A Troubled Bridge between Friends

Construction work on a bridge connecting Hyesan in Yangkang Province and Changbai in China’s Jilin Province is raising hackles in the corridors of Sino-North Korean economic cooperation.

According to a source in China, both China and North Korea recognize that the existing ‘Friendship Bridge’ spanning the Yalu River between the two cities cannot handle increasing trade volumes. In particular, increasing copper ore production from Hyesan Youth Mine (which has been developed with Chinese capital) is putting it under unsustainable strain.

However, while China wants North Korea to expand and reinforce the existing bridge, North Korea is apparently pushing for the construction of an entirely new bridge in a different location using Chinese capital.

North Korea’s reason is supposedly one of revolutionary history. According to the source, “Chosun is opposed to the expansion of the bridge because right next to the bridge on the Hyesan side there is a stone commemorating a visit by Kim Jong Il.”

The 5m x 2m granite stone in question was set in place to commemorate the time on June 5th, 1956 when Kim Jong Il and his Pyongyang No. 1 Senior Middle School comrades stopped there during a trip to Mt. Baekdu and looked around an old royal building.

However, money also appears to be an issue. “In particular,” according to the source, “they are stubbornly insisting that ‘if you need a bridge, you should bear the burden of its construction.’”

In any case, the limitations of the bridge in its current condition are perfectly clear. It only has one lane, meaning that transit in both directions is impossible, and, though only built in 1985, there are very real concerns that its concrete structure cannot handle the Chinese heavy vehicles transporting copper ore away from the mine.

One other problem for North Korea is that the bridge is connected to Hyesan Customs House; the road off the bridge passes through the middle of the blue-roofed customs house, while the second floor houses the customs office itself. Therefore, expansion of the bridge would also involve redesigning the customs house. Due to fast flowing waters to the east, the only direction in which it is possible to expand is to the west; however, that is exactly where the commemorative stone is. Not only that, it is also the location of the local Kim Il Sung Revolutionary History Museum and Kim Jong Suk Art Theater.

Therefore, the source said North Korea has put forward an area around 4km east of the existing Hyesan Customs House as a possible candidate location for a new bridge. However, the suggested area is relatively unfavorable in terms of river width and topography, which would drive up construction costs. Given that North Korea is demanding that China bear the weight of these costs, it seems unlikely that agreement will be reached under the current conditions.

In the words of the source, “Chosun is making totally nonsensical demands. No conclusion is likely for the time being.”

This is not the first time that bridges spanning the Sino-North Korean border have been a source of friction between the two countries. Following a similar spat in 2005, China simply completed reinforcement work on its own half of a bridge between Hoiryeong and Sanhe, leaving the other half in its original state.

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Kang Mi Jin
Kang Mi Jin is a North Korean defector turned journalist who fled North Korea in 2009. She has a degree in economics and writes largely on marketization and economy-related issues for Daily NK. Questions about her articles can be directed to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.