“New” bridge between China and North Korea getting a little closer to completion. But what does it really mean?

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Another day, some more progress on the so-called “bridge to nowhere”. It’s now been around six years since construction started on the new bridge between North Korea and China, crossing the Yalu river. The currently operational one between Dandong and Sinuiju already (in normal times) operates over capacity, and frequently needs repairs. Last year, in June, Xi Jinping supposedly promised Kim Jong-un funding to finally complete the bridge and to connect it to North Korea’s road networks to make it operational. Recently, work has finally taken off again on the North Korean side to do just that. Dong-a Ilbo:

North Korea resumed the construction of a road on last Sunday, according to multiple sources and photos posted on a Chinese social media platform.

With the help of China’s investment, the six-lane bridge was completed in 2014 as a replacement of the Sino–North Korean Friendship Bridge, an old and narrow bridge built in 1943. The New Yalu River Bridge was expected to boost trade between the two nations.

(Source: Wan-Jun Yun, “New Yalu River Bridge gears up to open six years after its construction,” Dong-a Ilbo, May 4th, 2020.)

The Dong-a headline appears somewhat premature, however, since customs buildings and other essential infrastructure still isn’t built. As Daily NK reports:

The opening of the bridge has long been delayed because North Korea had demanded that China pay for the construction of the North Korean road to the bridge.

While Daily NK has been unable to confirm whether any agreement on the payment issue has been reached, the efforts to complete the road suggest that the two countries have reached some sort of agreement.

There may, however, be obstacles in the way of the bridge opening any time soon.

“Customs-related buildings need to be built even if the road is finished,” the source said.

“The closure of the Sino-North Korean border due to COVID-19 and international sanctions on North Korea make it difficult to know when the bridge will open,” he added.

North Korean authorities are also highly sensitive to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic despite their moves to restart the road construction.

“Sinuiju residents were practically confined to their homes when COVID-19 posed a clear threat to the city, but the authorities have restarted construction – perhaps because the threat has gone away,” the source said.

“That doesn’t mean, however, that Chinese engineers and materials are entering the country [in quantities] like before,” he added.

A Chinese company had been managing the construction of the North Korean road to the bridge before work was halted. Now the North Koreans have completely taken over the construction process – none of the Chinese workers and their equipment are present at the construction site anymore, the source explained.

The lack of Chinese labor and equipment may be due to the North Korean government’s fears over COVID-19, but the country’s efforts to finish the road suggest that North Korean leaders are keen to use the bridge when Sino-North Korean trade begins again.

(Source: Mun Dong Hui, “N. Korean road connected to New Yalu River Bridge nears completion,” Daily NK, May 11th, 2020.)

There are two quite different ways of looking at these developments. I’d argue the bridge is, despite how things may seem, not a very good metric for the prospects of trade between China and North Korea. Surely, China would not likely invest in a new bridge unless it envisioned growing economic activity along the border. There are good reasons to believe that this is indeed the case, and that these border regions in particular regard North Korea as a driver for local growth and advantage. At the same time, planned economies such as China often make investment decisions for reasons unrelated to actual economic prospects. Perhaps infrastructure like this is also intended to boost the region itself, or at least, make it look like that is what the central government is doing. Moreover, it is also possible that China and North Korea merely envision replacing the current bridge over time. Last but not least, it may well be a political gesture of good faith and friendship to North Korea. Or, most likely, a mix of all of the above.

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