As a small Chinese city on the Yalu River, Ji’an (集安) is an often-overlooked juncture for Chinese-North Korean movement of supplies and people. It was the main conduit for the Chinese troops into the DPRK during the initial stages of Mao’s intervention in the Korean War. It is the site of ancient tombs of the Koguryo kingdom, which makes it an important site for ancient Korean and northeast Asian history. Today, it provides an important but (compared to Dandong and Tumen) one of the least-watched apertures between the two countries.
On 8 April 2019, Chinese state media published the news of a new customs house opening on Ji’an’s border crossing to the North Korean city of Manp’o (만포시 / 滿浦市). I was quoted in an NK News piece which states that much of the relevant infrastructure had been agreed upon in 2012 (the era of Jang Song-taek) and not started in earnest until 2016.
Some additional signals of further developments for cross-border trade have been evident since 2017.
The US Department of Treasury has clearly been keeping a careful eye on North Korean business activities in the city of Ji’an, including details in a new cluster of sanctions in early 2018.
In November 2018, a vice-chair of Jilin province visited the site, a visit, presumably, after which it could have been opened at any time:
The growth of cross-provincial trade structures is an outgrowth both of longer-term planning by both sides but also the more recent breaking of the dialogue logjam between Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping. Provincial cadre in Jagang and Jilin need to be able to have regular conversations and create something resembling a normal pattern of exchanges. Tourists are of course the easiest part of the equation, since itineraries are easily cancelled or held back by either side, but if Manp’o could get a boost by connecting further inland beyond Ji’an (which is really quite a small city) and to Tonghua, which is the real center of gravity in terms of population and industrial production in that part of Jilin, it could have positive effects.
Finally, the question of sanctions enforcement will inevitably come up. The Chinese press release takes pains to note all the many technological methods available to customs officials for screening trucks coming in from North Korea. But bridges and customs houses are far from the only channels for illegal cross-border trade, and Ji’an public security bureau officials are also being pushed to reduce the import of narcotics from North Korea.