When I visited Rason in 1997, I was struck by how fresh the air and how beautiful the night skies were. Given the dearth of outdoor recreational opportunities in northeast Asia, I mused that maybe the North Koreans might be better off in the long-run by preserving the wilderness rather than by developing an industrial park. A recent account in the Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) of a visit to the Wihwa Island Economic Zone by Chinese journalists Zhou Zhiran and Guo Xiaowei evoked similar feelings.
After repeated applications, the pair was permitted to become the first foreign journalists to visit the zone. Their difficulty in gaining access is striking in that their publication is owned by the People’s Daily which in turn is controlled by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. If there is a foreign publication that might be expected to provide reliably upbeat coverage of the Wihwa experience, it might be the Global Times. The two were accompanied by personnel from the foreign affairs department of Rodong Sinmun, just for insurance.
Their description of the dilapidated bucolic scene is worth quoting at length: “After passing two crossroads in the city, the vehicles turned into a narrow dirt road with an unrepaired surface that was full of bumps and holes. The vehicles slowed down before a bridge and the escorting North Korean personnel said WihwaIsland was right ahead. There was a sentry post at the bridgehead and a few soldiers were checking on vehicles and people entering the Wihwa Island Economic Zone… When crossing the bridge, these reporters found that the entire bridge seemed to have been neglected for years. The bridge surface was rather narrow and could barely allow two cars to pass by each other…After the vehicles drove past the bridge and formally entered the Wihwa Island Economic Zone, these reporters found that the roads in the zone were still dirt ones. On both sides of the road basically were farmland and some rows of rather old linked adobe houses, with yards cultivated with a lot of vegetables, that would pop up at some distance from each other. There were no high-rise buildings, no newly constructed highways, and little traffic in the economic zone. The entire economic zone was somewhat like a beautiful retreat.”
Development has been faster on HwanggumpyongIsland than Wihwa Island. An official of the Economic Zone Development Bureau of North Korea’s North Pyongan Provincial People’s Committee, who had been tasked with escorting the Chinese journalists, explained that this was due to the presence of more than 13,000 residents occupied mainly by growing rice, vegetables, and corn. A reservoir supplies potable water not only to residents in the Wihwa Island Economic Zone but also to Sinuiju City proper. This was starting to sound less like an eco-tourism destination than a rustic home-stay opportunity. Alas, neither possibility is apparently in the cards. A Chinese scholar who requested anonymity is cited to the effect that fears of spiritual pollution of the indigenous population this is why development has proceeded more rapidly on nearly deserted Hwanggumpyong Island where the infrastructure is even worse than on Wihwa.
When the journalists asked about plans for the residents, they were informed that the current occupants would be relocated, and new residents from the outside would be imported to work and live on the island which would specialize in garment processing, modern high-efficiency agriculture, electronics and information industries, and business and trading services. Earlier this month Yonhap reported that China had sent approximately 70 commerce officials to North Korea to try and jumpstart the Rason, Hwanggumpyong, and Wihwa projects.
Yes, it’s easy to wax poetic about the joys of country living from the comfort of an air-conditioned office. But somehow I have to believe that growing vegetables on your own island beats being forcibly relocated to who knows where.