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China agrees to finish bridge to North Korea

the Yalu River border (Jin Ping Han/WikiCommons)
October 22, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

China has agreed to fund the last steps of construction for the New Yalu River Bridge that would vastly improve commerce between the two countries, residents in both countries told Radio Free Asia.

Construction on the structure of the bridge, which connects the Chinese city of Dandong with North Korea’s Sinuiju, was finished nine years ago, but it has not gone into service because the project has stalled on the North Korean side.

The new bridge is just downstream from the much older Sino-Korean Friendship bridge which it is intended to replace. That bridge is so old that it predates North Korea itself, having been built by the Japanese army during World War II.

The old bridge has a single rail track and a single lane for cars and trucks, and is unable to carry trucks heavier than 20 tons, but the new bridge will not enter service until new customs facilities are built on the North Korean side. 

“All import and export logistics between North Korea and China travel through the old Friendship Bridge which was built before liberation,” a resident of North Pyongan province told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

“If the new Yalu River Bridge is opened [imports and exports] will increase several times, strengthening the country’s economy,” he said.

The resident said that North Korea sent a formal request to China for more funding.

“Earlier this month, a Pyongyang trade delegation met with Dandong city government officials to request [more] Chinese investment,” he said. “The request is to send customs clearance equipment to open the New Yalu River Bridge.”

Still needs work

Everything is ready to go on the Chinese side, but in North Korea, it is essentially empty, although a building that is supposed to be the customs clearance office has been built.

“In order for the New Yalu River Bridge to open, customs clearance facilities must be installed at the Sinuiju Customs Office,” the resident said. “China said last year that it would invest, but they still haven’t yet, so the Pyongyang delegation came forward.”

Beijing originally agreed that it would pay for the entire cost of the bridge and North Korea is only trying to hold China to their word, a North Korean trade official stationed in China told RFA on condition of anonymity for safety reasons. 

“But China is saying that since the main structure of the New Yalu River Bridge was completed in 2014, we should bear the cost of auxiliary facilities,” he said. “So, construction of the road from the end of the New Yalu River Bridge to Sinuiju was delayed for several years, but began again in 2018.”

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 delayed road construction even further, so the roads were not completed until last fall, the official said. Still, without customs clearance offices the bridge will not be opened.

“However, a trade agency official informed me that early this month, the Pyongyang delegation directly actively sought to attract Chinese investment to expedite the opening of the New Yalu River Bridge, and China agreed.”