The Friendship Bridge misnomer

A uniformed Chinese border guard stands at a bridge over the Yalu River that links China and North Korea
A Chinese soldier at a border post next to the Friendship Bridge that connects Sinuiju in North Korea and the Chinese city of Dandong in Liaoning Province (source: dpa)

A National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is held every five years as the most important political event in China. Traditionally, about one week after the event, China had dispatched a high-level delegation to North Korea to brief its ally on leadership changes and new policies instituted by the CPC. The 19th congress that concluded in October 2017 was no exception. This time around, though, China sent a delegation of much lower rank, and did so with deliberate delay.

Following the 17th National Congress in October 2007, China’s envoys were led by a member of the CPC’s ruling Political Bureau and showed up in Pyongyang in eight days. The delegation sent after the 18th congress in 2012 was of the same rank, but it arrived in the North Korean capital 14 days after the event. The last time around, however, the delay was three full weeks. Beijing’s group was led by a Mr. Song Tao, merely the head of the International Liaison Department of the CPC. The message was subtle yet clear: North Korea no longer warrants the attention of China’s top officials.

China is irrelevant

The timing of this year’s visit was intended as a slight. Predictably, the North Koreans took offense. Supreme leader Kim Jong-un returned the insult by not finding time to receive the delegation during the four days it spent in Pyongyang. This, in turn, created a serious embarrassment for the Chinese government. How dare the leader of a state so dependent on China ignore a delegation from Beijing?

Our leader is fine, he is just too busy to meet you Chinese

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was too distraught to try to explain this. Instead, rumors appeared in the Chinese media that Mr. Kim might have unspecified health problems. The Chinese would not get off the hook so easily, however. Once the humiliated Chinese delegation returned home from Pyongyang, government media in North Korea published a picture of Kim Jong-un in robust shape, with his signature smile. The caption read: “Our Leader gives advice during visit to an auto plant.”

The message was clear – and two-pronged. It was addressed to two great powers whose leaders, it so happened, had just completed talks in Beijing. North Korea said to China: “Our leader is fine, he is just too busy to meet you Chinese.” To the United States, the communique was: “Look, China is irrelevant, we ignore them when we wish. You Americans had better talk with our leader directly.”

No flights, no bridge

Beijing’s immediate response to this drama was to permanently cancel all Air China flights from Beijing to Pyongyang and to close the airline’s office in North Korea. The Air China flight on Nov. 20, 2017, which took the CPC delegation back to China, became the last direct air connection between the two “brotherly countries.” A spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry described the cancellation as a purely commercial decision triggered by “severe lack of customers.” Few believed it.

Politics has always played a paramount role in all sorts of dealings between the two countries. It was a political decision when Air China opened a regular route between the two capitals in early 2008. Back then, most of the flights were nearly empty, often without a single customer from Pyongyang, but the management of Air China did not really care about the profit. Without hefty subsidies from the government, all commercial enterprises doing business with North Korea would go broke. Even small ventures need such support, because North Koreans simply do not pay on time and the concept of commercial credit is alien to them. When all of a country’s assets belong to its ruling family, commercial profit-making is a concept that smacks of treason.

Four days after the Chinese delegation returned to China, Beijing announced that an important bridge linking China and North Korea would be closed for 10 days, from November 24 to December 3, 2017. The official reason given was that the bridge would undergo repairs.

The bridge in question was completed in 1943, during the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria, and named after the river below, the Yalu. China and North Korea renamed it the Friendship Bridge in 1990. An estimated 70 percent of trade between the two countries crosses this bridge. Also, virtually all Chinese Koreans traveling to visit their North Korean relatives must use it. Even when it closes for one day, the disruption for businesses and people is substantial.

This is the local officials' nightmare, as public turmoil hardly fits President Xi Jinping's vision of a harmonious society

After some repair work, the Friendship Bridge briefly reopened, only to be closed again on Dec. 11, 2017. A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry denied that the shutdowns had anything to do with the United Nations Security Council Resolution imposing sanctions on North Korea, but provided no convincing explanation for the situation. The bridge quietly opened in January of 2018, but no one knows for how long.

Officials’ nightmare

Whether Beijing admits it or not, North Korea has become a burden to China, externally and internally. Between October 2006 and September 2017, North Korea conducted six radiation-emitting nuclear bomb tests close to the Chinese border. Citizens in the northeastern part of China are increasingly angry at their government, as they see it doing little to protect them and tame the wild antics of the North Korean dictator. Kim Jong-un beggars his Chinese neighbors by scaring potential investors and poses a direct threat to their lives. After the sixth nuclear test, many Chinese took to the streets to protest their government’s inaction.

This is the local officials’ nightmare, as public turmoil hardly fits Chinese President Xi Jinping’s official goal of building a harmonious society. Even more importantly, the central government is loath to see people raising social issues, especially ones that the authorities cannot seem to get a good handle on – for example, corruption among officials and the growing income gap between the rich and poor.

The Chinese government wants the country to be seen abroad as a great new power, equal to the U.S. in dealing with the Korean Peninsula issue. But the reality is harsh. Over seven decades, the only policy tool that China has finessed to calm Pyongyang is paying money to the Kim family. In return, Pyongyang keeps insulting Beijing whenever its leader gets in a fit, and it embarrasses China abroad. No money means no talk. China has not come up with a way to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. Admittedly, this is a tall order: who would care for the little backward country if it were not for its nuclear threats? The trick has worked for Pyongyang every time.

U.S. President Donald Trump must have believed that his Chinese counterpart could resolve the problem with North Korea when the two men were sitting on Chinese emperors’ dragon chairs and had a jolly meeting in the Forbidden City. Unfortunately, President Xi is in just the same position as Mr. Trump: he has no idea how to deal with the North Korean bully.

Now that the Friendship Bridge no longer symbolizes friendship, China faces another nasty problem: Russia’s enterprising President Vladimir Putin has chosen to publicly express his support for North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. It could be that Pyongyang has found a new partner in mischief – Russia has a reputation for skillfully manipulating other countries. In the end, China may wind up the true loser of this shell game in northeast Asia.

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