China: Rising river, rising fears
By Andray Abrahamian
DANDONG, China - In China's hub for North Korean trade, the bang and clatter of
preparation for transportation usually begins early, about 5 or 6 am. Once
paperwork is finalized, the barriers go up and floods of trucks pour across the
China-North Korea Friendship bridge in northeastern China into the Hermit
Kingdom. Now, however, a deluge from the Yalu River is causing traders and
local officials concern.
Flooding in Jilin province - upriver from Dandong - has strained the province's
dam system. Trash has been swept into the rivers, blocking water flow, and some
fear potentially disrupting the operation of the Yunfeng dam, which is
currently at full capacity.
In order to alleviate pressure built up behind the dam, officials have chosen
to release water. With the floods in Jilin unabating, the already swollen Yalu
River now flows quickly and menacingly
through the cities of Dandong and Sinuiju, a city across the river that is a
part of the Sinuiju Special Administrative Region that was established in 2002
to experiment with introducing a market economy into parts of North Korea.
Preparation is evident up the river, into the countryside, with roads being
blocked off and agricultural goods and workers moved to safety. The city of
Dandong itself has a three-meter high floodwall and, using a system of sand and
wooden planks, has barricaded all but the main road leading to the riverside.
About 100 meters of the city lie outside the barriers. Businesses and
residences there are mostly closed and fortified with sandbags, including a
North Korean restaurant famed for its music-making waitresses. Hotels have
closed and the tourists that come to gawk at North Korea are now staring with
just as much astonishment at the swollen river.
An evacuation order for areas outside the flood wall was expected for about 6
pm on Wednesday evening. By the evening, only one road was left open through
the floodwall. Cars were still free to come and go, though few did, while
thousands of pedestrians flocked to the riverfront park to enjoy the sunset and
- for those whose employers are in front of the wall - an unexpected vacation.
By 6 am on Thursday morning that last road was blocked to vehicular traffic by
police vans and heavy, lashing rains kept all but a couple of stubborn early
birds away from the boardwalk, dots of color against the backdrop of grey skies
and sandbagged, shuttered businesses. The police on duty said they didn't know
when the last gate would go up - only that they still expected the water to
rise and that they might be on alert for three or four days. Rain is forecast
in Jilin for the rest of the week.
Should the waters rise, everyone hopes the floodwall will hold, but if it
fails, the operations of trading companies will certainly be affected. Most are
congregated just on the other side of the barriers. As Dandong-Sinuiju is the
hub for China-North Korea trade, any disruption here will be felt in North
One Dandong-based trader worried that if the wall were breached, his stock -
difficult to move in a hurry - could be destroyed. This in turn could cause
cashflow problems, if too much was rendered unsellable. Compared to sanctions
against trading with North Korea, this would be a bigger threat to his
business. Sanctions just made things a little more complicated, he said.
Pyongyang faces various sanctions over its nuclear weapons and other incidents,
and possibly faces stiffer ones if it continues to avoid international
discussions on the issue.
Evidence of South Korea's recent trade ban being circumvented was nearby: South
Korean rice cookers, clothes and household utensils are on display at various
trading companies. Some may be sold to Chinese consumers, but some are waiting
to cross the border - unless North Korean storage facilities are damaged.
As usual, the situation on the other side of the river is the subject of
dispute. Some long-time Dandong residents worried for their Korean
counterparts, claiming that Sinuiju lies much lower than Dandong and that in
the previous floods this area had seen - 15 years ago - came off much worse.
Others, who had spent significant time in Sinuiju, claimed the city was higher
than Dandong and was actually safer, though outlying neighborhoods and nearby
villages were lower and at significant risk.
While North Korean and Chinese officials will have been in contact with each
other, certainly, North Korea will likely have not had the same capacity to
coordinate flood response as they have from Jilin province down to Dandong.
The damage in Jilin could also be a concern for North Korea in coming months.
Some estimates are that rice output will drop 5-7%, putting inflationary
pressure on worldwide rice markets. It could potentially affect China's ability
to trade or send food aid.
This region is crucial to North Korea's economy. China is by far North Korea's
biggest trading partner and the three Northeast provinces already make up 76%
of China's trade with North Korea . Beijing is currently pushing ahead with a
development plan which will link the northeast with North Korea as never
before. From Beijing's perspective, if it can improve North Korea's economy, it
helps aid the development and stability of a region that has lagged behind
development on the East Coast.
Beijing has designated the cities of Dandong and Tonghua as hubs for wider
special development areas. They will see significant investment in customs,
storage and transportation facilities, as well as a duty-free zone. Pyongyang
is also planning free economic zones to match the areas on the Chinese side of
All this is being carried out even as Washington is maneuvering for tougher
enforcement of United Nations sanctions passed in 2009. Right now, however,
that is a distant concern for those who deal with cross-border commerce. As
much as traders who deal with North Korea keep an eye on international
relations, this summer, the imminent worry is the weather.
Andray Abrahamian is a doctoral candidate at the University of Ulsan,