China has publicly denounced the US’s plans for tightening sanctions against North Korea, but if local media reports are accurate, the world’s second-largest economy has closed part of its border with its isolated neighbor without any external prompting, possibly to help comply with the latest round of UN Security Council sanctions, which took effect last month.
According to Daily NK, "an internal source in the Quanhe Commercial District of Hunchun City informed us that the customs offices are preparing to close the gate today (September 4), and that Chinese businessmen and merchants staying in North Korea have been notified," a source in China with knowledge of the development told Daily NK.”
However, the more widely used Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, a road-rail bridge that spans the Yalu river into North Korea, connecting Dandong and Sinuiju and accounting for 70% of the trade volume between the two countries, remains open.
As we reported previously, China has been increasingly scanning for radiation along the North Korean border. According to the Wall Street Journal, China has added stations since 2013 because it fears cross-contamination from the North's nuclear program.
DailyNK, a South-Korea based website that reports information gleaned from North Korean insiders, speculates that the border closure could be an attempt to “send a message” to the North that it needs to curb its bellicose actions an rhetoric.
“The Chinese government may have elected to close its minor customs offices first, as a message to North Korea. Analysts note that China appears to be pressuring North Korea to restrain from provocations with the implied message that it may close other customs offices in the future.”
Some have speculated that Chinese officials have closed the post because of the volume of North Korea seafood that travels through it. Under the newest UN sanctions, countries aren’t allowed to buy North Korean seafood, a move that will primarily hurt the country’s poor fishermen.
“However, it has also been suggested that Quanhe Customs may have closed because it primarily deals with North Korean fisheries products, which have been prohibited for export under the new sanctions. It has also been argued that the measure will have only a minor effect on the North Korean leadership and could be little more than an empty gesture by China to show that it is participating in international sanctions.”
Apparently, the closure of the post is part of a pattern.
“Quanhe Customs has been temporarily closed every time North Korea has engaged in provocations. So it’s likely that China will soon reopen the office after claiming that it is participating in the sanctions," one North Korea analyst suggested on condition of anonymity.”
The site also reported – apropos of nothing - that Chinese authorities are investigating Chinese nationals who may have been involved in smuggling components and materials used for North Korea's sixth nuclear test. China has officially banned the export of materials to North Korea that could be used for nuclear tests and missile launches, but has failed to effectively crack down on smuggling, according to DailyNK.
"The Chinese authorities have been put on the back foot by North Korea's nuclear test and thus have strengthened the inspections," a separate source in China familiar with North Korean affairs said.
Quanhe is the second biggest of nine customs posts between China and North Korea, according to Bloomberg.