Changing tides in the Yalu River

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Changing tides in the Yalu River

In China, bent rivers are called he while straight rivers are named jiang. The Yellow River, or Huang He, is the most well-known bent river, and the Yangtze River, or Chang Jiang, is the straight kind. I spent last week in Dandong, and the Yalu River flowing between Dandong and Shinuiju is a straight river.

A Dandong local said, “In 30 years, the flow of the river changes and the east of the Yellow River becomes the west of the Yellow River. Similarly, the Yalu River’s north and south experienced changes in 30 years.” He said that in the 1960s and ’70s, the economic situation in North Korea and China were reversed. As a result of the experiments of people’s communes, which removed all private kitchens, and the Cultural Revolution, many people starved to death in China. North Korea was well-off at the time and did not neglect China’s needs.

Since the ’80s, China successfully opened and reformed, attaining rapid growth. In contrast, North Korea experienced famine and flood and went through the “Arduous March” in the mid-1990s. Just like today, a lot of supplies crossed the Yalu River. After the 1980s, the flow crossing the Yalu River reversed. The Chinese people in Dandong no longer treat North Korea as a “blood brother.”

The main cause is the economy. Dandong aspires to be the Shenzhen of the North. Just as Shenzhen backs up Hong Kong, Dandong built the 6,026-meter New Amnok Bridge and completed the construction of new towns in the area. Hwanggumpyong Island is completed, but the new project has turned into a ghost town due to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

The fourth nuclear test and the long-range rocket launch changed the direction of China’s North Korea policy. The arguments that North Korea is an eternal strategic asset for China are fading, and voices calling for “creative intervention” are growing. It seems that the new normal in foreign policy is arriving.

In an interview with a Hong Kong magazine, China’s People’s Liberation Army’s strategist Air Vice Marshal Chao Liang criticized North Korea for being ungrateful. Of course, he was discussing America’s “ambitions for hegemony,” and the main target was not North Korea. Meanwhile, Cao Xin, director of the China-Asia Development Exchange Foundation, discussed policy alternatives as a liberal intellectual in a contribution to the Financial Times Chinese Edition. He went so far as to argue that China must exercise influence over the North by stopping free assistance, closing the border temporarily and controlling smuggling.

The third 30-year cycle of the Yalu River is not about ideological offensives from China - if the flow of the public sentiment really changes every 30 years.

The author is the Beijing correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 5, Page 26


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