China Mulling Shutdown of Key Trade Channel With North Korea

2017-05-08
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The Yalu River Railway Bridge, seen from the Chinese border town of Dandong, Feb. 8, 2016.
The Yalu River Railway Bridge, seen from the Chinese border town of Dandong, Feb. 8, 2016.
AFP

Beijing is considering shutting down a bridge across the Yalu (also known as Aprok) river that accommodates more than half of North Korea’s trade volume with China, according to sources, who say the move could come as early as this month and is seen as a response to Pyongyang’s belligerence over its nuclear weapons program.

A decision to close off the Yalu River Railway Bridge would come amid a general tightening of the border between the two neighboring countries and serve as the latest indication that China is ratcheting up pressure on the North in light of several ballistic missile tests by Pyongyang in the last year.

A diplomatic source in China told RFA’s Korean Service Monday that the move could signal a desire by Beijing to punish Pyongyang for publishing stinging criticism of the pressure through its official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) last week.

“I understand that China, which has even extended its trade sanctions against North Korea to the financial sector, is currently considering a temporary closure of the Yalu River Bridge—the symbol of trade for the two countries,” the source said.

“To the best of my knowledge, Beijing seems to have grown frustrated with Pyongyang for its recent spate of harsh criticism directed at China through the state media because of its displeasure with the recent pressure, while also warning Pyongyang not to make any further nuclear provocations.”

The shutdown of the bridge “could come as early as May,” the source added.

The Yalu River Bridge links Sinuiju, in North Korea’s North Pyongan province with Dandong, a prefecture-level city in China’s Liaoning province, and accounts for more than half of the Pyongyang’s trade volume with Beijing.

If Beijing does shut down the bridge, the move is expected to seriously damage the economy of North Korea, which relies on China for more than 90 percent of its exports. In 2015, trade between the two countries reached U.S. $5.4 billion.

China predominantly buys minerals from North Korea, as well as growing amounts of seafood and textiles.

Another source familiar with North Korean affairs told RFA from Dandong that recent pressure from China had directly affected the livelihoods of traders on both sides of the river.

“As a result of China’s pressures on North Korea, the number of trade workers based in China, as well as of North Korean merchants travelling to and from Dandong, has dramatically decreased,” the source said.

Growing pressure

Facing criticism from Washington and in U.N. reports on sanctions compliance, China has applied pressure on North Korea in the past, recently stopping vital imports of coal from its impoverished neighbor as part of a bid to dissuade the North from pursuing the development of its nuclear weapons program under regime leader Kim Jong Un.

In April, sources told RFA that Chinese border guards began searching every North Korean cargo truck crossing into China via the bridge, instead of randomly selecting vehicles, and said it indicated that Beijing was implementing financial sanctions against Pyongyang in the wake of a U.S.-China Summit last month.

Few details or formal agreements have been announced after what was billed as a get-acquainted meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump's Spanish-style Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida in April.

But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that Xi and Trump agreed to increase cooperation on curbing North Korea's nuclear program, which the Chinese leader said had reached a serious stage. No details were offered.

Meanwhile, the KCNA published a rare criticism of Beijing last week, saying commentaries in China’s state media calling for tougher sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear program were damaging relations between the two nations.

“A string of absurd and reckless remarks are now heard from China every day only to render the present bad situation tenser,” the KCNA said in a commentary.

“China had better ponder over the grave consequences to be entailed by its reckless act of chopping down the pillar of the DPRK-China relations,” the commentary said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

North Korea has said it is progressing toward its goal of building long-range nuclear ICBM missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland.

The North regularly carries out missile launches, most recently firing a ballistic missile into the sea off its east coast on April 15. It conducted a fifth nuclear test on Sept. 9, 2016.

North Korea has also detained two U.S. citizens in the last three weeks, bringing to four the number of Americans held in the reclusive state amid rising tensions between Pyongyang and Washington.

Kim Hak-song, an ethnic Korean who works at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), was detained Saturday on suspicion of “hostile acts” against the Kim regime, according to state media.

Last month, Kim Sang-duk—another teacher at PUST—was also detained for “hostile acts” while trying to fly out of Pyongyang International Airport.

Reported by Jaewan Noh for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Changsop Pyon. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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