[TODAY]What now for the Sinuiju plan?

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[TODAY]What now for the Sinuiju plan?

Who is Yang Bin? He is the person in charge of North Korea's market economy experiment. Considering the effort North Korea has put into its plans to turn the city of Sinuiju into a special economic zone, Mr. Yang's success or failure could determine the outcome of North Korea's attempts of reform. The rumors that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il treats Mr. Yang like a son do not seem impossible. That Mr. Yang, who appeared like a comet in the sky, was suddenly de-tained by Chinese officials is a turn of events as surprising and dramatic as his appearance. The detention of Mr. Yang is a mystery and an irony of relations between North Korea and China.

The idea for Sinuiju might have been stimulated by the economic success of Shanghai. Mr. Kim visited Shanghai and toured the sites of China's market economy and information technology industries in January 2001 and praised them for "a cataclysmic change." The Sinuiju plan is to make a prosperous island of capitalist market economy in a socialist sea. It is reportedly modeled after Hong Kong. If Sinuiju develops into what Mr. Kim and Mr. Yang want it to be, it would also mean profits for China's Dandong region, which would be the primary portal for Sinuiju for some time to come.

It is both ironic and tragic that Sinuiju, inspired by Shanghai, modeled after Hong Kong and linked to Dandong, would be interrupted so early in its development by the detention of Mr. Yang by Chinese authorities.

China explained to North Korea that Mr. Yang's detention had nothing to do with Sinuiju, let alone with North Korea-China relations. Chinese officials explained that Mr. Yang was being detained because of allegations of tax evasion. But there are questions about China's intentions in having chosen this particular time to detain Mr. Yang even though he had been facing tax evasion allegations for some time. Mr. Yang lost his freedom of movement at the vital initial stage of the Sinuiju plan.

Had Mr. Yang been scouted as the chief of Sinuiju after all the plans were elaborated, replacing him would not be such a problem. If, however, the bulk of the Sinuiju idea had actually come from Mr. Yang's brain, as many suspect, and because it takes someone with a somewhat reckless drive and wild imagination like Mr. Yang to make the idea come true, the fall of Mr. Yang may mean a deadly blow for the future of Sinuiju.

The Sinuiju plan is admittedly rough and full of holes. When considering the international credibility of North Korea, it is hard to tell how many foreign businesses would enter Sinuiju and from where all the capital is to come. But when you combine developments in North-South relations, North Korea's relations with Japan and the United States that North Korea has actively tried to improve since the beginning of this year, Sinuiju might not be all that uncertain a plan.

North-South talks have started to show progress after a long time. The establishment of diplomatic relations with Japan is just around the corner for North Korea, and the United States has for now resumed talks with Pyeongyang. But the administrative chief of Sinuiju, which will soon become the symbol of North Korea's reforms and efforts to open the country, is under arrest at this important time. That could compromise the credibility of North Korea's ambitious reform plans in the outside world.

Relations between North Korea and China were tense in the mid-1990s and improved a bit only in recent years. Tension between the two countries reached a climax in 1995, when Mr. Kim wrote in the Rodong Sinmun about the "betrayers" of the socialist revolution who had perverted socialist ideology and were walking the capitalist road. Mr. Kim's criticism of China reflected the insecurity in the regime after events such as the establishment of diplomatic ties between South Korea and China in 1992 and the death of his father, and the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, in 1994 and after the fall of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc in Eastern Europe.

If North Korea is to reform and introduce elements of a market economy, it would most likely use China's model to make a "North Korean-style socialist market economy." Since 1996, North Korea has sent numerous missions to China to witness that country's economic growth.

Those who hope for change in the North hope for a sussessful "revolution" of Sinuiju. It was a mistake to appoint a Chinese-born tycoon with big business in China as the administrative chief of Sinuiju without first consulting with Beijing. China is sensitive about the recent situation in which North Korea and Russia have displayed closer ties. Still, one hopes that Mr. Yang's detention does not mean that plans for Sinuiju will be stillborn.


The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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