The Bridge to Nowhere, they call it.
China invested $350 million in a new four-lane bridge crossing the Yalu River from Dandong to the North Korean city of Sinuiju. It was meant as a replacement for the 80-year-old Friendship Bridge – a trade bottleneck whose single lane necessitates a pattern of one-way truck and car traffic, the direction reversing at midday.
About five years ago the Chinese finished their work. The rest – building a road connecting the North Korean side of the bridge to the existing road network – was supposed to be Pyongyang’s responsibility. The North Koreans did precisely nothing. The nearly complete bridge ended in a field. It just sat there, along with reams of yellowing plans for an economic development zone on North Korean territory in the mouth of the Yalu, whose Korean name is Amnok.
Now there’s an unconfirmed report from Japan’s Asahi newspaper that China has agreed to pay for the North Korean share of the road-and-bridge work to be completed and to promote the partly constructed but as yet barely functional zone on Huanggumpyong Island.
If the report turns out to be correct, analysts should be kept busy figuring out the implications of renewed intimacy between lips and teeth, to borrow the terminology Chinese and North Koreans employ to brag about how close they are.
Quoting unnamed sources and writing from Dandong, Asahi reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping during a North Korea visit in June pledged to fund the remainder of the bridge project and “promote” the economic zone project. A call by Asia Times to the Dandong city office to seek comment was not answered.
The complex of new bridge and zone were dreamed up when Kim Jong Il was in power in North Korea. After he died in 2011, his son and successor, Kim Jong Un, kept a studied, suspicious distance from China.
It didn’t improve ties when the younger Kim had his uncle and erstwhile mentor, Jang Song Thaek, who had cultivated close relations with the Chinese and was an advocate of the border cooperation plan, put to death on charges that included corruption and plotting a coup.
Things got frostier still when China responded to Kim Jong Un’s provocative nuclear weapons tests by endorsing and, especially at the beginning, fairly strictly enforcing United Nations sanctions.
Lately, though, Kim and Xi have been forging new, much friendlier ties. One attractive theory is that Kim’s self-proclaimed completion of his weapons push, his bromance with US President Donald Trump and a thaw in relations with South Korea have given him more confidence and bargaining power to deal with a giant neighbor that has been North Korea’s only real ally and – overwhelmingly – its chief trading partner.
“Xi’s willingness to pay the costs of building an access road to the bridge on the North Korean side of the border, as well as customs-related facilities, suggest that economic relations between the two neighbors are moving to a firmer footing,” the Asahi report said.
Apparently the newspaper’s information came indirectly from the North Korean side:
“According to sources knowledgeable about trade between the two countries and those with links to North Korean authorities, Xi’s promises were conveyed to high-ranking North Korean government officials during meetings to report on the outcome of a summit meeting between the two countries. Xi’s largesse was also shared in the North Korean military, as it will be involved in the construction of bridge-related facilities as well as he economic zone.”