NANPING/DANDONG, CHINA – In the Northeast Asia Special Region straddling China’s border with North Korea, the area around the village of Nanping is dotted with half-finished buildings, cranes on empty lots and piles of concrete pipes, with only a few construction workers present.
What was planned in 2011 as a 30 billion yuan ($4.36 billion) development intended to showcase economic engagement between the two countries has stalled in recent months. No reasons have been given in official media.
About 700 km (430 miles) to the south, near the city of Dandong, the New Yalu River Bridge connecting the two countries lies unfinished. It was planned in 2010 at a cost of 2.2 billion yuan but now stands as a monument to the slowdown in economic ties.
A Reuters team visiting the area saw some signs of trade — trucks coming across another bridge over the Yalu and boats being loaded with goods on the North Korean side of the river.
Beijing appears sensitive about the North Korea issue. A Reuters journalist who visited the Northeast Asia Special Region near the city of Helong last week was escorted out by police.
“Right now tensions are so high between China and North Korea that even this economic zone is a sensitive topic,” local official Wang Fusheng said.
The Helong government declined further comment.
China’s relations with North Korea are expected to be high on the agenda when Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump hold their first summit meeting Thursday and Friday. Washington wants China to do more to rein in the unpredictable North’s nuclear and missile programs, while Beijing has said it does not have that kind of influence.
Trump raised the pressure on Sunday, holding out the possibility of using trade as a lever to secure Chinese cooperation.
China has taken steps to increase economic pressure on Pyongyang but has long been unwilling to do anything that may destabilize the North and send millions of refugees across their border.
The slowdown in the economic relationship between the two countries became marked after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January 2016 and a series of missile launches since then.
The development plan for the Northeast Asia Special Region was to link Helong with North Korea’s Maofeng International Tourism Zone and its port city of Chongjin in an area that would feature golf courses, blueberry fields, horse riding, logistics hubs and trade in everything from timber to textiles.
The region is intended to connect China and North Korea via air, road and freight train routes, according to billboards in the village of Nanping, where North Korea is just across the winding Tumen River.
The ultimate aim is to export products from both countries through Chongjin to Japan, South Korea, the United States and Europe — an aspiration thwarted by tightening global sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
According to the plan, Nanping is to be demolished and turned into the Helong Frontier Economic Cooperation Zone, a key part of the Northeast Asia Special Region.
The zone will “take advantage of North Korean labor, land, environment and resources,” says one of the signs in Nanping, displaying pictures of seafood processing and light manufacturing of clothes, clocks and car parts.
A thousand North Korean workers were supposed to start work last year, a number set to increase to 10,000 this year and 20,000 next year.
But the dormitories for the workers are half-completed and the economic zone hasn’t opened.
“Those signboards are more a hopeful plan than a schedule we strictly follow. No one has moved in yet,” said the manager of one of the construction sites, who gave his family name as Li.
According to signboards in Nanping, there were plans for 900 million yuan worth of infrastructure investment in the area, including a 10-km (6-mile) train track connecting Nanping and the nearby village of Luguo to North Korea’s Musan mine, which has the largest-known iron ore reserves in the country.
Villagers on the Chinese side of the border are wary of North Korea.
In 2014, in two separate incidents, at least seven villagers were killed by North Koreans sneaking across the border into Nanping, the latest in several such incidents over the past few years.
China’s military presence is heavy, with four-wheel-drive vehicles patrolling the highways and security cameras installed on border fences. Locals say defections by North Koreans are down amid tighter Chinese patrols.
However, recent flooding around Nanping has destroyed alarm systems that the local government installed to protect villagers against North Korean intruders and also much of the fencing separating the village from North Korea.
North Korea is clearly visible from Nanping: farmers using rudimentary plows, soldiers squatting by a simple outpost and antiquated trucks and buses sporadically rumbling by.
Timber and other materials come in by truck from North Korea to Nanping over a concrete bridge. Locals say coal exports have stopped since China imposed a ban in February, following North Korean nuclear and intermediate-range ballistic missile tests.
Iron ore from Musan has also stopped coming in, said Li Zhonglin, director of the College of Economics and Management at Yanbian University.
“Right now, all economic projects along the border have stalled because of rising tensions,” he said.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.