Caught in North Korea, Sold in China, Crabs Knit Two Economies
By JANE PERLEZ
Published: March 4, 2013
YANJI, China — At the Red Sun restaurant, a short-order joint on Crab and Beer Streets, live crabs with plump legs wriggle in a cooled tank, fresh from the North Korean coast just two and a half hours away by road.
The cook and owner, Jin Yuansheng, douses the prized crabs in boiling water and adds them to the steaming platters of sea cucumbers, shrimp and squid, also from North Korean waters, that he brings to the table.
This border town in China’s cold and poor northeast abuts North Korea along the icy Tumen River, where a bridge serves as the gateway for a lively commerce in shellfish plumbed from the Sea of Japan off North Korea. It is an exotic niche business in the more than $11 billion annual trade between North Korea and China, which is dominated by China’s purchases of cheap North Korean iron ore and coal.
Since a third nuclear test by North Korea last month, China had resisted until this week the request of the United States to impose new United Nations sanctions intended to slow North Korea’s expanding nuclear weapons capacity. China has also balked at suggestions that North Korea’s commercial trade should be put under United Nations sanctions.
By encouraging trade with North Korea, China aims to prevent North Korea’s government from collapsing, an outcome that could result in a Korean Peninsula allied to the United States. And business with North Korea serves a domestic goal: it helps employment and incomes in needy Jilin Province, where an estimated two million ethnic Koreans live.
That is where the crabs come in. Scooped from 3,000-foot-deep waters by trawlers crewed by North Korea workers, they are first taken to the North Korean port of Rason, a special enterprise zone serving foreign investors and largely financed by China. The crabs are trucked in ice to the Chinese border town of Quanhe, and then brought to the market in Yanji, or flown to cities across China as a delicacy for the affluent.
“Getting the crabs here is a delicate operation,” said Mr. Jin. “If they are too hot en route, they can die, and if they are too cold, they can freeze to death.”
Like many border towns in tough regions around the world, Yanji offers a peephole into forbidden territory. People here, especially the ethnic Koreans, talk of a love-hate relationship with their neighbor, run by one of the most isolated and brutal governments in the world. For the repressed people of North Korea, there appears to be sympathy among residents on the Chinese side of the border.
The shadow of North Korea can be felt in many ways here. Underground, refuges protect defectors from North Korea who are brave enough to risk escaping across the Tumen River. Aboveground, shops sell North Korean foodstuffs: expensive mushrooms advertised as truffles, ginseng root, and powder ground from the gall bladder of bears and sold as a boost to the immune system.
At the Kuanshi Art Gallery, pastel paintings of landscapes by North Korean artists sell briskly, bought by Chinese collectors with a taste for nostalgia, said Li Hezhang, the gallery director. Five North Korean artists are invited every year to Yanji, where they stay for a few months painting made-to-order images requested by the gallery, Ms. Li said.
For centuries Korea was a part of the Chinese feudal tributary system, sending gifts to the Chinese court and submitting to the pre-eminence of the Chinese emperor, an arrangement that bred an attitude of superiority by the Chinese toward Koreans.
Here in proximity, tinges of that arrogance persist, and seafood traders who travel to Rason, reputed to be a showcase of modernity compared with much else in North Korea, remark at how backward it is. “Like China in the ’50s,” said Mr. Jin.
For Chinese traders, importing crab is a lucrative business. They sell not only to upscale restaurants around China, but also to banquet organizers. The sales pitch stresses what is called the purity of the waters around impoverished North Korea compared with the more polluted seas around industrialized Japan and South Korea.
“The fishermen capture the crab deep down, so it is high quality,” said Qu Baojie, whose company imports crab from Rason. “South Korea and Japan can’t compete.”
His crab, branded as Crab Earth, Crab Heaven, is featured at the buffet of the Golden Jaguar, a fashionable Beijing restaurant, and is sold in red boxes suitable for business gifts, he said.
The fishing operations in Rason, an ice-free port that gives year-round sea access to China’s northeastern provinces, work fairly smoothly, Mr. Qu said. Fishing trawlers equipped with South Korean gear ply the waters at night, returning to shore about 4 a.m.
Their catches are then transferred to a state-owned plant where some crabs are packed live and others are processed, he said. About 300 North Korean workers are employed during the peak September to December fishing season. Fishing during the breeding season of June to September is banned, he said.
His crab business flourishing, he recently bought a new processing factory in Yanji, Mr. Qu said.
Some of the crab meat was vacuum packed in clear plastic, and sold to other Chinese traders, who in turn dispatched it to the United States, he said. The brand name of North Korean crab meat sold in the United States? “They slap on their own brands,” he said of the American buyers.
He said North Korea’s recent nuclear test would have few consequences for his business. China will continue to invest in Rason, where business conditions had steadily improved, he said. The Agricultural Bank of China, one of China’s big banks, recently opened a branch in the city, making it possible to pay his suppliers, and the North Koreans now allow Chinese traders to take their cellphones into North Korea.
Even though China is by far North Korea’s biggest investor, the North Korean government distrusts the traders, and they are kept apart from North Korean workers, he said. When he has driven to Rason, he has stayed at a state-owned hotel catering specifically to Chinese.
“I don’t care about politics,” said Mr. Qu. “There hasn’t been any impact from the test on my business, and I don’t think there will be. Anyway, China has rented Rason for 50 years.”
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