At first glance, the city of Dandong seems a peaceful, bustling symbol of Chinese prosperity. Brightly dressed townspeople stroll along the tree-lined promenade near the Yalu River, teenagers mixing with office workers and young families, many of them fresh from nearby malls, shopping bags at their sides. As the light fades, neon signs illuminate the city's numerous hotels and karaoke bars. Smaller lights also begin to blink on in the rows of brand-new apartment buildings that line the riverbank for miles. Behind one of the buildings, a fountain of noise and color erupts as firecrackers and exploding rockets mark a wedding banquet.
The proximity of such desolation goes to the heart of China's quandary about how to deal with North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Il. Dandong is the main crossing point on China's 880-mile border with North Korea, making it the most active hub for the $1.6 billion in annual trade between the two countries. That trade is critical to the survival of Kim's regime: some 90% of Pyongyang's daily oil supply and just under half its food imports come from China. Although the U.S. believes that tightening the financial squeeze on Pyongyang is necessary to persuade Kim to abandon his newly tested nuclear arsenal, Beijing fears that a cutoff in aid would bring about the collapse of the North's economy, touch off civil unrest and lead to an influx of millions of poor, hungry refugees on its borders. In response to Kim's test on Oct. 9, the U.N. Security Council demanded that North Korea eliminate all its nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, as well as ballistic missiles. The U.N. also authorized inspection of cargo to and from North Korea.
Making those sanctions meaningful depends on China. China said last week that the country's four main banks will cease handling transactions from North Korea. It also says it had increased inspections of goods passing from China to North Korea by land, although there will be no inspections of seaborne cargo. Chinese newspapers reported last week that authorities had closed all border crossings with North Korea except for the most heavily trafficked one, at Dandong.