September 5, 2017 1:01 am JST

Nuclear test amps up anxiety on Chinese-North Korean border

Trade conduit Dandong feels tremors physical and economic

DAISUKE HARASHIMA, Nikkei staff writer

Building tensions between North Korea and the international community are casting a pall on China's northeastern border city of Dandong.

DANDONG, China -- Pyongyang's sixth nuclear test Sunday has piled on worries here in this city bordering North Korea, an artery for trade -- both aboveboard commerce and smuggling, insiders say -- where the effects of international sanctions are gradually coming into focus.

Dandong, situated in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning and just across the Yalu River from North Korea, felt small tremors from the "earthquake" caused by the explosion. A 50-something living in a high-rise apartment said she felt the building shake several times. The region experiences hardly any quakes, and "when I learned afterward that it was from a nuclear test, I was even more frightened," the woman recalled.

The city's new Guomenwan duty-free trade zone for Chinese and North Koreans was nearly bereft of pedestrian traffic Monday. Most of the shops are run by Chinese, and empty storefronts fill the North Korean section.

A smiling North Korean clerk greeted customers at one open shop selling souvenirs made in the North. She introduced its wares enthusiastically in fluent Chinese. But when asked about the nuclear test, she appeared uncomfortable and kept silent.

Dandong serves as a commercial gateway through which about 70% of bilateral trade passes, and both human and economic ties between the two countries run deep here. The city houses many North Korean laborers and is popular with Chinese tourists seeking a taste of what things are like in the North. Pyongyang likewise values the city as an important source of foreign currency.

At 9 a.m. Monday, a siren sounded as a North Korea-bound truck piled with such goods as water pipes crossed the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge spanning the Yalu. Some thought that China might temporarily halt trade in response to the nuclear test, but things appeared to be proceeding as usual.

Liaoning is in one of China's economically worst-off regions, and some worry that anti-Pyongyang sanctions will only make things worse in the province. A source affiliated with Sino-North Korean trade said with regard to smuggling -- an "open secret," in this person's words -- that "nothing has changed, even following sanctions."

"For now, at least," the source added.

The number of North Korea-bound tourists departing from Dandong has been dwindling since spring. Day-trip tours to the opposite shore have fallen to 5% of peak counts, and four-day, three-night trips to Pyongyang have fallen by half compared with last year.

"It's as if people are afraid to even set foot in North Korea," lamented a source in Dandong's tourism sector.

As tensions between Washington and Pyongyang escalate, concern is spreading in this region as well. A woman in her 40s worried that if North Korea were to collapse, waves of refugees could flood into China across the Yalu, which has many narrow, shallow spots. An anxious China's struggles over dealing with the North are encapsulated in this border town.

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