- The Washington Times - Friday, October 11, 2002

DANDONG, China Tang Zhonghai grins when he remembers how his family once envied the neighbors across the Yalu River. While their farming household never had enough to eat or wear, North Koreans enjoyed a state allocation system that seemed to provide for all needs.
That was in the 1970s, before China loosened communist economic restrictions and permitted people to open businesses like the shoe-repair shop that Mr. Tang runs in a busy mini-mall. North Korea, meanwhile, remained mired in a planned economy that collapsed after the withdrawal of Soviet subsidies.
These days, "it's just awful to be a North Korean," said Mr. Tang, shaking his head and pulling on a cigarette.
The contrast in paths chosen by the two countries among the world's last communist states is nowhere starker than along the border at Dandong, a rambling, bustling city where infusions of foreign investment have revived a grim industrial landscape.
Residents ride slick motor scooters through busy streets beneath towering hotels and condominiums. Vacationers during China's weeklong national holiday ride sightseeing boats on the river and snap photos along the famous bridge bombed by U.S. B-29s during the Korean War.
Just across the river is the North Korean city of Sinuiju, dotted with decrepit low-rise factories seemingly devoid of workers. A forlorn Ferris wheel overlooks a ramshackle amusement park. Fishermen with hand-held nets wade into the river, watched by uniformed men in an army jeep.
North Korea wants to change that landscape. Four weeks ago, its government announced an ambitious crash program to develop Sinuiju into a special economic zone with its own laws, foreign capital and visa-free entry for international investors.
While the plan is a radical departure for the isolated communist state, many in Dandong doubt it will produce much.
"We've heard a little about this idea, but how can they bring it about? There's simply nothing over there and no reason to go," said Miss Wang, a shopkeeper selling North Korean stamps and cigarettes along the broken bridge.
Already the man named to be the zone's governor, the China-born Yang Bin, has backtracked, saying the North Korean government won't admit foreigners until the city is isolated from the rest of North Korea by a wall.
Despite the towns' proximity and the large ethnic Korean population in northeastern China, there seems to be little economic interaction between the sides.
During one recent afternoon, a single freight train and several 1950s-style trucks crossed the border into China, all empty. River traffic was limited to Chinese tourist boats and the occasional Chinese patrol.
Some North Koreans do cross legally, to conduct small-scale trade, and illegally to seek food and work in northeastern China because there is none at home. Dandong cab drivers talk of a third group those with "background," or political connections, who own property in China and shuttle back and forth.
North Korean products sold in Dandong are limited to novelties such as stamps, currency and cigarettes, or jade bracelets sold in a tumbledown "border trade center" along the waterfront.
Asked if she stocked any North Korean singers' recordings, a clerk at the Yiwen CD shop loaded with Taiwanese, Chinese and foreign recordings, thought briefly before answering: "I never knew they even existed."
Dandong's shops, meanwhile, brim with stylish clothing, kitchen fixtures for the many new apartments and Japanese- and South Korean-brand home appliances many made in Chinese factories. Packaged snacks, local red wine in big plastic jugs and fresh peaches and apples line shelves in a Taiwanese-run supermarket.
Sportily dressed 20-somethings browse boutiques with names like "Anmani," sip frothy iced tea at the Free and Easy Coffee Shop and dine on venison and beef at Korean barbecue restaurants. For less-innocent recreation, pink neon beckons men to "singing practice halls" staffed by leggy hostesses and bathhouses offer "cleanliness and entertainment."

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