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1 Year Later At The North Korea-China Border, What's Changed?


It looks like it will happen one week from today. If all goes according to plan, President Trump will meet face-to-face with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un. Diplomats in the U.S. and North Korea have been engaging in some very high-level shuttle diplomacy as of late, trying to get everything ready in time for this historic meeting. It's supposed to take place June 12 in Singapore. China may not officially be part of this summit, but it's a major player behind the scenes. NPR's Rob Schmitz is on the Chinese border with North Korea, and he joins me now.

Good morning, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So you are in Dandong, which is this city - if I'm remembering - right across the river from North Korea. You were there a year ago. Right?

SCHMITZ: I was. And, you know, a year seems like a long time when you're talking about North Korea.


MARTIN: Right.

SCHMITZ: A lot has changed in a year. Last year at this time, the U.S. was imposing sanctions on North Korea. It was trying to get China to do the same. Kim Jong Un, back then, was overseeing weapons and nuclear tests. And this city was at the center of a trade debate because more than 70 percent of North Korea's trade travels over a single bridge that connects this city and the rest of China to North Korea.

So a year ago, I spoke to you about how there were dozens upon dozens of Chinese trucks carrying goods from this city to North Korea each day all along this bridge that crosses the river below me.

MARTIN: Right. And today - what's it looks like today?

SCHMITZ: Empty. The bridge is completely vacant. You know, I woke up earlier this morning, Rachel, to see how many trucks were lining up to take Chinese goods into North Korea. And there was no line at all. From my hotel room above the border crossing, I counted just five trucks waiting to get into North Korea. Last year, I counted around a hundred the day I was there.

So this bridge, which is a lifeline for Kim Jong Un, is, from what I've seen today, largely not in business. And this is a sign that China has cut off much of its trade with the North as it promised to do under the U.N. sanctions.

MARTIN: Which is what the U.S. has wanted China to do to help...


MARTIN: ...It leverage against North Korea. But what does it mean for just people who live in Dandong?

SCHMITZ: Well, you know, this is a city that makes its money from two things, tourism and trade. Tourism here is still going strong. There are still lots of travelers from all over China here. But trade, obviously, has been cut off. So the people I spoke with today told me the local economy has taken a huge hit from these sanctions on North Korea.

MARTIN: How's that informing how they think about this summit that's supposed to happen next week?

SCHMITZ: Well, everyone I spoke to in Dandong is watching this very closely. For folks who depend on Chinese exports to North Korea, a good summit might mean a lifting of sanctions. And that would mean a return to the town's status of a big trading hub. But the people who were the most excited, Rachel, were real estate agents.


MARTIN: How come?

SCHMITZ: So soon after Kim Jong Un, you might remember, had this historic meeting with the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, in April, real estate prices here in Dandong soared by up to 50 percent in less than a month.

MARTIN: Really?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. And I spoke to one real estate agent Bob Li about this. And here's what he said.

BOB LI: (Through interpreter) I've never seen anything like this in Dandong. We'd have several buyers coming in from all over China buying up apartments. To them, the homes were very cheap, so they would buy as many as possible.

SCHMITZ: And Rachel, it got so crazy here that the local government in Dandong had to step in with new rules that require larger down payments from outsiders and forbids them from selling these homes within five years. So basically, they can't flip them. Mr. Li told me that these new laws seemed to have stabilized the real estate market here. But there's no question that people here in this border city with North Korea are crossing their fingers for a successful summit next week between President Trump and Kim Jong Un.

MARTIN: All right. Thanks so much, Rob.

NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us live from the border of China and North Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.