A meeting on Mount Baekdu
Dandong in Liaoning Province, China, is located across the Amnok River from Sinuiju in North Korea. The two cities are only 500 meters (1,640 feet) apart. A few days ago, I returned to Dandong after more than a decade. The shabby gray buildings have been replaced with skyscrapers, and high-rise apartments have been built along the river where vegetables were grown. Streets formerly filled with bicycles are now crowded with people and jammed with traffic, and signboards no longer contain political propaganda but advertise an international fashion fair. It comes as no surprise considering the explosive growth of the Chinese economy.
But Sinuiju, across the river, seemed to have changed little. The crumbling brick houses and ashy chimneys were the same as 10 years ago. One new addition was a park that was completed two years ago. It is mainly for children, featuring some slides and a simple splash playground. It was hard to see people playing there, suggesting that it is mainly for display. Chinese people say looking at Sinuiju from Dandong is like looking over at Shenzhen from Hong Kong in the 80s. In fact, I heard the same thing 10 years ago.
In Tonghua, Jilin Province, I had dinner at a North Korean restaurant that featured a performance. After a number of songs, they said that they were now singing a new number from last year titled “Can’t Live Without General Kim Jong-un.” I could guess the lyrics without even listening to it. Only a few years ago, performers in North Korean restaurants in China were free to sing South Korean songs. The changed atmosphere may be a sign that the Kim Jong-un regime is still unstable.
Then I went to Wanda Changbaishan International Resort in the Changbai Mountain Range. Wanda Group, the biggest real estate development and tourism company in China, invested trillions of won in the 20-square kilometer-wild forest. The resort town has 3,500 rooms in nine internationally renowned hotels, including Westin and Sheraton, 60 shopping centers and the biggest ski slopes in Asia, a 54-hole golf course and a 660-seat theater. As its operation is in full force, Wanda is attracting Korean tourists and is opening a branch in Korea. They are appealing to Koreans’ sentiment to climb Mount Baekdu. Last year, more than 200,000 Koreans climbed the mountain and paid nearly 10 billion won in entrance fees to China.
Seeing is believing. Having seen Sinuiju and listened to the new song of North Korean performers, I painfully gave up on the possibility of change from the Communist state. At the same time, I felt the desperate need to approach the North and encourage them to change. Just in time, North Korea designated Mount Baekdu as a special international tourism zone. It would not be easy, but we could begin by proposing an inter-Korean meeting on the mountain. We need to act before China’s Wanda Group builds a resort on the North Korean side of Mount Baekdu. Who knows? Discussions may become the first step to easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula caused by North Korea’s SLBM launch.
The author is the Beijing bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo. JoongAng Ilbo, May 16, Page 30
by CHOI HYUNG-KYU