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A Roll of the Dice: North Korea's Economic Reform Gamble  (Page 3 of 3)

The China International Travel Service in the border city of Dandong said this week it expects to send 40,000 Chinese to North Korea this year, double the number of 2010. Dandong, which is separated from the North Korean town of Sinijiu by the Yalu River, is home to dozens of travel agencies advertising short trips across the border.

At a joint economic, culture and tourism exhibition in the city last week, the head of publicity at North Korea’s national tourism administration, Hong Yin-chel reportedly told delegates his country was trying to upgrade its tourism facilities.

“We welcome tourists from the whole world, and especially from China,” Hong was quoted as saying by China’s English-language news outlet, China Daily.

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Meanwhile, bilateral trade is also accelerating.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry issued a report to the National Assembly last week showing a 14.5-percent surge in China-North Korean trade to $3.54 billion up to the end of July this year.

Still much of this represents Chinese exports, while overall trade with the world’s second-largest economy has made up an ever-growing share of North Korea’s overall trade, from 67 percent in 2007 to nearly 90 percent last year, amid UN-imposed economic sanctions made stricter in 2009 following a second nuclear test.

In Tumen, a small Chinese town in northeast Jilin Province which borders North Korea, a 66-year-old Chinese trader is an example of the rising dependence North Korea places on China to provide everyday necessities it cannot produce itself.

His warehouse this month was stacked with packets of chocolate biscuits and orange drinks he sells just a few hundred meters away across the Tumen River in North Korea.

“They don’t have anything [to trade],” he says. “They just give me money.”

The only North Korean products on sale in Tumen are souvenir bank notes, cigarettes and rice wine, a sign of the country’s limited production which agricultural reforms – if they happen – might hope to correct.

But Kim’s room to maneuver remains limited. If North Korea’s young leader recognizes reforms are needed, he also knows changes which reduce state control over the means of production create the possibility of severe instability, says Evans Revere, a former U.S. State Department North Korea negotiator.

“China managed to resolve this contradiction and succeeded in launching an era of phenomenal growth,” he adds. “Can the DPRK do the same? I have my doubts.”

Steve Finch is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, TIME, The Independent, Toronto Star and Bangkok Post among others.

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