China, N. Korea fail to bridge economies

The unfinished New Yalu River Bridge that was supposed to connect Dandong in China with North Korea (far side). The North's nuclear ambitions make it unlikely that China will carry out economic development with the country.
The unfinished New Yalu River Bridge that was supposed to connect Dandong in China with North Korea (far side). The North's nuclear ambitions make it unlikely that China will carry out economic development with the country.PHOTO: REUTERS

Troubled ties seem represented in bridge that remains closed to both countries

DANDONG (China) • Towering above the murky waters, the New Yalu River Bridge was supposed to symbolise a new era in relations between China and North Korea, helping bring investment to landmark free trade zones jointly run with the impoverished and isolated state.

Costing 2.2 billion yuan (S$447 million) and partially completed last year, the dual-carriageway bridge today sits abandoned, the impressive border post on the Chinese side deserted and locked. On the North Korean side, the bridge ends abruptly in a field, with little sign of infrastructure work happening.

Launched with great fanfare at a five-star Beijing hotel in 2012, the free trade zones close to the Chinese border city of Dandong were meant to be part of China's efforts to coax its erstwhile diplomatic ally into cautious, export-oriented economic reforms, rather than sabre-rattling and nuclear tests.

China's anger at North Korea for carrying out its fifth and biggest nuclear test last week means the bridge looks unlikely to open any time soon, especially as Pyongyang is already under wide-ranging United Nations sanctions that China has promised to uphold.

The lonely streets of the Dandong New Zone stand testimony to the failure of those engagement efforts. Apartment complexes with fancy names like "Singapore City" lie bare or half-finished, and shopping malls empty or at very low capacity.

At the Guomen Wanjia Home & Life Square Mall, Ms Sun Lixia sits waiting for customers at a lighting store: "North Korea hasn't opened their end of the bridge and we can't really do anything about it. It's been bad for the local economy here. Who knows when they'll open it?"

She added: "Apartments haven't been selling quickly, a lot of people aren't willing to move here. There isn't even a proper hospital here; it's only half completed."

It's far cry from what one Dandong official told state media in 2012: that the development would resemble Causeway Bay, one of Hong Kong's busiest commercial areas, and the bridge handle 50,000 people and 20,000 vehicles a day to North Korea.

This week, only farmland and barbed wire fencing could be seen from the Chinese side. "The government was counting on trade between China and North Korea to drive economic growth here but that hasn't happened," said a security guard who gave his name only as Liu, standing in front of an office building on the optimistically named Commercial Street. "To be honest, the main reason the new zone hasn't developed is because the bridge isn't open."

The Hwanggumphyong and Wihwa Islands economic zones, along with one at the other end of the border at Rason, had high-level support. Late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il inked an agreement for them during a trip to China in 2010.

Mr Kim's son, current leader Kim Jong Un, has yet to visit China, and seems unlikely to be invited any time soon as he pursues an accelerated nuclear weapons and missile testing programme to the increasing alarm of the outside world.

Relations have been severely strained by North Korea's tests and periodic shootings and murders blamed on North Korean residents and security forces. "I don't like North Korea. The police on the other side used to shoot farmers who'd go over to sell potatoes, corn, things like that, in the winter," said Dandong farmer Zhao Guangfu, 70.

Mr Jin Qiangyi, director of Yanbian University's Centre for North and South Korea Studies, said China found itself in a "distressing" position on what to do with North Korea. "We have a choice about whether we can push them to reform and open up, to get them to change," he said. "Of course political and military sanctions need to be stepped up, but civilian opening up and exchanges must be strengthened too." Shutting the door won't work, Mr Jin added. "Can it really change that way?"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2016, with the headline 'China, N. Korea fail to bridge economies'. Print Edition | Subscribe