On November 24, 2017, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told reporters that the Sino-North Korean Friendship Bridge will be closed temporarily in the “near future” while North Korea undertakes repairs to the road surface on its side of the bridge. Geng did not provide a specific date for how long the bridge would be closed but simply stated that “[i]t will be reopened after the repair is finished” and provided no further details such as the nature of the repairs. 1 While this announcement sounds like a routine report, as the bridge is sometimes closed for maintenance, there is speculation that it is an effort by China to bring pressure on North Korea over its continuing ballistic missile and nuclear weapons development programs.
Built during World War II, the Sino-North Korean Friendship Bridge is a combination rail and road bridge that crosses the Yalu River (Korean: 압록강 Amnok-gang) connecting the Chinese city of Dandong with the North Korean City of Sinuiju. It is a crucial conduit for commerce and reportedly carries approximately 70% of the trade between the two countries.
While not a definitive confirmation of the bridge’s closure, a detailed analysis of DigitalGlobe satellite imagery from November 24th (the day of Geng’s statement) shows no activity on the bridge—repair or otherwise. Additionally, there is minimal presence of trains in either the Dandong or Sinuiju rail stations or railyards, and a number trucks, buses and cars (approximately 90 in Dandong and approximately 40 in Sinuiju) are parked at the customs stations on either side.
Dandong Rail Station and Customs Station
There is a minimal presence of train cars in the rail station and freight yard.
Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge
The imagery shows no vehicle traffic across different sections of the bridge at this time.
Sinuiju Rail Station and Customs Station
There is a minimal presence of trains in the rail station and freight yard.
Note the presence of approximately 40 stationary vehicles in the Sinuiju customs station parking area below.
In contrast to the satellite imagery, however, social media accounts captured first-hand visual movement of truck traffic on the bridge as late as December 3, 2017. 2 Other media outlets reported that the bridge repairs were scheduled to start on November 24th but that the work may have been delayed until mid-December. 3
— Paul T. Haenle (@paulhaenle) December 2, 2017
The observations support the following assessments: 1) that the bridge has not yet been closed to traffic but the imagery captured a time when there was no traffic present on the bridge; or 2) the bridge was closed temporarily around the time of the November announcement and reopened to allow vehicle traffic to continue until the re-scheduled repair date in December. Additional observations will be necessary to determine the presence of actual repair work on the bridge and the impact on bilateral trade activity in the near future.
- “China closing main road connection with North Korea,” Associated Press, November 24, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/china-closing-main-road-connection-with-north-korea/2017/11/24/322f9f24-d107-11e7-a87b-47f14b73162a_story.html; “China-North Korea bridge to close temporarily,” Nikkei Asian Review, November 25, 2017, https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/North-Korea-crisis/China-North-Korea-bridge-to-close-temporarily; and Little, Matthew. “China Closes Bridge to North Korea After Cancelling China–N. Korea Flights Days Earlier,” The Epoch Times, November 24, 2017, https://www.theepochtimes.com/china-closes-bridge-to-north-korea-after-cancelling-china-nk-flights-days-earlier_2365648.html. ↩
- Twitter account of Paul Haenle, Director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, December 1, 2017, https://twitter.com/paulhaenle/status/936808361437179904; Twitter account of Daniel Glaser, Senior Fellow and Diplomat in Residence, The Asia Society Policy Institute, December 3, 2017, https://twitter.com/dannyrrussel/status/937345262145679364. ↩
- Kim Sung II, “Bridge linking North Korea with China temporarily closed for repairs,” DailyNK, December 4, 2017, http://www.dailynk.com/english/read.php?cataId=nk01500&num=14867; “북중 신의주-단둥 철교 임시 폐쇄 12월 중순으로 연기 (Temporary Closing of DPRK-China Sinuiju-Dandong Friendship Bridge Delayed Until Mid-December),” Yonhap News, November 24, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCwXXsjzfTo. ↩