Sanctions Don't Bite on the North Korea Border

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North Korean trucks line up for inspection at a Chinese customs yard in Dandong on October 18, 2006.

It's a surprisingly balmy evening for mid-October in the northeastern Chinese city of Dandong, a soft breeze blowing tendrils of mist across the slate grey surface of the Yalu River. Sprawling for miles along the banks of the river, Dandong seems a perfect, bustling symbol of the "new" China. Brightly dresssed townspeople stroll along the tree-lined promenade, courting teenagers mixing with office workers and doting parents chasing a single, precious child, many of them toting shopping bags from nearby malls. But this is anything but a normal town, because just across the river stands the decrepit North Korean city of Shinnuiju. As the main crossing point on China's 880-mile border with its purported ally, Dandong has suddenly been thrust into the international spotlight as U.N. sanctions over North Korea's nuclear test come into effect.

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The roughly $1.6 billion annual trade between the two countries is critical to the survival of the regime in Pyongyang — about half of North Korea's daily oil supply and a slightly lower proportion of its food imports come from China. And the lion's share of that trade has long passed through Dandong. Just how stringently China will impose sanctions directed at North Korea's weapons program and an undefined category of "luxury goods" — and more importantly, whether it chooses to tighten the screws on commodities not covered by the sanctions, such as oil and food supplies — will go a long way to determining the future of the baby-faced dictator in Pyongyang. So far, say traders, Dandong residents and others involved in the cross-border commerce say it's been largely business as usual. A truck driver who gives his name only as Li points at the 15 or so vehicles waiting to pass through customs for inspection before crossing the Yalu. "The inspections are a little stricter, but it's really just for show," he says. "They poke around a bit and then let you go."

China doesn't like being told what to do in its own backyard by the United States. But neither its leaders in Beijing nor the ordinary working people of Dandong hide their frustration with the North Koreans. Squatting by the side of the road and smoking a cigarette, a young Chinese man clears his throat and spits. "Those stupid bastards, look how far they are behind us." He gestures to the other side of the river where the trucks crossing the bridge disappear into a solid wall of night, the electricity-starved North Korean town bathed in blackness. The flashily dressed man stands abruptly and tosses away his a cigarette, heading back towards the bars and restaurants that line this side of the river bank. "Now they are making bombs. They should learn reform from us and make money instead. We don't want them coming here to beg for food."

Those few words sum up the dilemma hobbling China's policy towards its wayward, unpredictable neighbor. In the mid-1990s, a severe famine that killed tens or even hundreds of thousands of North Koreans sent refugees flooding across the porous border. And while increased trade and relatively good harvests in the last couple of years have stabilized the situation, a large portion of the country remains dependent on outside food aid. And international monitors fear that another major famine may be in the offing.