Integrated Reed Farms and SEZ’s: Revolutionary Landscape meets Economic Urgency, The Case of Sindo County
by Robert Winstanley-Chesters
Crossing the Friendship Bridge between Dandong and Sinuiju is one of the great border crossing experiences in the world, ranking up there with changing trains and going through both passport control and “compulsory currency exchange” at Friedrichstrasse U-Bahn station in 1987. While the physical border is clearly delimited, the political, economic, sociological and development aspects make this a place of great culture/system transfer and paradigmatic lurch from the great hyper-capitalist, post-Deng Xiaoping China to the fossilised, inept, collapsing dictatorial dystopic fantasy-land of the DPRK. Even a casual glance at the internet will provide the panoply of images which purport to back up the narratives surrounding this transition: the brightly lit, gaudy tourist boats of Dandong serving as contrast for the dusty, denuded, post-industrial landscape on the opposing bank of the Yalu/Amnok.
The landscape on the DPRK side of this border is often presented as representational of the inherent failure of its revolution. There are dirty gravel roads populated sparsely by cyclists on ugly, old-fashioned bicycles and half crumbling factory cooling towers that have seen no steam or smoke output for what seems like aeons. However, there is yet another border crossing of the river, not so far from the Dandong/Sinuiju crossing to a landscape of an overtly DPRK- style revolutionary type. Further down the river from the Friendship Bridge, where the mouth of the Yalu empties into the Yellow Sea, we can find an authentic example of revolutionary land in the DPRK sense.
The DPRK engaged in, and is currently attempting to complete a myriad of projects focused on reclaiming coastal land. (Some of these attempts are covered in my previous postings; others are subjects within my PhD thesis.) Most reclamative projects started in recent times within the DPRK might be categorised as possessing what I have termed “multi-functional” characteristics. Sindo, the project at the mouth of the Yalu/Amnok, is on the face of it, a much earlier project, having been initiated in 1958 through the merging together through reclamation of Pidansom island and other surrounding islets. Project details such as initial planning and/or direction have always proved difficult to obtain for the English language reader, mainly owing to the failure of the Foreign Languages Publishing House to produce the twelve volume of Kim Il Sung’s “Works,” which would have covered the period., However, KCNA did note the reclamation of some 5,500 hectares of land within the project.
Because it serves primarily to increase the amount and capacity of available agricultural land, Sindo is not fully multi-functional in reclamative direction. However, it has proved useful in later years within different narrative aspects of the DPRK. Sindo, for example, is presented as the first “new” county in DPRK history, having been split from Ryongchong County in 1991, and in a sense proof of accumulative possibility within the “revolutionary” politics of the DPRK. Through the guidance of the Great Leader, and hard work along the lines directed and instructed by him, the DPRK did not lose a single inch but instead added new geographic territories for its revolution, despite the outcome of the Korean War.
In the era of the Dear Leader, Sindo found its way into the narrative of leadership veneration. In the winter of 1999/2000, adverse weather prevented the travel of a mother and her newly born triplets to the hospital and forced Kim Jong Il to take “such a benevolent step as instructing it to helicopter them to the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital.” In keeping with the theme of environmental stewardship, in more recent times Sindo has formed part of the narrative of environmental superiority and legitimation, not only as a land reclamation project, but also as tangible proof of governmental approach to the natural world in the DPRK, such as in the field of avian conservation, including, as it does, a reserve for migrating birds.
Of most interest is the role of Sindo within the border area itself. Mirroring the DPRK’s other spaces of economic and industrial experimentation, such as Kaesong in the south and Rason to the east, Sinuiju has been designated a Special Economic Zone. Presumably, the dynamic expertise of Chinese business/trading will meet the low cost (no cost!) advantages provided by the DPRK’s labour market. The whole experiment can be neatly contained inside these geographic confines. It may be that the inevitable outcome for all borderlands is to become entwined with the needs and interests of the other side, and perhaps to become a little similar to what Sindo’s role will be within this new borderland and the Sinuiju SEZ of economic urgency and necessity. Will Sindo County Integrated Reed Farm, the revolutionary backwater, the designated migratory bird reserve, and the sense of utopian possibility in its (presumably) brackish waters continue to be a place of sudden philosophical transition, or will it be swallowed up in a rush of SEZ-related demands?
 The Dandong/Sinuiju interchange is nearly as dramatic as the Ukrainian/Polish railway gauge change and the Shengen interrogation that one receives at the Dorohusk/Chelm border post.
This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com