North Korea
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Photo taken from Dandong, China, of a North Korean soldier patrolling the border with China. Photo: Kyodo

China looks set to reopen border with North Korea

  • The city authorities in Dandong appear to be preparing to open a long-delayed bridge across the Yalu river that connects it with the city of Sinujiu
  • Trade between the two countries had been badly hit by UN sanctions and then ground to a halt last year following the start of the Covid-19 pandemic
North Korea

A Chinese city on the border with North Korea is looking to upgrade its cross-border trade facilities amid speculation that the two countries are moving to strengthen their relationship in the face of increased pressure from the United States.

Government documents show the local authorities in Dandong in Liaoning province recently started soliciting bids for a series of projects that suggest the long-delayed New Yalu River Bridge may soon be open for use.

The eight-lane road bridge was designed to replace the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge built by the Japanese occupiers in 1943, which is only wide enough for a single rail track and a one-way road.

The bridge could help bring investment to an economic zone planned in Dandong, a city of 2.5 million people that stands opposite the North Korean city of Sinujiu, and boost trade with its impoverished and isolated neighbour. Work on the project started 10 years ago and it was originally due to open in 2014.

Blinken asks China to pressure North Korea into abandoning nuclear programme

Neither side has explained why it is still not ready but it is widely believed that the North Korean side was responsible.

But recently the Dandong city authorities put out to tender an updated feasibility study into a new border port project on the Chinese side of the bridge.

Last month, the Liaoning provincial transport authority also started the bidding process for a six-month safety inspection contract for the new bridge, which it said would be “put into operation soon”.

In January, the natural resources bureau in Dandong announced that an environmental consulting firm based in Shenyang, the provincial capital, had been given a contract to carry out an environmental impact assessment “to ensure the sustainable development of the border economic cooperation zone”, a project first approved in 1992.

Visitors walk on the Broken Bridge over the Yalu river which separates North Korea’s Sinuiju from China, in Dandong. Photo: Reuters

Apart from the delays in opening the bridge, cross-border trade has been severely hit by United Nations sanctions imposed following North Korea’s nuclear tests, and it came to a near-halt in January last year when North Korea closed its borders after the start of the Covid-19 outbreak.

The latest efforts have revived speculation that China and North Korea are moving to strengthen their relationship in the face of pressure from the US.

On Monday, Beijing announced that Liu Xiaoming, the former ambassador to Britain had been named as new special representative on Korean peninsula affairs, filling a position left vacant for nearly two years.

Citing trade sources, South Korean broadcaster JTBC reported that officials in Dandong have started accepting export registration for a potential border reopening on Friday, a day after the birthday of North Korea’s late leader Kim Il-sung, one of the most important public holidays in the country.

North Korea accuses Biden of ‘provocation’ after missile test

An unnamed trader in Dandong told JTBC that customs officials in China and North Korea “are carrying out quarantine education for trading companies,” adding that goods, mostly coal and chemical fertiliser for spring seeding season, are ready for shipping.

Another source told the broadcaster that the resumption of trade would be limited to goods while strict curbs on people-to-people exchanges, including tourism, would remain in place.

The leaders of China and North Korea have recently expressed their desire for closer relations. In a message delivered by the newly appointed ambassador Ri Ryong-nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pledged to strengthen a relationship that is “envied by the world”, while Chinese President Xi Jinping replied that the traditional friendship between China and North Korea was the “common treasure” of both peoples.

North Korean soldiers on patrol along the border. Photo: Kyodo

Lu Chao, a Korean affairs specialist at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, said that if the border does reopen, the volume of trade would be small and “mainly limited to farm production materials such as chemical fertiliser, tractors and agricultural machinery parts that are now badly needed in North Korea as spring seeding season is approaching”.

“But a significant recovery is unlikely in near future as the pandemic risks and UN sanctions remain,” Lu said. “While the Chinese side is ready and the North Korean side is working hard on its end of the New Yalu River Bridge, fully resuming trade channels is not that urgent.”