Revisiting Mount KumgangMorning in Dandong, China, across from the North Korean city of Sinuiju was full of energy. As workers in China started their day, the city’s horizon boasted traffic and skyscrapers against a rising sun.
When I first visited Dandong in 1994, it was a small frontier city and I had a hard time finding a decent restaurant. But now 20 years have passed, and the skyscrapers, signs, cars and well-dressed pedestrians have changed my perception. They’ve illustrated the growth of this city better than any statistic.
In fact, Dandong used to be a small fishing village that relied on the North Korean city of Sinuiju. In the 1960s and ’70s, trade with Sinuiju, then an industrial city, supported Dandong’s economy, and many ethnic Koreans were helped out by families and relatives living in the North.
But in just a few decades, Dandong became a prominent border city. The Chinese government promoted development in its three northeastern provinces, but the city’s expansion can’t be explained without addressing inter-Korean relations. That’s why Dandong’s emergence has special meaning to Korea.
Tourism at the Mount Kumgang resort in 1998 accelerated inter-Korean cooperation and exchange, and the Kaesong Industrial Complex has expanded and diversified ties. In the process, factories importing North Korean farming and fisheries products have also thrived. But Dandong was also a main trading center.
According to local residents, more than 3,000 Koreans lived in the area, which led to Dandong’s boom.
But the scale of projected inter-Korean cooperation began to deteriorate after tourism at Mount Kumgang was halted, and sanctions in 2010 completely shut off inter-Korean trade. The Koreans in Dangdong left - their absence filled by Chinese companies and North Korean workers. Still, Dandong continued to grow.
According to a local expert, 70 to 80 percent of trade between China and North Korea goes through Dandong, and 80 percent of Chinese tourists visiting North Korea come through that channel. More than 10,000 North Koreans dispatched by the North are working in 70 Chinese companies. Dandong is the biggest base as well as the gateway between North Korea and China.
Ironically, Dandong’s development is also helped by South Korea when Seoul and Pyongyang are friendly, and by the North when inter-Korean relations begin to fray. While some may criticize China for taking advantage of this deadlock, the expanded cooperation between North Korea and China cannot be denied. It’s a desirable development for the future of both Koreas, actually. What’s regrettable is the failure to attain trilateral cooperation that could serve as a base for inter-Korean economic cooperation.
Now, the Kaesong Industrial Complex is barely maintaining an economic exchange. The hardships endured by many businessmen and their families aside, it is truly tragic that North and South Korea have failed to progress toward a plan for a constructive future.
We cannot waste any time. Seoul and Pyongyang need to sit down and unravel this complicated knot. Instead of reiterating grand and fancy goals, we need to work together and restore the projects that have already been proven to work, like tourism at Mount Kumgang.
We still remember the Kumgang cruise ship sailing out of Donghae Port 17 years ago. It was about more than merely visiting North Korea. We were all moved by the first step in this odyssey of peace and unification for which 70 million Koreans have ardently yearned.
As we had hoped, Mount Kumgang changed the history of our division. Two million South Koreans have visited Mount Kumgang, and 15,000 separated family members have reunited here. Leaders from both countries have discussed reunification in Mount Kumgang, and based on that trust, major economic cooperation projects, including the Kaesong Industrial Complex have surfaced. The Korean Peninsula, marked by discord and confrontation, had transformed into a place of peace, reconciliation and cooperation.
At the beginning of the year, many people thought this year would be a golden opportunity for bilateral improvement.
Considering the domestic and international factors surrounding the Korean Peninsula, this year was the perfect time for a breakthrough. But July has come to an end already, so let’s hope for some good news in the next five months.
In the morning in Dandong, a bus full of Chinese tourists crosses the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge to Sinuiju, where the fields are deserted and the New Aprok River Bridge remains unfinished. It saddens me to think of the Kumgang Gateway in Gangwon remaining shut.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Ilbo, July 28, Page 29
*The author is the former vice unification minister and CEO of Hyundai Asan.
BY Cho Kun-shik