Caught in North Korea, Sold in China, Crabs Knit Two Economies



Crabs imported from North Korea at a market in Yanji, China. China has resisted efforts to put sanctions on trade with its neighbor.


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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