SEOUL — With a dose of wishful thinking, they are calling it the Hong Kong of North Korea, but the plan to create an autonomous zone within the communist country is riddled with questions, especially about who would live there.
To populate the new capitalist enclave in the northwestern city of Sinuiju, the North Koreans intend to relocate up to 700,000 people, roughly 3% of the country's population.
The 50-square-mile enclave would be walled off to prevent North Koreans from entering or leaving at will, which some say would be an inauspicious beginning to a project that is supposed to bring new freedom.
"That is the vulnerable underbelly of this project," said Bradley O. Babson, a North Korea expert and senior advisor to the World Bank. "They are bringing in politically correct people and taking out the old people. It is not a trivial percentage of the population of the whole country, and you wonder what the social and political costs will be."
The forcible relocation of such large numbers could cloud the project on human rights grounds and make international financial institutions wary of getting involved, he said.
Yang Bin, the Chinese tycoon sworn in as minister of the enclave, told reporters Monday in Pyongyang that over the next few years 200,000 residents of Sinuiju would be moved out, while 500,000 others with technical and administrative skills would move in. In other accounts, the figures have varied.
"Those living within the special zone will have to be moved within the next few years," Yang said. "I cannot reveal details of the plan."
In Seoul, people familiar with the project say the North Koreans in 1997 quietly began moving people out of Sinuiju--usually people considered politically undesirable--in anticipation of designating it a special economic zone. The North also started erecting walls and barbed-wire fences, in some places adding on to dikes and flood walls surrounding the low terrain.
Sinuiju lies just across the Yalu River from the Chinese city of Dandong. Its proximity to China has made it more prosperous--or at least less impoverished--than other parts of stricken North Korea and somewhat less beholden to the rigid central government in Pyongyang.
"Sinuiju has been a rather troublesome city in North Korea because its population is rather liberal and they are more resistant to central government," said Lee Kyo Kwan, a journalist with the Chosun Ilbo newspaper in Seoul who published the first reports last year about people being moved out of Sinuiju. He estimated that 20,000 people--about 10% of the city's population--had been moved so far, mostly those whose loyalty to the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was in question.
"They have been doing it slowly for five years to avoid creating unrest," Lee said.
North Korea has made large transfers of population in the past with no apparent resistance from the generally obedient populace but nothing so abrupt or massive since the early 1960s. The North Koreans did not need to relocate such large numbers when they created a special economic zone in 1991 in the sparsely populated Rajin-Sonbong area.
"People will be very angry they have to move. Maybe people will not be able to express their anger, but this will lead many more to defect," said Kim Eun Chul, 32, a former schoolteacher from Sinuiju who escaped North Korea in 1997 and now lives in Seoul.
How much instability will be created also depends on who is being moved and to where. According to some reports, the entire population of the city will be uprooted, but others say most of those moved will be soldiers and government bureaucrats who are not originally from Sinuiju.
As with many aspects of life in North Korea, there was confusion about the city's population. The permanent population of about 200,000 is believed to be supplemented by a "temporary" population of government workers that may number another 200,000.
In the past, experts on North Korea say, uprooted people were moved to different areas to prevent collective grumbling. But Yang said in an interview published Wednesday in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post that large numbers of the dislocated would be moved to a $50-million housing complex outside the walls of the enclave.
Jean-Jacques Grauhar, head of the Seoul branch of the European Union Chamber of Commerce and a frequent visitor to North Korea, said the North Koreans for years have been building a district south of Sinuiju with the idea of moving the population.
"I'm quite optimistic this can work," Grauhar said.
Although he believes that European companies will be interested in the project, he says it is mostly geared to trade with China. "The location is ideal."