The summit between North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in last week delivered heady images of peaceful cooperation, but few tangible commitments to diminishing the dangers of a nuclear-armed pariah state.
But the sight of the two leaders hugging, holding hands and stepping together across the military demarcation line has unleashed a wave of euphoria across northeastern Asia.
In South Korea, nearly 80 per cent of people have declared their trust in Mr. Kim, the young dictator whose previous achievements have included executing his own uncle and, it is believed, his half-brother. In Seoul, Mr. Moon has been mooted as a candidate for the Nobel Peace prize. The price of South Korean property near the demilitarized zone has leapt amid hopes that a new era of more open borders is about to dawn – although evidence for such change remains scant.
Now China, too, is seeing a dramatic rise in property values along its border with North Korea, as speculators pile in and real estate developers seek to profit from hopes of a more open Pyongyang, home of one of earth’s most isolated regimes. In Dandong, real estate prices are up 50 per cent in some areas, as buyers bet on new economic access to North Korea bringing a windfall of economic activity.
The bulk of North Korea’s foreign trade flows through Dandong, and in recent days, apartments there have traded hands at such a furious pace that local real estate companies slam down the phone on interested callers, too busy to talk, while some units change hands multiple times in a single day.
At East Liaoning Agricultural Wholesale Market, a property development project, the price per square metre is up by $200 in recent days, as a rush of buyers attempts to snap up property, much of it for commercial use.
“There are so many buyers that some property companies have announced they are entirely sold out of houses,” said Wang Jian, a local representative for the development.
“As the situation on the peninsula improves and the two countries” – North Korea and China – “spend more time communicating with each other, Dandong will definitely be a popular destination for much outside investment,” she said.
“And investment means business opportunities. I think everyone will benefit, not just us.”
It’s an extraordinary reversal from years of the city’s New District being a near-ghost town with empty streets and unpopulated apartment buildings, all clustered near a new bridge to North Korea that has never been completed. Dandong’s economy in recent years has sputtered, and its real estate market has been a regional standout for its poor performance. China’s more vigorous enforcement of economic sanctions in recent months has further added to local woes, diminishing trade with North Korea.
Now the rush is so great that the Real Estate Registration Centre in Dandong has imposed a cap of 260 transactions per day and is requiring buyers to make appointments in advance “in order to avoid dealing with the masses, overcrowding and early queuing.”
As a result, at Zongyu City, another Dandong property development, “some of our buyers have told us that they have to pick number and wait for two or even more days before their house purchase can officially proceed,” said representative Jiang Li.
“Every time something iconic happens near the China-North Korea border, the real estate industry is always the first to react,” she said.
It is, she says, a “property investment fever.”
Underlying the exuberant buying is a belief that Dandong could become a wealthy new special economic zone, a northeastern counterpart to Shenzhen, the city adjacent to Hong Kong that has become one of China’s most economically vibrant centres, Liang Qidong, deputy dean of the Academy of Social Sciences in Liaoning told the Securities Times this week.
The newspaper reported that promotional materials at some real estate projects were going out of date in days amid the rapid run-up in prices.
It has all prompted questions about whether any of it makes sense. The agreement between North and South Korea last week is laden with broad statements, mentioning goals like “co-prosperity” and “balanced economic growth.” But it includes few specific commitments. The international sanctions regime remains in place, banning most forms of economic contact with North Korea.
The buyers flocking to Dandong are buying on thin grounds, said Mr. Liang, in a brief interview.
“It’s just what we call real estate speculation,” he said. He faults developers for cashing in on hype.
“I’m disappointed by the property industry, especially those near the border. They are playing tricks,” he said.
Dandong property buyers, meanwhile, came in for mockery on Chinese social media. “Real estate speculators, this is so Chinese,” wrote one. “Are they seriously treating Dandong as Hong Kong, thinking there is a Shenzhen on the opposite side?” asked another.
Historians have pointed out that North Korea’s commitments last week, including to “complete denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula, are little different from those made by Pyongyang in previous years, during periods of calm that have never proved lasting. Even the possibility of formally ending the decades-old war between the two countries was couched in imprecise terms, leaving it uncertain what could replace a 65-year-old armistice agreement.
Yet China is not alone in being swept up by the prospect of moving past tensions, after years of North Korea conducting intense rounds of missile and nuclear tests, all the while trading incendiary language with the U.S.
Mr. Kim’s step into South Korea was the first for a North Korean leader, and his winsome televised appearances, including live remarks, have raised hopes around the world that perhaps things will be different this time. But perhaps nowhere are those hopes more full-throated than in South Korea, where the South Korean government said Wednesday it is preparing to finance possible inter-Korean projects, so long as it has the support of the international community.
Meanwhile, fully 78 per cent of South Korean respondents to a new Korea Research Center poll said they trusted Mr. Kim following last week’s summit – up from 10 per cent in a March poll by Gallup.
Mr. Kim’s trust levels now approach those of Mr. Moon, who has been a popular president, garnering the trust of 86 per cent of respondents.
Mr. Moon, meanwhile, sought to calm some of the excitement, deflecting a suggestion this week that he be considered for the Nobel Peace prize in recognition of his work in pursuing warmer relations with North Korea.
“President Trump can take the Nobel prize,” Mr. Moon said on Monday. “All we need to take is peace.”
With reporting by Alexandra Li