Dandong is where most trade with North Korea is inspected
China says new U.N. sanctions are being implemented stringently
CNN couldn't gain access to loading yards for North Korea-bound trucks
The caravan of trucks rumbles across the narrow bridge, inching along as they wait their turn to enter North Korea.
This is the scene every morning from the banks of the Yalu River, in the Chinese border city of Dandong.
The trucks, and more specifically the goods within them, represent North Korea’s economic lifeline. China is the only country left that is willing to do significant trade with Kim Jong Un’s regime.
And that relationship is under more scrutiny than ever, since new sanctions on the regime were implemented by the U.N. Security Council in March.
The sanctions include universal inspections of all cargo to and from North Korea, and a ban on buying North Korean coal and raw mineral exports if any profits might go to sanctioned programs.
China helped draft the tougher new guidelines, and says it will vigorously implement them. But China has been criticized in the past for not enforcing previous sanctions.
Experts agree that if the sanctions are to be at all effective, China must uphold them stringently.
China is North Korea’s only major ally, and accounts for more than 70% of the country’s total trade volume.
It’s in border cities like Dandong that these sanctions will be enforced.
On the Chinese side of the border, you can see the small customs area situated just before the only bridge that goes in and out, called the “Friendship Bridge.”
All truck traffic passes through there, but it’s difficult to see if inspections are taking place.
CNN contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and provincial officials in Liaoning, where Dandong is located, to ask how inspections were being conducted. Both declined to provide details.
CNN followed the trucks to a loading yard, and watched as Chinese goods were placed on board, ready to be shipped back across the river. No one at the yard would speak with us, and a security guard blocked us from filming.
The Chinese say inspections are effective, but CNN couldn’t independently verify that.
What is clear is how difficult life still is for ordinary people inside North Korea.
At a land border southwest of Dandong’s Friendship Bridge, we watched as a dozen or so North Koreans toiled in an empty field.
Hunger and poverty remain chronic, as the Kim regime can’t or won’t provide supplies to its people. Sensing a business opportunity, smugglers fill the gap.
Smuggler doesn’t fear sanctions
One such man met us at night, in secret, along the border. He’s a Chinese citizen but would not give his name because he illegally smuggles goods into North Korea nearly every day.
He tells us he deals in basic living supplies, focusing on basic grains and car parts. For him, the sanctions don’t mean much but he says for other smugglers he works with the added restrictions are good for business.
“The North Koreans have to buy lots of goods from us because there are fewer legal shipments through the border, so they buy more from us,” said the smuggler.
He says since the latest sanctions began, there’s been more requests from North Koreans for industrial chemicals and steel. He has no idea what they’re used for, but he knows who’s buying them.
“Not ordinary people,” he said. “It’s the military and their families. Everything is completely corrupt there. Ordinary people have no money so all the goods are purchased by wealthy people.”
He thinks China has stepped up their inspections since the newest sanctions, but doubts that any sanctions, enforced or not, will do any real harm to Kim’s regime