Let us forget, for a moment, about the bridges in Dandong. Although these twin ribbons of cross-border infrastructure are an almost magnetic means of gauging the quality of the Chinese-North Korean relationship at any given moment, they can also be an impediment to seeing clearly what is swirling around and between their foundations.
The shutting off of a few days’ worth of lorry traffic across the old Friendship Bridge, or another few months of inaction on the still-unused bridge from Dandong’s “New City District” (Xinchengqu) to Sinuiju’s fertile outskirts, are not going to change much of anything.
Although the temporary closure of the Friendship Bridge might have tempted American officials to declare victory, the expression of Nikki Haley’s remarkably absolutist vision of stopping all trade and diplomatic activity with North Korea, as stated at the UN on 29 November, is not likely to be implemented. (Generally speaking, Beijing tends not to go along with American visions which are not supported by London and Berlin.)
But surely we can ask a more feasible question, orbiting around the latest missile test: is China going to crack down further on North Korean trade? And will the Communist Party of China (CPC) go along with its representative’s statement at the UN about rigorously upholding existing sanctions?
Bridges or not, the Chinese port and border city of Dandong will be a key element in the process of either choking off North Korea’s foreign trade, reducing what is allowed in or out, or allowing North Korea to do what it seems to be very good at: namely, muddling through.
In assessing the degree to which China seems prone to enforce sanctions on North Korea, we need to start asking some new questions
ASKING NEW QUESTIONS
Foreign journalists who try to figure out in which direction China is heading by looking to Dandong with respect to these choices tend to focus on North Korean laborers or Chinese mercantile frustration with North Koreans in the city. A quixotic subset of more desk-bound analysts focuses on the banking sector or satellite imagery.
In assessing the degree to which China seems prone to enforce sanctions on North Korea, we need to start asking some new questions. Obviously, the overall tenor and density of bilateral relations matters a great deal – but there are also dangers in putting the international relations cart before the local horse.
Is China upset at Kim Jong Un for snubbing its envoy Song Tao and therefore closing the bridge at Dandong as a punitive measure? This is the wrong question to ask. It also bears recalling that the old Friendship Bridge is ancient: the concrete is falling off it in chunks. It needs renovation, and it is unlikely that the PRC would have closed it down without coordination with the other side.
Instead of asking questions which are mainly speculative, we might look for harder data about local capacity and the local CPC. In other words, to approach Dandong for what it is – a part of Liaoning province, of deep interest to the CPC in Beijing, where corruption is part of the lubricant for North Korean financial flows – and less for what makes it a fascinating place to visit (contact with North Koreans, instant relevance for any given sighting of trucks queuing, and the occasional tongju spotting).
To what extent is the Central Committee of the CPC really in control of the local party in Dandong? And to what extent can Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign be used to leverage sanctions enforcement to the detriment of the DPRK?
As if to anticipate the upcoming push for further sanctions enforcement, Liaoning province has put Dandong at the forefront of a pilot scheme to crack down on cadre corruption.
Although the 19th Party Congress in Beijing in October brought few overt statements about North Korea, it did bring a new wave of bureaucratic zeal to clean up activities which profit local CPC actors at the expense of broader party control.
It is fitting that Dandong was the first to take up this scheme, which is meant to “purify and restore the political ecology” of Liaoning province. The timing was also ideal – beginning a week before the North Korean rocket test, so that China could tell the United States it was putting teeth into its pledge to implement UN sanctions.
A large personnel transfer among the prosecutorial organs in Dandong included Li Gang in Zhen’an district, where North Korean factories are located in sizeable numbers. If North Korean workers will be sent out of Zhen’an, they will have plenty of company among Chinese bureaucrats. The kind of house-cleaning ethos which the CPC is encouraging is exemplified in a quote from one prosecutor being transferred out: “I never thought I would [lose my job] and see such wide-sweeping political reforms.”
In Donggang, where North Korean seafood and minerals are an important resource, thirteen members of the prosecutorial office cadre have been tasked with a new focus on combating corruption among party cadre. And both the Dandong airport and the city’s forestry bureau have been criticized this past year for lax management. So the CPC is making preparations in Dandong for more comprehensive control over imports and exports, namely through the machinery of sanctions.
At the same time, signals are being sent domestically that sanctions enforcement should not lead to a downturn in the local economy. Far from going belly-up, the U.S.-sanctioned Bank of Dandong was able to open a new branch this summer further south on the Liaodong Peninsula.
Local propaganda efforts are promoting money-making ventures for everything from studio animation to Manchu traditional medicine. The One Belt, One Road initiative which North Korea is actively spurning from Sinuiju is being turned toward attracting more investment from South Korea, particularly now that the THAAD shadows seem to finally be receding.
New party leadership in the city of Dandong was installed this past summer, and a previous party secretary of the city was demoted to an educational post. Ge Haiying was installed with a wide mandate to infuse the city with Xiist zeal, clean up the negative fiscal balances to the extent possible, and crack down on local crimes.
Dandong has hardly been a paradise since he was appointed, and problems with methamphetamines, stabbings, and random robberies have persisted. Police in Zhen’an, again a hotspot for North Korean workers, have been newly resourced to prevent problems.
Dandong is becoming increasingly less able to maneuver independently from Beijing, and illegalities are being cracked down upon
OUTLOOK FOR THE FUTURE
As ever, the North Koreans themselves have a degree of agency or free will in the matter of ties with Dandong, and they appear to have taken a mixed approach to relations with comrades in Dandong. Optimists will have noted the presence in Pyongyang in October of a Chinese delegation of Korean War veterans from Dandong.
However, this particular glass was also half-empty: no meetings with North Koreans were publicized, and the province to province economic meetings that are so sorely needed between Dandong or Liaoning officials and their counterparts in North Pyongan province or Sinuiju city did not take place. In other words, the North Koreans allowed for a symbolic moment, but not much more.
The outlook for good bilateral relations in the public security sphere was further muddied by rumors spread by Falun Gong-affiliated outlets that the Chinese Public Security Bureau had detained a tourist operator with alleged ties to North Korean espionage networks, as well as North Korea’s own explosive accusations back in May that Dandong had served as the base of a convoluted American plan to attack Kim Jong Un personally with chemical weapons.
In terms of the outlook for sanctions enforcement, one could argue that most of the data presented above, on the Chinese side of the border anyway, consists of positive developments. Dandong is becoming increasingly less able to maneuver independently from Beijing, and illegalities are being cracked down upon; if Xi gives an order, it will be followed.
But there is always the chance that goods under particular scrutiny could simply be funneled into or out of North Korea via the Ji’an-Jagang border crossing up the Yalu River. Dandong has recently set up new logistical links with Tonghua (in neighboring southeastern Jilin province) which would, of course, enable such goods to become less costly. Although it is tiresome to read, the fact is that the CPC is fully aware that Dandong is the closest-watched border crossing with North Korea, and also that it can put whatever it wants across the border via Tonghua and the Ji’an-Manp’o bridge without attracting much attention.
Dandong is an undeniably fascinating city. But China’s capacity to pressure or aid North Korea in that trade hub might be better measured by more attention to local politics and anti-corruption campaigns rather than by yet more bridge-watching.
Edited by Bryan Betts and Oliver Hotham