of her customers are North Koreans. She says the most popular goods to North Koreans are electronics home appliances that cost more than one thousand U.S .dollars.

An average, North Korean workers earn about three thousand won a month, which is about 10 Chinese yuan or a little more than one U.S. dollar. On those salaries only government officials, who are widely believed to make business deals for themselves, can afford to buy luxuries, such as refrigerators.

Mr. Sung Min Kim, a North Korean defector now living in Seoul, was a member of the upper class when he lived in Pyongyang. He told VOA that corruption in Pyongyang is rampant.

Mr. Kim says North Korean officials and businessmen pocket part of the earnings from their business deals, steal and embezzle. He says they are the ones who buy refrigerators and other luxury goods. It's hard to blame them, he says.

A former senior Chinese official, Jang Jun-sung, says the corruption in North Korea has become a grave problem during the last four years. Mr. Jang says everybody in North Korea is on the take, from party officials, to policemen and local officials. He says North Korean reforms are not a transformation to market economy, but an enrichment program for the ruling class.

Mr. Jang says money has become the most important thing for the North Koreans. The reforms, he says, are a mere facade; the aim is to maintain dictatorship.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line and millions of North Koreans do not have enough to eat. The U.N.'s World Food Program says that, despite a good year of harvest for the first time since 1995, North Korea this year will still need hundreds of thousands of tons of food aid.

Inside another Chinese border town, Yanji, a North Korean woman who said she was a victim of human trafficking, had this to say about her life north. She says she had to give her children grilled acorns to eat because there was nothing else. She says her children ate it and became sick. She says this went on for 15 days, and the children finally refused to eat even acorns.

The complete dark city of Shinuiju on one side and the glimmering lights of Dandong on the other mirror the life of today's North Korea - the dark poverty for most and shimmering luxury for the government elite.

See Part 1: Information, Entertainment Flow into North Korea