AS NEW year fireworks crackle and boom amid the neon beside the Yalu river, a small boat inches silently across the stretch of water that forms the border with North Korea. A low block of flats is just visible on the other side, pitch-black save for a single prick of electricity. Clever timing by the smugglers, smiles a watching Chinese resident: “All the police are eating their new year meal.”
When North Korea tested a third nuclear weapon on February 12th, it was not security that was troubling the residents of towns along China’s 1,420km (880-mile) border with North Korea. “Trade [with North Korea] is a large part of Dandong’s economy,” says Wu Yang, owner of an ornament company that uses semi-precious stones from the North. “I’m worried it will be affected,” she says.
Fuel, rice, wheat and basic consumer goods all flow legally, usually by lorry over bridges on the Yalu, into North Korea. Imports from the North include minerals, coal, scrap metal and seafood. There is also a thriving black-market trade both ways, usually by boat. This feeds the growing demand for other non-staple products among the new North Korean nouveaux riches. Border police, especially in the North, are known to take bribes to allow illicit trade to pass. One illegal North Korean export causing social problems is crystal meth, a drug known in China as bingdu, or “ice”.
If China’s government clamps down on official trade with the North to express its displeasure at the nuclear test, the result will only be more smuggling, says a local who has invested in North Korean minerals. Illicit trade brings its own problems. North Korean border guards shot dead three Chinese smugglers in 2010, and tensions remain.
Meanwhile, as goods flow into North Korea, people continue to flow out. Some come legally to work in North Korean restaurants in Dandong and will return home. Outwardly they are unswervingly loyal–“China is all right, but North Korea is better,” says one–but local Chinese say they are more confident and chatty than before. Many more flee illegally across the river and live in secret in China or try to make it to South Korea, often through a third country. Tesco, a British supermarket chain, has a store in Dandong with a special section offering “Korean food”–mainly imported from South Korea–that an employee says specifically caters to North Koreans.
Wealthy tourists from elsewhere in China pay for boat rides on the river or can even book a trip into North Korea itself, perhaps to remind themselves how far China has come. Others buy cigarettes and trinkets labelled as North Korean but, according to locals, actually made in China. There is sympathy for North Koreans, but no-one wants to miss a good business opportunity.