Boondoggle on the Yalu: China’s Useless New Bridge to North Korea

By | November 03, 2014 | No Comments

The Sino-DPRK Friendship Bridge in Dandong, Liaoning, PRC | Image: Mark Scott Johnson

The Sino-DPRK Friendship Bridge in Dandong, Liaoning, PRC. | Image: Mark Scott Johnson

October is always a revealing month for China-North Korea relations. In the 31 days of the past month, we witnessed Chinese frustration at not knowing where Kim Jong-un had gone — and a push to get things “back to normal” immediately upon his return. The Chinese Communist Party had as little information as anyone else outside of Pyongyang about the Young Marshal’s whereabouts, did not accept the premise that he was capable of any of the writings from October which were attributed to him, and did not appreciate another delay as North Korea appears to be moving towards further nuclear miniaturization and capability. As Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, a keen observer on the UN Panel of Experts, aptly put it:

Kim Jong-un’s prolonged absence, however, did not derail a long-planned bilateral event — the Third Annual Sino-North Korean trade fair in Dandong, which occurred from 16-20 October. The very fact that this event went ahead might indicate (to the optimistically-inclined, at least) that North Korea remains open for business and keen to attract FDI, particularly of the Chinese variety.

The opening of a new mosquito-free tourist route to Tongnim-gun on the day of the fair, a few reopened or small new tourist ventures in the Tumen River valley in previous months, as well as good news about rebounding trade volumes between Yanbian and the DPRK, all appeared to indicate that things were starting to move “back to normal” in the bilateral business sphere.

But some other less-than-positive signs could be garnered from the fair. The North Koreans sent a somewhat underwhelming delegation; no individual or musical ensemble closely associated with Kim Jong-un made the trip, and the ranking of Sinuiju city and North Pyongan provincial officials was not high. Nor did the North Korean delegation to Dandong get much of a regal welcome; everything they brought into China had to be put through a security scanner at the train station.

Attending the fair was the Chinese Ambassador to the DPRK, Liu Hongcai, who remains a vital hub and advocate for any Chinese business intent on working in or with North Korea. Prior to the fair, Liu made an obligatory visit to a cooperative farm, at which time, notably, he said literally nothing about Sino-North Korean friendship. After the fair, Ambassador Liu spent the afternoon in Sinuiju, ostensibly for the purpose of visiting overseas Chinese hwagyo (화교;华侨) schools, but probably more to try and push things forward–or at the very least get some information about–the fate of a brand new cross-border bridge financed by China.

Ambassador Liu Hongcai on an unpaved sporting ground in Sinuiju, DPRK, on October 20 2014. Photo via PRC Embassy in Pyongyang.

Ambassador Liu Hongcai on an unpaved sporting ground in Sinuiju on October 20, 2014. | Image: PRC Embassy in Pyongyang.

In spite of the signing of a number statements of investment interest in Dandong, the trade fair must be termed a failure given the fact that China has now begun to complain openly about North Korea not having held up its side of the bargain on this signature piece of infrastructure between Dandong and Sinuiju. The bridge, which was to have been opened on October 30, sits complete but idle, for the incredible reason that the North Korean government has not mobilized the minimal resources required to build a road connecting it to the country’s transport network.

With some unmistakably face-saving reliance on a report by Leo Lewis (Beijing bureau chief for the Times of London), the Huanqiu Shibao published a somewhat stunning report on the matter on October 31. With reporters in both Dandong and Pyongyang, the Huanqiu constructed a scene beginning with a Chinese real estate investor feeling “hopeless” after betting that the North Koreans would follow through on work on their side of the bridge. Without this connection to the Korean peninsula, the article implies, Dandong’s Xinchengqu (“New City District”), which lies at the terminus of the bridge, will remain economically flat as its modern high-rise apartments gather dust.

The report goes on to interview a construction boss, Zhang Hui (张辉), who also reportedly spoke with Leo Lewis. Zhang avoids any specific mention of the slowdown to the project brought about by the Jang Song-taek purge, but nevertheless notes that “due to all sorts of reasons, the original plan for construction was delayed by a year’s time.” Incidentally, the Chinese rendering of this quote [“主承建商辽宁交通建设集团有限公司董事长张辉向《环球时报》记者透露,由于诸种原因,施工本来就延误近一年时间”] does not appear to imply that the bridge will absolutely be closed for another year, but rather that an earlier target for completion had been missed by the duration of one year. The report in the Times, by contrast, appears to argue that the bridge will be closed for another year. Even though the Huanqiu report is rather critical of North Korea, the re-interviewing of Zhang might be considered a bit of damage control; indeed, the headline to the Huanqiu report similarly states that no one knows when the bridge will open.

Kim Jong-un also comes in for some criticism in the report. Having noted the disinterest of the North Korean state in fulfilling highly-touted agreements made with Wen Jiabao in 2009 (as recalled in the booming television report that accompanies this version of the article), the story raises up Kim Jong-un’s frenzied work in the leisure construction sector in Pyongyang as a kind of implicit insult to China. There is no paternalistic discussion here of the benefits to the North Korean consumer economy of a new bridge, much less the largesse that would flow into and from a thriving Special Economic Zone in Hwanggeumpyeong (황금평), just a wry observation by a Huanqiu reporter at Pyongyang Sunan Airport. The report concludes with a reminder of the “Chosun Speed”constantly advocated by Kim Jong-un, clearly juxtaposing North Korea’s windy mass mobilization propaganda with its empty achievements on the Chinese frontier.

While the Chinese release of the bad news about the lack of North Korean action is notable, what would be even more notable would be if the CCP decided to close the old Dandong-Sinuiju bridge down for a few days of “repairs and maintenance.” There are plenty of local businesspeople and party cadres in Dandong who might object to such a move, but there would be no faster or surer way to get Kim Jong-un’s attention. Alternatively, while the young dictator has shown himself to be allergic to the Yalu Estuary and even the Rason Special Economic Zone, a visit to Sinuiju would probably be the best thing for his relationship with the Chinese Communist Party short of a promise to freeze nuclear development and a short flight to Beijing.

If Kim’s handlers deem the city and its outskirts to be too dangerous, or argue that the very notion of completing Kim Jong-il’s agreements with the Chinese is too subversive for an unstable system, then it seems likely he will continue along the familiar, comfortable, well-trodden path. Until his “Footsteps” make their metaphorical way to the DPRK’s northwestern frontier, Chinese comrades will be left waiting for him to see the light, while their real estate markets flatline and infrastructure investments rust.

Source:  “中朝新鸭绿江大桥开通日落空 被无限期推迟” [Opening Day for New China-North Korea Yalu River Bridge is Neglected, Postponing the Project for an Unlimited Time], Huanqiu Shibao, October 31, 2014. Translation by Adam Cathcart.