Bridges of Dandong show strains in China and North Korea's friendship
Dandong Letter: UN sanctions are slowing traffic on the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge
The North Korean town of Sinuiju, behind the Friendship Bridge, in China’s northeast Liaoning province. China’s biggest banks have frozen financial transactions for North Koreans, employees say, in a sign Beijing is tightening the screws on its ally. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images
At the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge that spans a narrow stretch of the Yalu River in Dandong in northern China, an impressive array of birds patrol the lower air, while a helicopter circles high above. Suddenly, a group of five paragliders appears above Sinuiju on the North Korean side of the river.
As they fall to earth, they look down at trucks that rattle across the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, bearing the goods that an increasingly isolated North Korea needs to survive. Eighty per cent of cross-border trade takes place across this road-and-rail bridge, North Korea’s gateway to the world, but United Nations sanctions aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear programme have impacted on traffic and are putting a major dent in trade.
Parallel to the bridge, just 60m away, is another iron span, the Broken Bridge, which begins on the Dandong side then falls off suddenly into the Yalu, missing its final sections to Sinuiju courtesy of repeat bombing raids by B-29 bombers and F-80 fighters during the Korean War (1950-53).
“There are still plenty of people coming and going across, but traffic is slowing down,” says one driver, speaking near a car shop selling a fleet of Isuzu pick-ups.
Sixth nuclear test
Earlier this month the UN Security Council unanimously voted to toughen sanctions on Kim Jong-un’s North Korea after the country’s sixth nuclear test, its most powerful yet, although the sanctions fell short of the penalties sought by US president Donald Trump. They reinforce sanctions imposed last month banning North Korean exports of coal, iron, lead, ore and seafood. Dandong was the main entry point for these materials, with crab and shellfish from North Korean fishing boats processed on the Chinese side. China makes up more than 90 per cent of North Korean trade.
The driver says authorities are cracking down on larger container lorries in particular, reportedly because multi-axle trucks could be used to carry missiles.
Although a convoy of trucks passed over the bridge mid-morning, for a longer period during the day it was silent on the Friendship Bridge, in sharp contrast to a few years back when there were convoys constantly crossing the bridge.
On the Chinese side of the Broken Bridge, patriotic songs about the glory of the Yalu River blare out of speakers, with instructive lyrics about the need for peace and a giant video screen at the truncated end of the bridge.
In Sinuiju you can see a fairground of sorts, and locals say the Ferris wheel over there has never been used. When evening falls, Dandong, home to 2.5 million people, is brightly lit and urban, but the other side of the river is pitch black.
There are large groups of Chinese tourists in the city, as well as South Koreans keen to get a closer glimpse of their northern cousins. At lunchtime and dinnertime in Dandong, the air is filled with the smell of delicious Korean barbecue.
The US has been pressuring China to do more to enforce sanctions, with repeated comments from Trump. Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin threatened economic warfare.
“If China doesn’t follow these sanctions, we will put additional sanctions on them and prevent them from accessing the US and international dollar system, and that’s quite meaningful,” he said.
On the corner of 10th Latitude Street stands a branch of the provincial Bank of Dandong, singled out by the US for censure. The US treasury has barred Americans from doing business there, saying it was a conduit for North Korea to reach the US and global financial system. Beijing has promised to stop North Koreans from opening accounts at the bank, although there are many intermediaries in Dandong who would presumably step up to help.
Here are Korean signs and North Korean restaurants, and shops selling ginseng. Sometimes you spot Workers’ Party cadres wearing their party badges.
Tourists stop at the Broken Bridge to take selfies in front of the statues of Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops who fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the North Koreans in the Korean War.
However, there are issues dividing them. This is also a favourite staging point for those escaping the North Korean government, and the plight of defectors coming through Dandong has made some people angry.
“I think I will donate to support US starting a war with North Korea – you have no idea how North Korea is treating those who try to escape. You have no idea what kind of life they are living. Come to Dandong and you will see,” wrote online commentator MuYang.