North Korea formally started construction on Wednesday of an industrial park on Hwanggumpyong Island in the lower reaches of the Duman (or Tumen) River, which it hopes will attract massive Chinese investment.
The ground-breaking ceremony came later than planned, but despite reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il failed to secure Chinese central government funding for the project during a recent visit to Beijing, China was represented at the event by several senior officials. Kim met Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing during the trip late last month.
The ground-breaking ceremony for another Sino-North Korean project in the Rajin-Sonbong special economic zone, which includes building roads connecting it to Hunchun in Yanbian, China, will be held on Thursday.
From the North Korean side, Kim's brother-in-law Jang Song-taek, who oversees economic cooperation with China, and the head of the investment commission Ri Su-yong were among those who attended the ceremony. From the Chinese side there were Wang Qishan, the vice premier in charge of economic, energy and financial affairs, and Commerce Minister Chen Deming. Wang was the counterpart of U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner during the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
The ceremony started at 10:40 a.m. and took half an hour. Huge balloons with messages like "Friendship between China and North Korea" and "Joint Development" floated in the air above while a military brass band played. Some 300-400 people attended, a stark contrast from the ground breaking for a new bridge connecting Sinuiju in North Korea to China's Dandong across the Apnok (or Yalu) River at the end of last year, which lasted just 10 minutes with a few dozen regional officials present. AP's Pyongyang correspondent was allowed to cover the event.
The development of Hwanggumpyong and Rajin-Sonbong was agreed after Kim's visits to China in May and August last year. But there appears to have been some discord over how they are to be funded, with China wanting local governments and private business to shoulder the cost, while the North wanted investment from the Chinese central government.
Kim apparently went on the China trip to bridge the discord in person, but to no avail as Wen refused to give in, according to sources. Chinese companies are unwilling to take part in developing the island, which is not deemed profitable and has flimsy flood protection. But China is very keen to secure an East Sea shipping route through Rajin-Sonbong, which may be why the Hwanggumpyong project is going ahead regardless.
Diplomats in Beijing believe the discord was the reason the two ground-breaking ceremonies, which were originally scheduled for May 28 and 30, were postponed.
One expert on North Korean affairs in Beijing said, "North Korea initially wanted a top-level official from the Chinese Politburo to attend, but Wang is also a very important figure in Chinese politics. It seems that China wanted to placate North Korea by sending Wang."