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The View From The Chinese Border With North Korea


We've been getting the perspective on North Korea from Washington, D.C., and from Seoul. Today, we're going to get the view from China, specifically from the town of Dandong on the border with North Korea.


China has been an intermediary between North Korea and the United States in discussions over the North's nuclear program. Earlier this year, President Trump suggested that China was actually enabling North Korea's threatening behavior. Here's what he said back in January on "Fox & Friends."


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: China has total control, believe me. They say they don't. They have total control over North Korea. And China should solve that problem. And if they don't solve the problem, we should make trade very difficult for China.

MARTIN: President Trump has walked that back a bit. After meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he told The Wall Street Journal he realized there are limits to China's influence over North Korea and the whole issue is, quote, "not so easy," which brings us back to that border town in China, which is where we find our correspondent Rob Schmitz.

Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: I understand you are in a hotel in Dandong right on the border. And you can actually see North Korea from your window?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. It's a sunny late afternoon. The Yalu River is just below me. And beyond that is Sinuiju, one of North Korea's largest cities with a few hundred thousand people. And there's a very big difference between this side of the river and the North Korean side. The Chinese side is full of these luxury high-rises. And then when you go over to the North Korean side, it's what you might expect - factories, smokestacks, drab-colored residential buildings and lots of farmland.

At night, when you look at the North Korean side, you wouldn't even know that there's a city there. It's just dark. While on this side of the river, it looks sort of like Las Vegas. It's lit up with flashing neon lights. There was even a fireworks display last night. And the river walkway is filled with tourists.

MARTIN: Tourists, so I imagine you've talked to some of them - what do people tell you about the situation with North Korea right now?

SCHMITZ: I think that they're too busy having fun here to really care that much about it. There's a really festive atmosphere here. Most of them are basically China's new middle class, so they may not be able to afford trips to the U.S. or Europe yet, but they're traveling within China. And a border town like this is sort of a taste of the exotic for them. It's sort of like American tourists in the 1960s heading to Tijuana for their first look at a foreign country.

And many people told me yesterday that North Korea reminds them of what China used to look like back in the 1980s. And it gives them a sense of how far China has come since then, so they seemed pretty happy about that. But when you talk to folks here in the tourism industry, I got a sense that some of them were a little worried about rising tensions between the U.S. and their neighbor. I spoke with restaurant owner Li Juin about this, and here's what she said.

LI JUIN: (Through interpreter) I'm definitely worried. If war breaks out, nobody's going to come here, right? If I heard a war was happening in a place I was thinking of visiting, I wouldn't go there.

MARTIN: So clearly, people perceive that Dandong is really tied to North Korea.

SCHMITZ: It really is. You know, as I'm looking out my window here, just below me is the China-Korea Friendship Bridge. And this is a lifeline for North Korea. Seventy percent of all the North's foreign trade passes over the single bridge. So during the morning, the trucks are filled with goods that drive from China to North Korea. And in the afternoon, they come back from North Korea into China.

When they come back, most of the trucks that I've seen are empty. This morning, I got up early before the bridge opened to see what was in the trucks going to North Korea, and they were filled with Chinese-made refrigerators. You had fertilizer, fruit, heavy machinery, you name it.

MARTIN: So what does all this tell you, if anything, about the degree to which China could pressure North Korea on its nuclear program?

SCHMITZ: Well, 90 percent of all of North Korea's trade is with China, and the lion's share of that travels over this bridge. So if China wanted to tighten the screws on North Korea, reducing the flow of goods on this bridge would definitely have an impact.

Now, earlier this year, China did clamp down and tell North Korea it wouldn't import any more coal for the rest of this year. But the Trump administration would like China to do more. And this bridge full of trucks that I'm looking at it here on the North Korean border would definitely be the focus of that.

MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz on the Chinese border with North Korea. Thanks, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.