ABC News Sunday investigates illegal trade on the border of China and North Korea. Courtesy: ABC
IT’S a vital lifeline for Pyongyang, but it also serves a strategic purpose for a much more powerful ally.
The Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, crosses the Yalu River, connecting the cities of Dandong on the Chinese side to the North Korean city of Sinuiju.
It also supplies around 90 per cent of North Korea’s trade.
But when it comes to China’s interests, maintaining this lifeline isn’t necessarily about being a good neighbour.
According to Professor Greg Austin, a researcher at UNSW Canberra and expert on China, Beijing has other reasons for helping keep Pyongyang afloat.
While acknowledging relationships were strained over North Korea’s recent nuclear tests, Prof Austin said China wasn’t going to cut its neighbour off just yet.
He said the reality was Beijing preferred to have an “embarrassing” Communist neighbour than one aligned with the west.
If North Korea were to collapse through lack of trade for example, it would bring a flow of people, along with US and western forces right to its border, something China does not want to see happen.
While North Korea has been slapped with UN sanctions over its nuclear program, Prof Austin said China’s trade with the secretive nation was not in violation of that.
“There are no comprehensive UN trade sanctions on North Korea, so China is free to trade in many goods with North Korea,” Prof Austin said.
“Rather the sanctions are targeted against its nuclear program, its military development and the regime’s internal security.”
Prof Austin said there are severe financial sanctions placed on North Korea but UN sanctions did not extend to general food trade.
He said the US could in theory export food to North Korea but chose not to.
China has said it “firmly opposes” last week’s nuclear tests and would have let Pyongyang know about it.
However experts agree Beijing wants to avoid a collapse of North Korea in order to prevent the balance of power on the peninsula from leaning towards the US.
China also remains ambivalent about whether it will support further sanctions against its ally, Reuters reported.
“The strategic needs for China to be an ally is very high,” Prof Austin said.
“China would rather have North Korea on its border rather than US or South Korean forces.”
Dr Euan Graham, International Security Program director at the Lowy Institute said the two allies were bound together by history, adding the relationship has become more strategic in recent years.
Speaking to news.com.au from the Korean border, Dr Graham said Pyongyang’s nuclear actions would have deeply embarrassed China, a leading member of the UN Security Council.
“China would see this as working against its interests,” he said.
Dr Graham said with tensions between Seoul and Beijing are at an all time high, including over the South’s decision to cooperate with the US on missile defence.
“Geopolitics dictates everything,” he said.
“China fears instability and chaos (from a non-existent North Korea) more than anything.
“North Korea acts as a buffer between China and US forces so it’s a case of better the devil you know.”
He added South Korea’s desire to develop its own nuclear program would also raise tensions with China so keeping Pyongyang on side was vital.
While experts agree keeping its ally happy through trade support was crucial, Beijing would not approve of illegal trade, something which has reportedly increased following the sanctions.
ABC China correspondent Matthew Carney travelled to Dandong and uncovered the extent of the illegal and black market trade which took place along the border.
On a Sunday night special report Carney counted 100 trucks going from China into North Korea in just two hours.
He also found security along some parts of the 1400km border was minimal, with one businessman telling the ABC he didn’t care about politics he just wanted to make money.
IN THE BAD BOOKS
Beijing isn’t alone in its concerns over Pyongyang’s nuclear tests.
Washington and Tokyo are seeking “the strongest possible” measures against North Korea after its latest and most powerful nuclear test last week, AFP reported.
Japan, the US and South Korea have asked China to use its leverage to persuade Pyongyang to comply with UN sanction resolutions.
North Korea has been hit by five sets of UN sanctions since it first tested a nuclear device in 2006, but has insisted it will continue its testing program.
It carried out its fifth nuclear test last Friday, claiming that it had successfully detonated a nuclear warhead, sparking global condemnation.
Pyongyang said U.S. threats of new sanctions ?against North Korea? after its? latest nuclear test were “highly laughable,” in a statement read on state-run television Sunday. Photo: KRT