The AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief reports that as China completes a $350 million bridge across the Yalu River from Dandong to Sinuiju, and weeks after its announced opening date, the North Korean side is largely an unfinished abutment.
Now, it is beginning to look like Beijing has built a bridge to nowhere.
An Associated Press Television News crew in September saw nothing but a dirt ramp at the North Korean end of the bridge, surrounded by open fields. No immigration or customs buildings could be seen. Roads to the bridge had not been completed.
The much-awaited opening of the new bridge over the Yalu River came and passed on Oct. 30 with no sign the link would be ready for business anytime soon. That prompted an unusually sharp report in the Global Times — a newspaper affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party — quoting residents in the Chinese city of Dandong expressing anger over delays in what they had hoped would be an economic boom for their border city.
The report suggested the opening of the mammoth, 3-kilometer bridge has been postponed “indefinitely.” Beijing and Pyongyang have made no official comment. [….]
The bridge — which, from the start, appears to have been of more interest to China than to North Korea — is intended to provide a new connection between Dandong and the special economic development zone in North Korea’s Sinuiju. More broadly, China wants to develop inroads with North Korea that will allow its landlocked northeastern provinces access to North Korean ports so its goods can be exported or shipped down the Chinese coastline more cheaply. [AP, Eric Talmadge]
It’s an interesting enough report, but so soon after one of Talmadge’s colleagues felt the need to discredit “defectors” and guerrilla media, I can’t help noting that the first report I saw that North Korea wasn’t completing its side of the bridge was in The Daily NK, back in July:
“The Chosun side took on the job of constructing the roads, but they are making painfully slow work of it. Because the roads are still not finished, people are wondering whether their initial aim of increasing trade volumes is on its way down the drain,” a source close to the project told Daily NK on the 1st.
“China provided a lot of materials and machinery to the North, but there is a story that this machinery was sent for use on other projects rather than for the bridge construction. The Chinese traders who did harbor high hopes for [economic] opening brought on by the bridge are showing their disappointment more and more,” the source explained. [….]
This declining enthusiasm is tangible in the property market in Langtou, the region of Dandong that ought to benefit the most from bilateral economic activity across the new bridge. “Apartment prices remain where they were three years ago, at roughly 4000 Yuan per pyeong,” explained the source. Pyeong is a Korean unit of measuring area, and amounts to 3.305785m². [….]
In addition to problems with the bridge, Daily NK established in May that almost no progress has been made on the development of two Special Economic Zones in the Sinuiju area (see linked article).
In the story headlined, “Opening Day of New China-North Korea Yalu River Bridge Indefinitely Delayed,” the Global Times newspaper reported that the bridge had been “fully completed and put into use on Oct. 30. However, it all becomes uncertain.”
Zhang Hui, chairman of a Chinese construction company behind the bridge, told the newspaper that, “Due to various reasons, construction was delayed for nearly a year.”
It was unclear whether Zhang’s comments indicated that the opening of the bridge has been delayed by one year. [via Yonhap]
In my experience, the most frequent propagators of apocryphal stories about North Korea aren’t guerrilla journalists, but the lower reaches of the British media ecosystem and “established” South Korean papers that cite anonymous sources.
As for the bridge itself, I wouldn’t be too quick to write it off as a failure just yet. China’s real purpose for it may have more to do with contingency planning and future colonial administration than trade.
North Korea’s failure to prioritize the project is curious. Maybe, in due course, it will get around to building those road links and customs checkpoints. Even if North Korea regulates the traffic across the bridge strictly and meters it down to a trickle, having this infrastructure available for the use of controlled and preferred trade would seem to serve the interests of the state capitalists in Pyongyang. Still, I can see why Kim Jong Un might think he’s already dependent enough on trade with China, and why he might see the rapid expansion of trade as risky:
“[China]’s not even shepherding anymore. It’s more of just inundating North Korea with all of these influences from the Chinese side where the idea is to essentially corrupt them, show them what it tastes like to make money,” said John Park, a North Korea expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Harvard Kennedy School. [Reuters, Apr. 2013]
For whatever reason, this bridge isn’t Kim Jong Un’s highest priority right now, and Kim Jong Un’s highest priorities get done with Masikryeong speed. Time will tell whether he’s actively resisting or delaying it, and how long it will sit unused, like the Ryugyong Hotel. That would be a potent symbol indeed of the failure of the premises behind the Sunshine Policy.
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Update: More here, at NK News.