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N. Korea Sanctions Hang on Bridge Across the Yalu

Whether U.N. pressure on Pyongyang works will have a lot to do with whether China applies it at a trade portal crucial to its ally's economy.

October 19, 2006|Robin Fields and Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writers

DANDONG, China — Just after 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, the North Korean trucks began to arrive, rumbling over the Yalu River bridge into China by the dozen.

As they pulled into the customs station, waiting to be inspected by officers in dark uniforms and bright white caps, more than a dozen Chinese trucks formed a winding queue to make the trip in the opposite direction.

This border city, the primary gateway for trade between China and North Korea, is where the reality of international sanctions imposed after North Korea's nuclear test will play out.

The success of the sanctions greatly depends on the willingness of China to impose them. China accounts for more than half of North Korea's foreign trade, much of it in goods going through Dandong on the trucks and trains that cross the Yalu.

In the days since the United Nations called for a ban on goods related to North Korea's nuclear weapons program and an embargo on heavy conventional weapons and luxury goods, Beijing has felt pressure from Washington, Tokyo and other capitals to tighten the economic noose around North Korea. But enforcement by China is likely to fall short of expectations unless Pyongyang tests a second nuclear device, analysts predict.

China has made it clear it will not halt North Korean ships on the high seas. But that task, when deemed necessary, could be conducted by other nations.

More crucial is the issue of how China will handle its border with North Korea.

Thus far, Chinese officials appear to have increased inspections of cargo flowing into and out of Dandong. But Beijing also has a strong interest in not humiliating its longtime ally.

"China wants to avoid strong conflict, which would put it on the opposing side, where it would no longer be able to play a mediator role," said Mei Renyi, director of the American Studies Center at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

"Limited sanctions have been agreed on. The question is how to apply them."

Beijing still hopes to revive the unsuccessful talks on North Korea's nuclear development program involving the two Koreas, Japan, Russia, China and the United States. But it does not intend to participate in the existing Proliferation Security Initiative, in which the U.S. and some allies use intelligence, radiation monitors and cargo manifests to determine whether North Korean cargo is questionable.

American officials Wednesday said that spot checks of airplanes, trucks and ships based on such intelligence are how the sanctions probably would be enforced.

While Beijing has many strategic reasons for wanting to keep North Korea afloat, it is also sensitive about crossing the line into what it sees as another country's internal affairs.

After a three-week standoff in 1993, the U.S. pressured China to open the hatches of one of its cargo ships, the Yin He, in the Saudi Arabian port of Dammam. Washington suspected the ship was carrying chemicals to Iran for use in making nerve and mustard gas, but found none.

"China was very angry," said Shen Dingli, an international relations professor at Fudan University in Shanghai. "China is afraid that this sets a bad precedent, that the U.S. might say, 'Now let's inspect Chinese cargos.' "

Also weighing on China is the humiliation it suffered in the 19th and early 20th centuries when foreign powers cut up parts of the country. This is a part of history from which it feels it is just emerging as it regains global pride and prestige. Given this history, China is not about to inflict similar treatment on its ally, analysts said.

The life of Dandong revolves around China's bond with its impoverished neighbor. Many of its 780,000 residents have family as well as business ties with North Korea.

Inspectors bustled around the city's main warehouse area, in the Huan Yuan neighborhood, on Wednesday. They were on the lookout for tea and other luxury items, a warehouse supervisor said.

But it was difficult to tell whether they were just going through the motions, as many suspect. Officials have sharply curtailed access to inspection areas, truck drivers said, aware that their actions are being watched closely by outsiders.

Though traffic flowed steadily into the Huan Yuan lot, a driver parked across the street said fewer trucks were arriving since the sanctions were imposed.

Much of China's trade with North Korea involves products not covered by the U.N. sanctions. It supplies about 70% of North Korea's oil and about 40% of its food.

Executives at Dandong's many trading companies said business had not fallen off significantly so far, but expressed apprehension about what will happen as the sanctions, and China's approach to enforcing them, become clearer.

"The atmosphere is a little tense," said Zhang Yongli, general manager of Yushang Business & Trade Corp. in Dandong. "We Chinese people, especially business people, are a little concerned. Not with war, but with our investments."

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