Borderline cases_#3: Will Kim cross the Rubicon?

Feb 27 2019_Kim Jong-un will travel by train from Pyongyang via China to Hanoi in Vietnam for the summit with Trump, a 60-hour journey. Back and forth more than 8000 km! The tradition of travelling by train over long distances started with Kim-Il Song, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un. Lacking a decent airline, Kim Il-Song preferred the more comfortable, better-equipped train. Kim Jong-il, the father of Kim Jong-un, took the train during his reign out of sheer fear of flying…

How about Kim Jong-un, why doesn’t he fly, the man who does possess nuclear weapons and long-range missiles?? Kim Jong-un just doesn’t trust his own planes and pilots. In 2018 he flew to Singapore in a plane (and crew?) borrowed from China. In 2019 he prefers to follow in the “footsteps” of the great leader Kim Il-Song, whose foreign train journeys have been hailed by the North Korean propaganda machine for decades.

the train trip from Pyongyang to Hanoi map © Strait Times No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners.

Kim and his group of faithful will cross the border between North Korea and China at the Friendship Bridge aka Yalu River Bridge, between Sinuiju and Dandong, the most important border connection between both countries. His transit through China can be seen as a polite bow to Beijing, the old ally, ahead of the summit with Trump. Though the train has 21 bulletproof wagons, it can’t be called a bullet train. The top speed within North Korea lies at 50 km, in China at ~80 km per hour. Kim’s train is preceded by a smaller North Korean safety train which has to check the tracks. A train full of bodyguards closes the procession.

If you want to get an idea of the condition of the North Korean bridges and (rail) roads, just take a look at the legendary Friendship Bridge. The bridge is a combined road and railway connection, only suitable for one-way traffic. The traffic direction is reversed every two to three hours. The bridge was built by the Japanese in 1942 and is the most important (rail) link between China and North Korea. The formal border between North Korea and China runs through the middle of the bridge.

2015, tumbled truck due to holes in the road photo:changhai5211

In September 2015, a truck flipped over on the North Korean part of the bridge because of the very uneven road surface. The accident resulted in severely damaged railway tracks. Another incident followed in October, after which the North Koreans attempted to repair the road surface. Apparently the North Koreans didn’t do a great job: the Chinese deemed the bridge too unreliable and unsafe and closed it off temporarily for freight traffic towards the end of 2015 and again a few times in 2016. The Chinese decision to close down the bridge could also be seen and propagated as a sign of Chinese support for the escalating international trade embargo against North Korea.

2017: truck waddling its way to China across the prolapsed road

The technical limitations of the bridge and the miserable condition of the road surface on the North Korean side, only allow trucks with a load capacity of max 20 tonnes to drive at snail’s pace over this crucial cross-river connection. For comparison: trucks with a load capacity of up to 50 tonnes are very common in the Netherlands. In principle around 300-500 trucks in total could cross the Yalu every day. The train does at least run at higher speed and clearly is the most important freight transporter, with the main load this week being Kim Jong-un and his entourage!

The new road bridge across the Yalu near Dandong, ending in North Korean grass lands… photocopyright © unknown No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners.

This is all the more remarkable as a new road bridge, for which the Chinese put up $350 million, was completed in 2014 several miles downstream of the Yalu near Dandong. This bridge is still not in use and ends on the North Korean shore in a no man’s land. Kim’s regime has not connected the new bridge to the (primitive) North Korean road network.

The new road bridge over the Yalu near Dandong seen from the air, to the left the North Korean no man’s land. photo: Google Earth.

In recent years, the Chinese government has made tremendous efforts to upgrade the infrastructure in Northeast China (see also borderline cases # 1 & 2). Besides a good road connection, Beijing would also like to establish a modern railway link from Dandong to Pyongyang: the Chinese hope to get a North Korean commitment for co-operation before others such as South Korea or Japan could strike a deal once sanctions would be lifted and Kim Jong-un would decide to open the doors for foreign investment. Beijing is extremely displeased and frustrated about the lack of North Korean guarantees and progress. Pyongyang doesn’t have the will and resources to invest in the (rail) road network on its side of the border. China will also anxiously monitor the talks between Trump and Kim, who cunningly follows the tactics used by his grandfather by playing off the big and regional powers against each other.

Chinese trucks on the way to Sinuiju, North Korea across the bridge at Dandong
photo: Nikkei Weekly 6 December 2018
No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners. ©

After a few more on and off periods the traffic over the Friendschip Bridge finally fully resumed in 2018: since last year Kim Jong-un has several times jumped on the train to Beijing to calm down and re-assure his Chinese neighbors. Whether he has fully succeeded remains to be seen. All the old bridges between both countries as well as those new connections which have not been used or completed are somewhat symbolic of the current relationship between China and North Korea. There are many ties from the past, from the common struggle against Japan and the US, and from the communist “brotherly love”. But they don’t guarantee a smooth and close relationship in the future. China’s investments have not paid off yet. Beijing has to wait and see if they really can win over Kim: the North Korean leader still has many more rivers to cross.

Freight train on the Yalu Bridge/Friendship Bridge, Liaoning province, June 1994
Photo: E.R.
Friendship bridge seen from a speedboat on the Yalu river, June 1994
Photo: E.R.

For news on the relationship between China and North Korea see f.e..:

www. en,,

Sinuiju shore, North Korea, June 1994 photo E.R.
Dandong at the Yalu in 2009 photo: © wikipedia/Jacky Lee No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners.
View on Sinuiju, 2017 _Photo: © Wikipedia Baycrest No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners.
To the right of the Friendship bridge lies another bridge which was bombed by the Americans during the Korean war, i.e. “the Broken Bridge”. This bridge has not been restored and is kept as a memorial to commemorate the Chinese-Korean fight against the Americans Photo: © june 2018 No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners.
Guard at the memorial Broken Bridge, june 1994 photo: E.R.
The “Broken Bridge” seen from the Yalu, June 1994 Photo: E.R.
Ticket boken bridge june 1994 Photo; E.R.