A glimpse into the Sino-NK border

By Yang Jingjie in Dandong Source:Global Times Published: 2013-4-22 22:43:01

A new bridge connecting China and North Korea on the Yalu River, shown under construction on April 15. Photo: <a href=Yang Jingjie/GT" src="http://www.globaltimes.cn/Portals/0/attachment/2011/99c612fa-8b93-41db-b613-f6f450e8d97b.jpeg">
A new bridge connecting China and North Korea on the Yalu River, shown under construction on April 15. Photo: Yang Jingjie/GT


When night falls on the Yalu River, neon lights decorating the China-North Korea Friendship Bridge, which connects Northeast China's Dandong and North Korea's Sinuiju, twinkle in various colors.

On the eastern end of the 940-meter-long bridge, Sinuiju, the fourth largest city of North Korea, falls into a land of tranquility and darkness.

On the other end of the bridge, though, it is a different story. Lights emblazon the towering buildings in Dandong. Deafening music and the sounds of people talking come out of neon-lit restaurants as well as bars and nightclubs along the river.

The border city of Dandong, through which about 70 percent of Sino-North Korean trade takes place, has long been viewed as a barometer for bilateral relations. It has drawn significant attention as Pyongyang doubles down on its rhetoric following a nuclear test earlier this year and calls within China for adjustments to China's North Korea policy.

Despite these calls and escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, life in the city remains normal, showing traces of the unbreakable links between the two neighbors.

Bridging the divide

The China-North Korea Friendship Bridge, which was built by Japan between 1937 and 1943 during its occupation of the region, now carries automobile and rail traffic between the two neighbors. Given the age of the bridge, trucks with loads of more than 20 tons are not permitted to cross.

To meet the demands of Sino-North Korean trade, which reached $5.9 billion in 2012, a new bridge is under construction further down the Yalu River.

The new bridge project, by the China Communications Construction Company, kicked off in late December 2010 and is expected to be completed next year, a contractor, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Global Times.

The bridge will span around 6,000 meters of the Yalu River, and once it is completed, the four-lane bridge will accommodate all the automobile traffic between Dandong and Sinuiju, in an effort to facilitate bilateral trade.

Investment into the bridge is reportedly 1.8 billion yuan ($290 million), which has been provided entirely by the Chinese side.

The Global Times was told by the contractor and local sources that North Korea has also asked China to help build a highway directly linking the bridge to Pyongyang as part of the agreement. According to the contractor, the highway is expected to be completed in 2015 or 2016, and only then will the bridge be put into use.

However, no official sources could confirm the construction of the highway to Pyongyang.

There had been rumors that the construction of the new bridge was suspended due to the tensions on the peninsula. However, the contractor denied such rumors, adding that workers only left the construction site temporarily for the Chinese New Year in February.

At the construction site, heavy equipment bustled and work continued non-stop even on the 101st anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the late founder of North Korea. A shuttle boat shipped engineers and workers to both sides of the river every hour, as did the ships transporting construction equipment and vehicles.

On the North Korean side, the construction site is encircled by fences and no Chinese worker is allowed to walk out of the site. Soldiers from the Korean People's Army patrol in and around the site, remaining vigilant.

A worker there told the Global Times that the soldiers sometimes come to ask for cigarettes. "Once they find people taking photographs at the site, they will rush over and confiscate or smash the devices," said the worker.

The contractor told the Global Times that there are several North Korean engineers and interpreters. "The engineers are very diligent in drawing experience from us. They ask detailed questions and take notes. But they never talk to us about anything other than the project," he said.

Farmers living near the site also show enthusiasm for the project. According to the contractor, they sometimes come with Korean-Chinese dictionaries and communicate with Chinese workers over the fence, perhaps hoping to seize the opportunity to establish future connections that could be exploited after the bridge is put into use.

Slow progress on economic zone

While construction of the bridge is proceeding according to the plan, the development of the Hwanggumphyong zone further down the stream seems to  have stagnated. An agreement on the economic zone was first reached during late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's visit in May 2010.

According to China's commerce ministry, the economic zone will be built into a knowledge-based economic zone step by step.

The economic zone was leased to China for 50 years, and this was interpreted as a sign that Pyongyang would embrace an economic "opening-up" following the example set by China, in order to advance its economy.

Peeking through the barbed wires surrounding the area, several excavators stood, unused, near a North Korean village, and not a single person could be spotted.

A source in Dandong, who asked not to be named, told the Global Times that the current focus is on infrastructure development, and that development was suspended due to the birth anniversary of Kim Il-sung. "It will take at least seven years for the economic zone to reach the next phase of development," he said.

Life goes on

A merchant surnamed Chang, whose company sells machinery to North Korea, told the Global Times that China's trade to North Korea did fall in recent months, but not significantly. "We recently closed a deal on the export of a piece of heavy machinery worth more than 2 million yuan," Chang said.

Freight transportation via the China-North Korea Friendship Bridge resumed last week, following a temporary closure due to the weekend and the late Kim's birthday anniversary. More than 100 trucks cross the bridge each day, sending food and manufactured goods to the North.

Local tourist agencies in Dandong earlier this month received notifications from tourism authorities to halt trips to North Korea.

Cui Yongshe, a manager with the Dandong Overseas International Travel Service, told the Global Times that the suspension has significantly impacted local tourist agencies, whose main business is cross-border tourism. "The tension is mainly building outside North Korea. There is no tension inside the North. We expect tours to resume in May," said Cui.

He said tours to the North were halted several times in the 1990s, but prior to the current tensions, they hadn't been halted in recent years.

But tourists could still sail in the Yalu River to get a close look at the neighboring country. Some tourist agencies even provide yacht trips across the border.

At a local pier, tourists could board a yacht to sail to the North Korean section of the Yalu River, and see farmhouses as well as barracks and outposts of North Korean border troops.

Real estate development in Dandong is another sign that the city remains calm.

Commercial and residential buildings stand near the river, opposite Sinuiju. Buyers from across the country are purchasing apartments built by developers from the mainland, Hong Kong and even Singapore, pushing up home prices in Dandong.


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