October 16, 2015 12:23
North Korea and China on Thursday opened a duty-free trade zone near their border in the Chinese city of Dandong but hardly anyone turned up.
North Koreans and Chinese living within 20 km of the city can in theory now benefit from tariff cuts of up to 8,000 yuan or W1.48 million a day.
"Dandong will emerge as a logistics hub in Northeast Asia based on North Korea-China trade," said Dandong Mayor Shi Jian in a message. "I hope Dandong will serve as a departure point for a new Silk Road."
But almost no North Koreans were seen in the trade zone, which measures some 24,000 sq.m and contains hundreds of shops that cost the Liaoning provincial government 1 billion yuan. North Korean and Chinese flags fluttered over an empty mall.
Administrative official Duanmu Haijian said North Korean businesses will move into the zone around April next year, and only a first batch of 40 to 50 businesses have been allowed by the North Korean and Chinese authorities to open shops already.
But the Dandong zone is about 20 km from the border checkpoint, and it seems North Koreans are not being allowed to go. "Unless bilateral relations improve quickly, there's no chance that things will get any livelier by April," a source in Dandong said.
There is speculation that China set up the temple of consumption as a carrot to persuade the North to open up its economy. North Koreans are supposed to come here, sell agricultural and fisheries products and buy cheap Chinese consumer goods.
By contrast, the fourth North Korea-China economic, trade, cultural, and tourism fair that opened nearby the same day was well attended.
About 400 North Koreans set up some 100 stalls selling liquor, tobacco, medicines, agricultural produce, seafood, machine parts, minerals, and clothes.
Cross-border relations have improved a little since senior Chinese Politburo Standing Committee official Liu Yunshan met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Oct. 9. Liu later said the two sides "reached a wide range of agreements on bilateral cooperation."
The North also set up a propaganda booth at the fair with signboard reading "Korea welcomes you!" and photos of regime founder Kim Il-sung hugging Mao Zedong, former leader Kim Jong-il shaking hands with Deng Xiaoping, and current leader Kim Jong-un.
The official ceremony marking both openings was held in the near-empty new district in Dandong, which is linked to the North by a new Apnok river bridge.
The district was built to house 500,000 people but, like many new cities across China, remains a ghost town occupied by fewer than 10 percent of that capacity.
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