Bridge to nowhere shows China's failed efforts to engage N.Korea

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DANDONG, China, Sept 11 (Reuters) - Towering above the murky waters, the New Yalu River Bridge was supposed to symbolize a new era in relations between China and North Korea, helping bring investment to landmark free trade zones jointly run with the impoverished and isolated state.

Costing 2.2 billion yuan ($330 million) and partially completed last year, the dual-carriageway bridge today sits abandoned, the impressive border post on the Chinese side deserted and locked, not a soul to be seen.

On the North Korean side the unfinished bridge ends abruptly in a field, with little sign of infrastructure work happening.

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Launched with great fanfare at a five-star Beijing hotel in 2012, the free trade zones close to the Chinese border city of Dandong were meant to be part of China's efforts to coax its erstwhile diplomatic ally into cautious, export-oriented economic reforms, rather than saber rattling and nuclear tests.

China's anger at North Korea for carrying out its fifth and biggest nuclear test last week means the bridge looks unlikely to open any time soon, especially as Pyongyang is already under wide-ranging UN sanctions China has promised to uphold.

The lonely streets of the Dandong New Zone stand testimony to the failure of those engagement efforts. Apartment complexes with fancy names like "Singapore City" lie bare or half-finished, and shopping malls empty or at very low capacity.

See the unfinished bridge from China's side:

7 PHOTOS
China's 'bridge to nowhere' to North Korea
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China's 'bridge to nowhere' to North Korea
A general view shows the unfinished New Yalu River bridge that was designed to connect China's Dandong New Zone, Liaoning province, and North Korea's Sinuiju, September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
A general view shows North Korean end of the unfinished New Yalu River bridge that was designed to connect China's Dandong New Zone, Liaoning province, and North Korea's Sinuiju, September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
An empty street runs in front of the unfinished New Yalu River bridge (L) and the empty Chinese customs building in Dandong, Liaoning province, China, September 11, 2016. The bridge was designed connect China's Dandong New Zone and North Korea's Sinuiju. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
A general view shows the unfinished New Yalu River bridge that was designed to connect China's Dandong New Zone, Liaoning province, and North Korea's Sinuiju, September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Peter TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
This Sept. 2, 2014 photo shows a new bridge connecting North Korea and China, seen from the North Korean side of the Yalu River border, where it touches down in rice fields in Sinuiju. The bridge was supposed to be a key link for trade and travel between Chinaâs underdeveloped northeast provinces and a much-touted special economic zone in North Korea - so key that Beijing sank more than 350 million dollars into the mammoth, 3-kilometer-long structure that was slated to open late last month. Now, it is beginning to look like Beijing has built a bridge to nowhere. (AP Photo)
This Sept. 2, 2014 photo shows a new bridge connecting North Korea and China ends in this ramp down to rice fields in Sinuiju, on the North Korean side of the Yalu River border between the two countries. The bridge was supposed to be a key link for trade and travel between Chinaâs underdeveloped northeast provinces and a much-touted special economic zone in North Korea - so key that Beijing sank more than 350 million dollars into the mammoth, 3-kilometer-long structure that was slated to open late last month. Now, it is beginning to look like Beijing has built a bridge to nowhere. (AP Photo)
This Sept. 2, 2014 photo shows a new bridge connecting North Korea and China, seen from the North Korean side of the Yalu River border, where it touches down in rice fields in Sinuiju, North Korea. The bridge was supposed to be a key link for trade and travel between Chinaâs underdeveloped northeast provinces and a much-touted special economic zone in North Korea - so key that Beijing sank more than 350 million dollars into the mammoth, 3-kilometer-long structure that was slated to open late last month. Now, it is beginning to look like Beijing has built a bridge to nowhere. (AP Photo)
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At the Guomen Wanjia Home & Life Square Mall, Sun Lixia sits waiting for customers at a lighting store.

"North Korea hasn't opened their end of the bridge and we can't really do anything about it. It's been bad for the local economy here. Who knows when they'll open it?" Sun said.

"Apartments haven't been selling quickly, a lot of people aren't willing to move here," she added. "There isn't even a proper hospital here, it's only been half completed."

It's far cry from what one Dandong official told state media in 2012: that the development would resemble Causeway Bay, one of Hong Kong's busiest commercial areas, and the bridge handle 50,000 people and 20,000 vehicles a day to North Korea.

Related: See inside the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea:

