In Chinese border town, trade with North Korea can be lucrative but problematic

Map shows Dandong, North Korea and artillery attack site.
Laris Karklis/The Washington Post
By Keith B. Richburg
Friday, November 26, 2010; 9:40 PM

DANDONG, CHINA - Just across the Yalu River from North Korea, this sleepy border town in China's Rust Belt is booming.

Towering apartment blocks are going up on the city's western edge near the new Friendship Road Bridge, which will soon be the second bridge connecting Dandong to the North Korean city of Sinuiju.

Offices for trade and export-import companies dot the main road along the riverfront. A new airport is being built. Shops sell North Korean liquor, blueberry wine, ginseng, stamps and music CDs. And North Korean restaurants offer popular Korean dishes such as stewed dog leg and spicy deep-fried dog.

Dandong - like other parts of northeastern China along the 870-mile border - aims to profit from China and North Korea's growing cross-border trade, now close to $3 billion a year. Even as the United States and its allies are looking to isolate the Pyongyang regime for its nuclear program and erratic behavior, including this week's artillery attack on a South Korean island, this hardscrabble part of China is finding that being North Korea's back door to the world can be a lucrative business.

China provides for an estimated 90 percent of North Korea's energy needs and most of its food and weapons. And the most recent gauge of trade between the two countries, from 2008, showed an increase of more than 40 percent from the year before, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

But even as officials map out grand plans for more cooperation, merchants and small-scale traders say doing business with North Korea remains problematic at best.

The government is unpredictable, they say, and rules change without warning. They tell horror stories about Chinese traders who have lost millions of dollars in goods or equipment that is expropriated or stolen outright. Many now insist on cash-up-front transactions and mostly conduct business on the Chinese side of the border, where they say they have more protections.

Moreover, while North Korean leaders have visited this part of China and professed admiration for China's economic boom, local Chinese traders and businessmen in close contact with North Koreans say they don't expect the country to shift to a market economy anytime soon.

"I haven't seen any sign the North Korean government wants to open up," said Cui Weitao, 47, who traded fruit, clothing, plastic bowls and chopsticks to North Korea for the past decade. "If they really wanted, they could learn from China and Russia. If they wanted, they could let people go back and forth and trade freely. . . . If they opened the border, their whole country would benefit."

His friend, Wang Tiansheng, 47, another small-scale trader, agreed. "The thought of economic reform has been there for years but never happens. Not while the father is alive," he said, referring to the country's leader, Kim Jong Il. "Maybe when the son takes office."

China and North Korea have been close allies since Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River to help North Korea fight U.S. and South Korean troops during the Korean War, which is referred to here as the "War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea."

Yet Chinese leaders themselves consider North Korea's leader an often-troublesome ally because of his brinkmanship with the United States over his country's nuclear capability and incidents such as this week's artillery barrage of Yeonpyeong Island, which killed two South Korean marines and two civilians, and the sinking of a South Korean warship in March.

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