Welcome To Yanbian, China’s Flourishing “Third Korea”

Despite China's geographic and political proximity with North Korea, it's South Korea for whom the country's autonomous Yanbian area has rolled out the red carpet.

Farming rice in Yanbian
Farming rice in Yanbian
Brice Pedroletti

YANJI â€" It's a geographic and political paradox. North Korea, one of China's official allies, is within easy reach, but it's China"s southern ally that authorities in its Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture are courting. At the end of September, they rolled out the red carpet for China's new South Korean Ambassador Kim Jang-soo, and dozens of South Korean companies have already established themselves there.

Jang-soo's presence in Yanbian, just a few dozen kilometers from North Korea, probably didn't please North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Appointed in February, Jang-soo isn't an ambassador like any other. The right hand of South Korean President Park Geun-hye is a four-star general, a former defense minister and deputy commander of the U.S.-South Korea joint task force. But most importantly, in 2014 he headed the new national security office that Park created to supervise security issues, especially with North Korea. Suffice it to say that his visit to Yanbian is proof of emerging relations between China and South Korea, also a U.S. ally.

South Korean investments have been highly courted since Beijing and Seoul signed a free trade agreement In June, which both countries described as "historic." China is already South Korea's most important trading partner, and exchanges between the two countries â€" $250 billion a year â€" are 35 times higher than the $7 billion in exchanges China and North Korea.

The entire region â€" the "Tumen Triangle," where the Chinese, Russian and North Korean borders meet â€" could become an ideal logistical platform towards outside markets if North Korea was more open and Russia more dynamic.

Yanbian's capital Yanji â€" Photo: Discott

Sometimes called the "third Korea," the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture plays a particular role in the complicated relationship between China and the two Koreas: This Chinese territory in the Jilin province, a bit larger than Belgium, is home to a significant population of Korean origin whose presence dates back to the Qing dynasty. At the end of the 19th century, the empire decided to regulate the colonies of Korean farmers, hoping to block Russian progress. They now represent a major part of the 2 million Chinese of Korean origin. And thanks to their dynamism, they have turned Yabian into one the most urbanized regions in northeast Chinese. More than half of the 800,000 residents of Yanji, the capital of Yanbian, has a Korean background.

A mini Seoul

Since the policy of openness launched by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979, Yanbian has prospered thanks to its relationship with South Korea. Chinese-Korean families started very early sending their relatives to work in the Yanbian's factories and services, and most of those who live in Seoul’s Chinatown are Chinese people of Korean origin. Korea's economic success in the 1990s and the popularity of South Korean culture in China drove the most dynamic of these migrant workers to return to Yanji and open restaurants and businesses, turning the autonomous region into a mini Seoul on Chinese soil. As for the young Chinese-Korean graduates from Yanbian, major Korean companies with established factories on the Chinese Shandong coast aggressively recruit them.

On the other hand, the proximity with North Korea is a source of frustration and false hopes for Yanbian residents: The border is still a dead end, as there is only a handful of much-regulated frontier posts between China and North Korea. The Tumen River, narrow and shallow, remains the crossing point for most North Korean refugees. Dandong, the large Chinese border city to the west, serves as the main logistical corridor for cross-border business.

But Cui Zhehao, a Chinese-Korean economist from the University of Yanbian, says the special North Korean economic zone of Rajin-Sonbong, on the other side of the border, has suffered less from the deterioration of relations between China and North Korea than the rest of the country. "North Koreans are trying to make Rajin-Sonbong adopt a Chinese model and, for that, they depend on the presence of the Chinese and its economic support," he says. "As for China, it needs an access to the ocean. So, on both sides, there are many reasons to cooperate."

Attacks on local residents

President Xi Jinping visited Yanbian in July, and experts say the visit was designed to show that the central government would support Yanbian against an economic downturn, which is hitting China's industrial northeast hard. They say it was also an effort to allay the security concerns of residents: There have been several recent cases of deadly incursions of North Korean soldiers in China, and underground nuclear tests that Pyongyang has conducted so close by are also threatening.

Since September 2014, three attacks by North Korean soldiers on residents in Chinese border villages have left nine people dead. These incidents shocked the population, even though China made sure to limit news reporting about the attacks. In the latest one, in April 2015, three Chinese people were murdered in Longcheng village by three North Korean deserters. More recently, after Xi Jinping's visit in September, shots were fired on a Chinese vehicle near the border, wounding its driver.

"These murders have fueled a feeling of resentment," says professor Jin Qiangyi, who head the Asia research center at the Yanbian University. "Ordinary people have been attacked, and this has had a lot more impact than just petty theft. Residents of Yabian have attachments on the other side of the border, so anything that concerns North Korea prompts emotion. But people also built up resentment because the openness never actually happened."

The "Chinese Korea" is clearly enjoying close relations with South Korea. The question now is what the consequences will be for the recluse to the north.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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