Traders say business as usual at China-North Korea border as Beijing faces pressure to rein in Pyongyang

The sun rises over the Friendship bridge on the Yalu River connecting the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong.
The sun rises over the Friendship bridge on the Yalu River connecting the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong. PHOTO: AFP

DANDONG, CHINA (AFP) - Trucks still line up bumper-to-bumper on the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge to bring goods from North Korea into China even as Beijing faces massive pressure to strangle its ally economically.

Some two dozen trucks awaited clearance to enter the border city of Dandong, through which 70 per cent of North Korea's trade passes, a day after Pyongyang successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Tuesday (July 4).

While United Nations sanctions do not ban all trade with North Korea, United States President Donald Trump has berated China for not doing more to cut off more sources of cash that have kept the reclusive regime afloat.

The US administration is now leading a new push at the UN to impose tougher sanctions on Pyongyang after Mr Trump complained that trade between China and North Korea had surged in the first quarter.

Traders in Dandong acknowledge that it is business as usual at the border, with taxi drivers saying they have not seen a dip in the number of North Korean merchants visiting the city in recent days.

Gold is among the raw materials from North Korea that are banned under UN sanctions.

But the manager of a store selling "North Korean speciality products" on the boardwalk of the Yalu River said her employees have had no trouble going across the border to buy gold and silver in recent months.

The manager, who refused to give her name, said the raw material is sent to factories in the southern city of Guangzhou, where it is made into rings and bracelets.

"It's cheaper to buy from North Korea, so the prices we offer shoppers are cheaper than what they can normally find in China," she said.

"We operate as normal. We have been working with the same North Korean suppliers for years."

A clerk in another gift shop down the street, which employs a similar business model for its gold jewellery, said she does not know about any disruptions.

"Most of our products are actually made in China, but items such as these traditional dresses are made by North Korean workers who have come over to Dandong to work in textile factories," said the Chinese clerk, surnamed Yan.

Mr Trump complained on Wednesday (July 5) that trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40 per cent in the first quarter.

Official Chinese customs data shows a 37.4 per cent rise in yuan terms and 30.6 per cent in US dollars. But China decided to stop buying North Korean coal in February and total imports from the North have steadily dropped every month from US$207 million (S$286 million) in January to US$99 million in April.

Riverboat operator Heng Ge, who brings tourists close to North Koreans on the shore, said that despite the precarious political environment, Chinese curiosity about their neighbours has not waned.

"Our tours are often packed. Chinese people really want to see what the lives of ordinary North Korean people are like, and want to see North Korean soldiers up close. This hasn't changed," Mr Heng said.

Dandong residents say they are grateful for the benefits the city reaps from acting as both a trade and cultural exchange point between the two countries.

"Other Chinese might have hostile feelings towards our Korean neighbours," said local souvenir vendor Peng Li. "But here in Dandong, we live together comfortably.