A new border-crossing bridge over the Yalu River connecting Manpo (North Korea) and Jian (China) was officially opened on Monday. While this bridge can facilitate further exchanges between China and North Korea, its impact on trade between the two countries might be limited. In 2017, in response to North Korea’s nuclear missile testing and consequent exhortations by the Trump administration to maximize pressure on North Korea, China stepped up its enforcement of existing UN economic sanctions on North Korea. Those actions have had a detrimental impact on China’s trade with North Korea, which declined by more than 10 per cent to about US$5 billion in 2017. Exports from North Korea to China subsequently plunged 87 per cent year-on-year in 2018. Certainly this new bridge could enable the extended flow of goods across the border, but there is no clear indication that China intends to cease sanctions. According to a South China Morning Post report, this new border checkpoint is likely to primarily facilitate the inflow of Chinese tourism into North Korea, since tourism is not subject to the UN sanctions enforced by China.
In spite of China’s gesture of opening up the bridge, the fourth border checkpoint between the two countries, relations between the two countries are still tense. According to Chinese media reports, a Chinese border patrol unit intends to experiment with technologies, such as virtual reality glasses, 4K night vision monitors, and drones to track movements of people and smuggled goods across the border. These devices will be connected through a 5G system that will allow for the real-time monitoring of suspicious movements.
Still, the opening up of the bridge comes at a time of warming in China-North Korea relations. From March 2018 to January 2019, Kim visited China and met Xi four times. After Kim’s last visit to China, in January 2019, North Korean media reported that Xi even accepted an offer to visit Pyongyang. However, in the aftermath of the failed Hanoi Summit, further strengthening in relations between the two countries will ultimately depend on a breakthrough in the stalled negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea. If Trump and Kim are able to reach an understanding and sanctions on North Korea are softened, then there will be more space for trade between China and North Korea.