Lonely bridge: A four-lane, $350 million bridge over the Yalu river between the North Korean city of Sinuiju and Dandong in China's northeast Liaoning province was completed in 2014 but is just now being connected to North Korea's highways. Photo: AFP / Chandan Khanna

For three quarters of a century much of North Korea’s trade with the outside world took place across a Japanese-built single-lane bridge across the Yalu River, connecting its city of Sinuiju with Dandong in Northeast China. Traffic would go in one direction in the morning, the opposite direction in the afternoon.

To eliminate that bottleneck, Beijing financed and built a new four-lane bridge, completing it in 2014. Pyongyang was then supposed to build a road connecting the bridge to its highway network. It didn’t. The two countries had their differences.

But then last summer they attempted to reconcile and to put their economic relations back on track. According to the Seoul newspaper Dong A Ilbo, there were reports that Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed to pay for the connecting road and other final touches.

And now – a bit ironically since it comes at a time when two-way trade has been drastically reduced on account of a January coronavirus-related border shutdown – the Kim Jong Un regime finally has gotten around to finishing a two-lane connection.

“North Korea began construction work on the road to the New Yalu River Bridge in mid-September last year, but had to put the project on hold in mid-January this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Seoul-based DailyNK.

Satellite photos from LandViewer, a satellite imagery service from the US-based company EOS, show that work began April 27 and that by May 5 paving of one side of the road was about half completed.

“If construction continues at this speed, it is expected that the lane in question will be fully paved within another week, and the second lane will be finished within the month,” predicted Daily NK, which specializes in North Korea news.

Completion of the road won’t necessarily mean that the bridge will open immediately. Although Pyongyang has signaled that it would like to resume more normal trading, Beijing reportedly is not ready yet.

Part of the Kim regime’s earlier hesitancy to connect the bridge may relate to longstanding disagreements with China over what North Korea’s role would be if bilateral trade expanded hugely, as both countries in principle would like to see happen.

Separate and quite different 21st century visions of how to structure and operate special economic zones on the border have failed thus far to be reconciled.

China sought to keep control while the North Korean leadership was determined not to accede to a system in which the smaller country’s economy could not develop beyond its current specializations in raw materials and cheap labor.

Pyongyang itself “has shown considerable reluctance to finish that bridge, until very recently,” Joshua Stanton, a Washington, DC, lawyer who favors strict enforcement of sanctions, told Asia Times.

“That suggests a reluctance about how it will be used,” said Stanton, who watches North Korea-China trade closely and writes about it on his blog One Free Korea.

When Kim failed to appear publicly for nearly three weeks recently and there were rumors that he was gravely ill or even dead, there was considerable public speculation about whether China would intervene.

The Kim regime is prickly about its independence and has made clear over the decades that it exalts self-reliance.

As for “some kind of stability operation or intervention,” Stanton said, that would be an intrusion that “Kim Jong Un does not want to facilitate.”

Now Kim would have to weigh, against any such concerns, what reports say is an increasingly desperate economic situation that has been worsened by the isolation measures he took to try to stave off the pandemic.

In any case, at the current low ebb in trade there’s probably no real immediate need for the new bridge. And, leaving aside the fact it was North Korea that decided to close the border tightly to keep the virus out, China would not want to step up the pace of trade to the extent of obvious sanctions-busting.

Beijing angered Pyongyang by supporting United Nations sanctions to press for denuclearization. And China has sought, when it comes to truck traffic crossing the North Korean border, to appear circumspect in its enforcement of sanctions.

Instead of using the roads, “in fact China has long violated sanctions, as much as it could get away with doing so, via other modes of commerce such as ports, rail and wire transfers,” Stanton said.

The new bridge?

“I wouldn’t assume that it will be filled with trucks until we see direct evidence that it is.”

The new Dandong Customs House. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times