Sunday, September 28, 2008

Tesco Dandong - convenient for North Koreans

The Amnok river separates the People's Republic of China from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (yep the more words implying "people" and "democracy" the more oppressive it is). Mao Tse Tung once said that the two countries were as close as "lips and teeth" in relations. The differences are stark between Dandong on the Chinese side of the river and Sinuiji on the Korean side. You see in Dandong there is a Tesco, a three storey one. Dandong is a thriving city. Sinuiji is a stark contrast. On the left you can see Kim Il Sung Square in Sinuiji, you can see the shadow from the statue and the people, with no cars. On the right you see Sinuiji stadium, run down, filthy from the industrial pollution, and people roaming around on foot and bike - no cars, no sport, but something was happening there on that day. I daren't even guess what.

Until recent years, the DPRK patrolled this bordered harshly, and scope for bribes and corruption with border guards was very low. However, the stark economic situation on the Korean side has seen that change. For a price, DPRK border guards will let people through, and North Korean entrepreneurs (bless them) have been doing just that. According to the Sunday Telegraph, they are some of the best customers for Tesco Dandong in China, "They buy soap, toilet paper, shampoo and food, of course". This is what capitalism can provide, which totalitarian socialism cannot.

The nearly worthless DPRK won currency trades not at the official rate of 20.5 to the Chinese Renminbi, but 400.

The Economist this week also reports on the Koreas. It notes that North Korean society is in serious flux, because of the border becoming more porous and economic changes in neighbouring countries flooding through to the country in curious ways:

"Earlier this decade DVD players fell dramatically in price, so South Korean households quickly dumped their old VCRs in favour of the new players. Smugglers picked up the old units for next to nothing and sold them in North Korea for US$40 or so apiece - a price that plenty of urban North Korean familis could afford if they saved up. The consequence was what Mr Lankov (Australian National University) calls a "video revolution": a flood of South Korean soap operas, melodramas and music videos entering North Korea by the same route and delighting new audiences. The impact of the astounding affluence on display - the star's clothes and cars, Seoul's glittering skyline - exposes the central lie on which the regime bases its claim to rule: that South Korea is a backward, impoverished and exploited."

In other words, the hermit kingdom whereby everything about the outside world could be controlled - as North Korean radios had no tuning dial to allow foreign stations to be heard, like North Korean TVs, as satellite dishes were banned, as the internet was banned - is starting to unravel. The dire economy has resorted to many near the borders taking advantage of opportunities to buy and sell what they can to better themselves, and as a result the news of the outside world is drip feeding in. Not that residents of Sinuiji would have any illusions - from their side of the river they have watched Dandong grow like umpteen other Chinese cities in the past 20 years, into a brightly lit capitalist beacon of wealth, whilst around them is the dreary poverty of their socialist paradise.

Tesco's slogan is "Every little helps", and it can say, in China, it's doing just that for North Koreans. It's far more than you'll notice most politicians in the West doing for them.


The ex-expat said...

I went to that Tesco! You reminded me that I need to get back to finishing my North Korean travel writings.

Anonymous said...

i'm crossing to sinuijiu via the amnok river next week - to visit relatives!