In Ponbu Kindergarten, a training ground for children who go on to perform in Pyongyang’s Mass Games, almost everything is “made in China.”
Air conditioning units feature the logo of Gree, an electrical appliances firm based in Zhuhai, adjacent to Macau. Labels show that a classroom’s red plastic chairs were manufactured by Yimei Plastics Cement Company in Taizhou, a coastal city in prosperous Zhejiang province.
Even the faucets and light fixtures in the toilets of this model school in Sinuiju come from China, a sign of just how reliant this border town – and the rest of North Korea – has become on its giant neighbor.
China is attempting a balancing act designed to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear proliferation without strangling the country’s moribund economy
After negotiating the strictest-ever United Nations sanctions on North Korea on March 2, China is attempting a balancing act designed to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear proliferation without strangling the country’s moribund economy. One month later, on the border that separates Sinuiju from the Chinese city of Dandong, signs point to unprecedented enforcement from Beijing.
About 60 percent of all goods moving in and out of North Korea cross the metal bridge that spans the Yalu River joining these two cities.
The first indications China might be clamping down here came when Shenzhen Satellite TV reported the number of trucks crossing from Dandong reduced by at least half on the first day the new sanctions came into effect on March 3.
“Now the situation has changed in a day,” wrote one user on the Chinese social media site Weibo, among dozens of Chinese to repost the story. “Also don’t know what it’s possible to buy or not buy, which purchases can pass or not pass through.”
Dandong’s rickety old bridge – a relic built in 1937 when both sides of the river fell under Japanese colonial rule – can handle about 400 trucks per day. Customs reportedly only allowed about 100 Chinese vehicles to cross to Sinuiju, unload their goods and return to Dandong on March 3.
In hindsight, this initial squeezing of trade from Dandong looks like a warning from China which went ignored. Since then, Kim Jong Un has stood next to a miniaturized nuclear weapon and fired a series of short-range missiles into the sea off North Korea’s east coast, further infuriating Beijing.
After a series of rebukes to Pyongyang through its Foreign Ministry and state media, China appears to have had enough. On April 5, the Ministry of Commerce took the unprecedented step of announcing an embargo on coal, iron ore, gold, rare earths and other raw materials. Chinese exports of jet fuel to North Korea – which cannot refine this oil derivative itself – would also be halted.
“The timely embargo shows that China will not tolerate nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, as well as respond to the West’s groundless accusations that China has not taken steps to ensure regional peace,” Da Zhigang, director of the Institute of Northeast Asian Studies at the Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, told the nationalistic tabloid Global Times.
Chinese state media lined up a series of experts on North Korea saying Beijing has started following Resolution 2270. After years of criticism for failing to follow through on UN sanctions, is China finally starting to enforce stricter measures?
SHORTENING THE LEASH
In recent years, coal shipments to China have grown to become North Korea’s key source of export revenue. The fuel represents more than 40 percent of North Korea’s exports to China, generating $1 billion in revenues last year.
“Dandong’s role as a hub for North Korean coal and iron ore trade will make it a key test case for how Beijing is approaching implementation of new restrictions on those goods,” said Andrea Berger, deputy director of the proliferation and nuclear policy program at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
The Chinese language version of the Global Times – but not the English version – published a report little noticed outside of China on February 23 stating North Korean coal imports would be suspended from March in anticipation of the UN sanctions then under discussion.
After the new measures were passed banning coal exports from North Korea with the exception of consignments for “livelihood purposes,” most analysts outside of China cited precedent in predicting Beijing would likely not enforce the ban. Media reports in March then mostly found restrictions on coal imports were not in force.
That may be changing. Following the Chinese government’s embargo announcement on Tuesday, a major Beijing based importer of North Korean coal told NK News it could no longer supply.
“It’s (now) impossible for China to import North Korean coal,” said a purchasing manager from the company’s coal business department.
A number of China-based commodities firms continue to advertise North Korean coal using online trading platforms including Alibaba. None contacted this week replied to say they were able to supply the fuel.
Beside Hu Shan, a section of the Great Wall 20 kilometers north of Dandong, the Yalu River splits into two channels – one wide, the other narrow. Chinese tourist boats make regular runs up the southernmost stretch and thereby technically enter North Korea. No passports are checked here.
A few days before the Chinese announcement of its embargo, many of the smaller, private speedboats continued to stop in this channel, allowing North Korean smugglers to come up close. After attaching a hook to bind the two boats together – one Chinese, one North Korean – one smuggler then pulled away a tarpaulin to show a paltry selection of products. Chicken eggs, cigarettes, liquor and ginseng products all from North Korea. A sealable container of kimchi sold for 20 yuan (equivalent to a little more than $3). Everything is purchased in Chinese currency.
“They work for the North Korean government and send money back to them,” said the Chinese boat driver.
But Chinese police seem to be cracking down on this unofficial trade network. In the past, Chinese smugglers who enjoyed good relations with local police were allowed to sail motorboats up to the North Korean side of the river – often after dark – and trade goods more or less freely.
“After the sanctions, the police have told us we can’t sell anything to the North Koreans,” said one Chinese smuggler, adding he still buys cigarettes and copper from sellers on the opposite riverbank.
There appears to be little sign basic commodities like clothes and food are facing greater obstacles crossing the border. A South Korean businessman who recently spoke to a Dandong broker for a North Korean company importing meat and an ethnic Korean Chinese who uses cheap labor in North Korea to make clothes – ferrying raw materials in and the finished products out for export – said these two contacts were dismissive of any impact from the new sanctions.
“Either they don’t know or they don’t care,” said the South Korean businessman, adding that restrictions on these basic items would make little sense. “If North Korea collapses, it’s going to be a problem for China, right?”
Across the river in Sinuiju, the Eun Byeol store is among the city’s high-end retailers. Behind its façade of red and green lettering, and metal and glass revolving doors, vendors sell cups, knives, spoons and other household items. Food, mostly pre-packaged, is also on sale here. Many items are more expensive compared to the same on sale in China – products have to make it across the bridge – but some of the food items remain cheaper because they are sourced directly from Chinese factories, said an ethnic Chinese born in North Korea.
A regular traveler between Dandong and Sinuiju, the source visited Eun Byeol last week and noticed no difference to its selection of products, almost all from China.
“You can still buy Chinese goods everywhere in Sinuiju,” said the source. “It’s just the same as before.”
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Featured Image: North Korea - View from Dandong, China by Roman Harak on 2011-09-09 16:17:46