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View more articles by Lawrence Steele
Lawrence Steele is the pseudonym for an NK News correspondent on the China-North Korea border.
JIAN, China — A new bridge spans the river dividing the outskirts of this border city from North Korea, a feat of cooperation speaking of two countries intimately bound by history, politics and trade.
While it spans more than 300 meters across the Yalu River, the bridge was completed in just 75 days, according to a local resident who claims his home was demolished for the construction.
It sounds like an impressive indication of Sino-North Korean efficiency – until you learn that this brisk period of construction finished in 2012 and the bridge has never been used.
On this November afternoon, the customs and immigration building on the Chinese side remains a scaffolding-wrapped shell. A crane looms nearby, but there is not a sign of construction to be seen or heard.
Across the water lies Manpo, a North Korean city reported in a 2008 census to have about 116,000 people. There, the equivalent immigration building appears complete, its glass front making it by far the most modern-looking structure within sight.
Residents in Jian say that work on the bridge has stalled as a result of friction between the Chinese and North Korean authorities, echoing reports of rocky relations between the upper echelons in Beijing and Pyongyang.
The resident who claims he was evicted says North Korea enraged the Chinese by unilaterally moving the site of the bridge several hundred meters down the river to avoid relocating its citizens.
“The North Korean government doesn’t want to tear down the houses there, so they built it there, without the Chinese’s government’s agreement,” he says, adding that this forced the Chinese to relocate its people instead.
He says North Korea didn’t pay anything toward the construction: “The Chinese government paid the money and North Korea gave the labor.”
Compensation for Chinese displaced by the project appears to be a sticking point.
“The Chinese government asked them to pay more and North Korea said no,” says a shop owner in the city who claims to also work for the local government.
Nobody seems clear about when the bridge will actually open.
“The Chinese and North Korean government will work together to fix it but no date has been announced yet. It could be finished (spring 2016),” says the shop owner.
Or it could be 2017, if the resident is to be believed.
A BRIDGE TOO FAR
“It is hard to extrapolate more about the complex relationship between North Korea and China from this one project,” said Melvin Curtis, a North Korea analyst who writes for 38 North. “However, at the same time, the Chinese are building a new bridge from Hunchun to Rason, a special economic zone in North Korea’s north east, and recent reports indicate that the Chinese and North Koreans have come to an agreement on the development of the Sinuiju Special Economic Zone which may include the opening of the new Yalu River Bridge (Dandong). If indeed the tide has turned on Chinese-North Korean relations, then perhaps we will see the completion of this new border crossing in Jian and Manpo.”
The delay, which appears to have escaped notice in Western media, mirrors a similarly protracted saga in Dandong, more than 200 miles away. There, a new bridge linking the largest Chinese border city with Sinuiju remains unused some 15 months after its scheduled opening and after more than $320 million spent.
Like Dandong, Jian has logistical importance: It is one of the three major border crossings with North Korea, along with Tumen. Previous North Korean leader Kim Jong Il crossed here in 2010, shortly before his death. At present, a single-track rail bridge built during the Japanese colonial era facilitates the cross-border travel of freight and a handful of Chinese tourists.
Potentially, Jian could become much more important than it already is – as a gateway to trade with China, something both governments have apparently strived for, however unevenly. The new bridge is supposed to cap a greater transport initiative that would give Pyongyang its first viable international trade corridor on paved highway, said Melvin.
On 38 North, Melvin has detailed satellite imagery that shows the construction of 176 kilometers of highway linking Manpo to Huichon, a small city in Chagang Province, which is already connected to Pyongyang by paved highway. The route could open the way for new trade opportunities across the border.
“North Korea’s Chagang Province and its capital city, Kanggye, are home to important North Korean military factories,” Melvin says.
“And although they have access to Chinese imports via railway, they do not have easy access by car or truck. Although most Chinese-North Korean trade takes place in neighboring North Pyongan Province – Sinuiju-Dandong – perhaps it is the importance of North Korea’s military industry that has led the North Korean government to prioritize road improvement in Chagang and Kanggye rather than along its most used commercial trade artery.”
Image: Lawrence Steele