Most focus on travel to North Korea inevitably revolves around two cities: Pyongyang and Kaesong. This is probably because the staple North Korea tours revolve around visiting those locations, home of course to all of the country’s primary tourist destinations. We are always hearing about the Mansudae Grand Hill Monument, the War Museum, the DMZ, the Metro and so on. But what about the other places? What is the North Korea that doesn’t live in the spotlight? A nation is often embodied by its biggest and most iconic cities, but that is never all that it consists of. Thus today, we are going to focus on the border city of Sinuiju, the place most travellers to the DPRK pass through, but few ever think about or examine in close depth. So what’s to learn? Tune in for a unique overview of this historic Yalu River settlement and its evolving role in NK-China relations.
Something Koreans will find trouble in that modern Sinuiju owes a great deal of its history to Japanese colonialism. Occupying Korea in the early 20th century, the Imperial Meiji regime sought to build a gateway from Japan up the peninsula into China itself, with the Manchurian region being later occupied in the 1930s. The inevitable output of these decisions resulted in a serious attempt to economically integrate the north of Korea with Liaoning for the first time. The road and rail bridge, now titled the “Sino-Korean friendship bridge” linking the two countries was built from 1937 to 1943. Other infrastructure along the river, including dockyards were also built, still visible today on both sides. The ultimate accumulation of all this Japanese activity was thus the rise of a small city in the name of Sinuiju. It was in essence, an economic outpost of Imperialism, an ambitious element of a grand Japan-Korea-China schematic. Alas fortunately, it never came to be.
Following the end of the Japanese Empire, Sinuiju was occupied by the Soviet union in 1945 and eventually became a part of the newly proclaimed “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea“. During the Korean War, it experienced American bombing (with part of the adjacent bridge destroyed: thus forming the broken bridge) and would also serve a brief role as the provisional capital of the DPRK as the UN coalition attempted to reunify the country under the rule of the South. Following the war, the city was reconstructed and begin to consolidate its role as a hub for cross border between China and the DPRK. It is worth noting for many decades, North Korea was a wealthier country than the impoverished Maoist led PRC. In turn, Kim Il Sung invested heavily in Sinuiju in order to elaborate the ideological supremacy of the DPRK over China. Despite the rhetoric of being “comrades in arms”: North Korea has never to any sense allowed itself to be projected as China’s subordinate. Thus, along the Yalu River the 1960s saw the country construct fanciful housing, even leading some Chinese locals to accuse Pyongyang of Potemkinism in the process.
North Korean guard post outside Sinuiju on the Yalu River. The docks next to it were created by the Empire of Japan
Of course, the world would change. From the 1970s onwards China transformed into an increasingly prosperous country and one of the world’s leading economies, whilst North Korea stagnated and eventually in the 1990s, suffered an economic collapse. This would permanently change the dynamics of the city of Sinuiju. As China pursued market based reforms, the effects would be felt in the DPRK as cheap manufactured consumer goods and other items would spill in through the borders and through the city. In response to these changes and to take advantage, North Korea christened Sinuiju as a special economic zone in 2002. The border city, now perfectly placed next to the “boom town” of Dandong, was able to experiment with marketed liberalisation. Despite this, observers will be quick to observe contemporary Sinuiju is not a prosperous place. It sits overwhelmingly in the shadow of its neighbour, which is of course not even lucrative by Chinese standards! Signs of decline abound. One may note the creepy abandoned amusement park next to the Yalu river, somewhat undesirable and derelict esque buildings.
Derelict North Korean factory and barges in Sinuiju
Recently, however, there has been a slight “transformation”. Kim Jong un, seeking to spearhead economic growth as his overarching goal, has oversaw a new spree of state investment in the city, striving to make use of its strategic location. This has involved the rapid creation of new apartment blocks, new facilities on the riverbanks and most strikingly, the current construction of a massive Casino and tourist resort. In 2017, a visa free zone was created for Chinese visitors. It is obvious what the goal is here, to redevelop the border outpost as a tourist destination taking clear advantage of Beijing’s draconian anti-gambling laws. The resort in question has a unique oval shape, but as of 2019 it is not finished.
North Korean tourist resort under construction in Sinuiju (date: January 2019)
As a whole, however, things are not likely to change too soon. Even as this grand resort is completed, the city is not likely to become a new Las Vegas. The upholding of international sanctions has already by rumour hurt the city and of course squeezes the Chinese lifeline which has long upheld it. Thus, far removed from the political centre, Sinuiju is likely to persist how it is for the near future. Nevertheless, it is always valuable and worthwhile to explore the world of North Korea outside of the “Pyongyang bubble“. It is fair to say that is a city operating far, far below its potential!