At North Korea Border, Chinese Fish Market Smells Of Sanctions

When China stopped importing seafood products from North Korea as part of new sanctions, businesses along the border were bound to pay the price.

In Hunchun's fish market
In Hunchun's fish market
Cyrille Pluyette

HUNCHUN — The main fish market in the Chinese village of Hunchun, just along the North Korean border, looks like a ghost town these days. The alleys are deserted, the shop floors — littered with wrapping paper — seem to have been precipitously abandoned. "For Rent" posters are taped over the windows. Just a few weeks ago, this same market was swarming with life. Trucks rolled in to unload their cargo of crabs, scallops, squid or sea cucumbers — the strange conic tentacles — the rare global imports from the Hermit Kingdom. The fish vendors then supplied the shops and restaurants of China's big cities to diners across the country especially hungry for these crustaceans and mollusks raised in water spared from pollution.

But all this activity has stopped cold since China, applying the latest United Nations sanctions, banned all imports of lead, iron ore, and fish products from its rogue neighbor. Coal purchases had already halted in February. On the sign — written in Chinese, Korean and Russian — of the only wholesaler in the market open in the middle of a recent afternoon, an immense orange King crab extends its legs bristling with spikes. In the depot, somber and silent, the polystyrene crates and unused boxes pile up against the walls. The trays, normally used to display shellfish, sit empty.

A man emerges from a small, lit store. He says that he was "in a meeting" in his office. In reality, he was killing time drinking tea and smoking cigarettes with an employee from the neighboring business, spread out on a couch and preparing to return home to the southern city of Guangzhou. "I'm going for many weeks of forced vacation, and I gave time off to my 10 employees. Maybe permanently … " sighs Ding Zhenhua, 35, who gets 80% of his goods from North Korea.


In Hunchun, China — Photo: Dmitry Kobzeb

The embargo is a hard blow for this town of 250,000, which largely depends on importing seafood, like the other cities from this border region. Hundreds of businesses in Hunchun are on the edge of collapse, and thousands of people are at risk of losing their jobs, according to many locals.

To survive, Ding Zhenhua, who invested much of his savings in tools and gear, has planned to meet with a Russian exporter in the evening. The meeting will be decisive. "If I can make a deal, I will bring back my employees. If not, I'll have to lock up forever," he says bitterly. Ding will have to negotiate carefully. Russian King crab is already about 30% more expensive than the North Korean crab was before the embargo, and the prices have shot up since. Another reason for worry: Russian products are subject to substantial taxes, which the North Korean products didn't have.

On the evening of August 14, in the port of Quanhe (situated 30 kilometers from Hunchun), on the bridge that spans the Tumen River separating the two countries, authorities stopped 25 trucks that were returning from North Korea. The trucks were filled to the brim with hundreds of tons of seafood products: All of it was destroyed.

Shellfish hunter in Hunchun — Photo: chenyingphoto

Angered by the swift action, Hunchun business owners quickly took to the streets to protest, an increasingly rare reaction on the part of Chinese merchants. "Sanction North Korea as long it doesn't result in losses for Chinese citizens!" implored one sign. Protesters have since been silenced by the Communist authorities in Beijing.

Li Yaohua (name has been changed), a businessman from another market in the city, doesn't hide his irritation. "This is the first time that I've seen sanctions this severe," says the 40-year-old. "The government should warn us two or three months in advance. This isn't reasonable! You develop a business over ten years and suddenly, the gates are closed."

The market may never see the light of day.

Adding to the anger of Hunchin's shopkeepers is that many invested in a 120 million RMB ($18 million) construction of a new marketplace, which was expected to lead an economic expansion for the city, largely encouraged by local authorities. Almost completed, the construction was interrupted, and the market may never see the light of day. Li Yaohua risks losing 10 million RMB ($1.5 million) Behind his office, a shelving unit is decorated with two small flags, Chinese and North Korean. But he too will also attempt to partner with Russians, even though he risks seeing his margins sink and believes that the Russians are "not workers." He counts on his four restaurants and his shares in hotels to help cushion the shock, although these enterprises were also affected by the trade sanctions.

The smaller business owners will have more difficulty in staying afloat. The tenant of the neighboring shop, though, is not resigning to the new order. He has just completed a trip to North Korea to try and find a supplier for sea cucumbers and import them "discreetly," by an ethnically-Korean, Chinese middleman.

Others are waiting to see how things will turn out. "I still have some Russian crabs, but all the restaurants and tourists think we're out of stock and don't come anymore," says Wang Hui, 36, who has already paid the rent for her shop for the next year. If the situation doesn't improve, the mother of two will return to her hometown in Anhui, in central China, which she left four years ago. But she's not too bitter, ready to "sacrifice" and support the decision of the government "if it's in the interest of the country."

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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