16 PHOTOS
Koreas tension, Kaesong North Korea and Demilitarized Zone
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Koreas tension, Kaesong North Korea and Demilitarized Zone
A North Korean woman cycles with her child riding in a basket on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Kaesong, North Korea. In response to the North's recent long-range rocket launch, Seoul shut down a factory park in Kaesong jointly run by both Koreas and this has cost the impoverished North a rare source of legitimate hard currency. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
North Korean children rest at the side of a road on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Kaesong, North Korea. In response to the North's recent long-range rocket launch, Seoul shut down a factory park in Kaesong jointly run by both Koreas and this has cost the impoverished North a rare source of legitimate hard currency. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
North Korean soldiers guard the truce village of Panmunjom at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which separates the two Koreas on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Panmunjom, North Korea. Though the world's most fortified border can often seem like a tourist trap, drawing throngs of camera-happy visitors on both sides every year, to the military-trained eye the Cold War style standoff along the DMZ is an incident waiting to happen. And with tensions between Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington, this is one of those times when that's more true than ever. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
The South Korean building is seen in the background as North Korean soldiers guard the truce village of Panmunjom at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which separates the two Koreas, on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Panmunjom, North Korea. Though the world's most fortified border can often seem like a tourist trap, drawing throngs of camera-happy visitors on both sides every year, to the military-trained eye the Cold War style standoff along the DMZ is an incident waiting to happen. And with tensions between Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington, this is one of those times when that's more true than ever. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
North Korean children play at the side of a road on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Kaesong, North Korea. In response to the North's recent long-range rocket launch, Seoul shut down a factory park in Kaesong jointly run by both Koreas and this has cost the impoverished North a rare source of legitimate hard currency. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
North Korean People's Army Lt. Col. Nam Dong Ho is silhouetted against the truce village of Panmunjom at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which separates the two Koreas on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Panmunjom, North Korea. Nam Dong Ho told The Associated Press that tensions have increased significantly along the Demilitarized Zone since North Korea conducted its nuclear test and rocket launch. He said he could not comment on operational details, but added: "The reality is that it is touch and go." (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
North Korean People's Army Lt. Col. Nam Dong Ho points to a map showing the line which separates the two Koreas in Panmunjom at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Panmunjom, North Korea. Nam Dong Ho told The Associated Press that tensions have increased significantly along the Demilitarized Zone since North Korea conducted its nuclear test and rocket launch. He said he could not comment on operational details, but added: "The reality is that it is touch and go." (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
North Korean People's Army Lt. Col. Nam Dong Ho speaks during an interview in Panmunjom at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which separates the two Koreas on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Panmunjom, North Korea. Nam Dong Ho told the Associated Press that tensions have increased significantly along the Demilitarized Zone since North Korea conducted its nuclear test and rocket launch. He said he could not comment on operational details, but added: "The reality is that it is touch and go." (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
North Korean soldiers guard the truce village of Panmunjom at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which separates the two Koreas on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Panmunjom, North Korea. Though the world's most fortified border can often seem like a tourist trap, drawing throngs of camera-happy visitors on both sides every year, to the military-trained eye the Cold War style standoff along the DMZ is an incident waiting to happen. And with tensions between Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington, this is one of those times when that's more true than ever. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Solar panels hang from windows of an apartment building on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Kaesong, North Korea. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
North Korean push their bicycles along a road on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Kaesong, North Korea. In response to the North's recent long-range rocket launch, Seoul shut down a factory park in Kaesong jointly run by both Koreas and this has cost the impoverished North a rare source of legitimate hard currency. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
North Korean children play near apartment buildings on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Kaesong, North Korea. In response to the North's recent long-range rocket launch, Seoul shut down a factory park in Kaesong jointly run by both Koreas and this has cost the impoverished North a rare source of legitimate hard currency. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
North Koreans ride their bicycles on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Kaesong, North Korea. In response to the North's recent long-range rocket launch, Seoul shut down a factory park in Kaesong jointly run by both Koreas and this has cost the impoverished North a rare source of legitimate hard currency. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
North Koreans walk near residential apartments on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Kaesong, North Korea. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
A girl crosses a street while other cycle along a pathway on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Kaesong, North Korea. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
North Korean men wait along the street with their bicycles on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Kaesong, North Korea. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
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"ABUNDANT RESOURCES"

The Hwanggumphyong and Wihwa Islands economic zones, along with one at the other end of the border at Rason, had high level support. Late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il inked an agreement for them during a trip to China in 2010.

The Rason zone has been more successful, though, with much more development, including a Chinese-built road into town and a new bridge being built at its border crossing.

Kim's son, the youthful current leader Kim Jong Un, has yet to visit China, and seems unlikely to be invited any time soon as he pursues an accelerated nuclear weapons and missile testing program to the increasing alarm of the outside world.

A glossy promotional booklet from 2012 shows an artist's rendering of gleaming tower blocks in Hwanggumphyong and wide, tree-line avenues.

"North Korea has not only abundant, high-quality human resources, but also rich capital resources and enormous land to develop," the bilingual Chinese-English booklet reads, promising legal protection for investors and tax breaks.

When Reuters visited this week, only farmland and barbed wire fencing could be seen from the Chinese side.

"The government was counting on trade between China and North Korea to drive economic growth here but that hasn't happened," said a security guard who gave his family name as Liu, standing in front of an office building on the optimistically named Commercial Street.

"To be honest, the main reason the new zone hasn't developed is because the bridge isn't open," Liu added.

WAR TIES

The new link is meant to supplement Dandong's old "Friendship Bridge," with its lone lane for both vehicles and people running parallel to a single-line railway track.

About three-quarters of bilateral trade flows through the city, and statistics show how limited that still is.

China's trade with the North is dwarfed by that with capitalist South Korea, which was worth 908 billion yuan ($136 billion) between January and July, compared to just 17.7 billion yuan between China and North Korea.

Dandong's emotional ties with North Korea run deep, thanks to its front line position during the 1950-53 Korean War when China and North Korea fought against a U.S.-led UN coalition.

Shops are packed with often low quality-looking North Korean goods, including ginseng and spirits infused with snakes and medicinal herbs, and North Korean waitresses sing patriotic songs at government-run restaurants for curious tourists.

Those relations have been severely strained by North Korea's nuclear and missile tests and periodic shootings and murders blamed on North Korean residents and security forces.

"I don't like North Korea. The police on the other side used to shoot farmers who'd go over to sell potatoes, corn, things like that, in the winter," said Dandong farmer Zhao Guangfu, 70.

Jin Qiangyi, Director of Yanbian University's Centre for North and South Korea Studies, said China found itself in a "distressing" position on what to do with North Korea.

"We have a choice about whether we can push them to reform and open up, to get them to change," Jin said. "Of course political and military sanctions need to be stepped up, but civilian opening up and exchanges must be strengthened too."

Shutting the door won't work, Jin added.

"Can it really change that way?"

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