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TheStreet Open House

North Korea Nuke Test Could Test China's Patience

Yet area residents say they've seen no progress since then, while work on a towering bridge nearby, intended to supplement the rickety old one in Dandong, has slowed to a snail's pace. Dandong's city government has moved offices to the area, but the thickets of surrounding high-rise buildings remain unfinished and empty.

While Kim has made improving the economy a hallmark of his nascent rule, many analysts doubt that he will go too far with reforms for fear that change could lead to a loss of control, in turn threatening his authoritarian rule.

"There's nothing going on around here. North Korea is fine with taking Chinese aid and doing some trade, but its economy doesn't seem to be changing at all," said a Dandong businessman who trades with North Korea AND asked to be identified only by his surname, Qu.

That leaves the new fence as the dominant feature along the border. Topped with rolls of barbed wire, it doubles up in places to form both an inner and an outer perimeter, with a strip of concrete in between for guards to patrol along.

The intimidating barrier seeks to block the flow of illegal border crossers, typically those seeking food and work in China or an escape route to South Korea. It also symbolizes China's fears of instability in North Korea, a steel barrier to contain the chaos.

China is widely credited with keeping its neighbor afloat, providing an estimated half million tons of oil to North Korea a year, along with copious amounts of food aid. Officially tolerated smuggling buttresses the formal trade between them, while North Korea earns much-needed hard currency from thousands of North Koreans who work in northeast China and a similar number of Chinese tourists and advisers visiting the other side. Chinese companies are also investing in North Korea's mines, although many complain of corruption and a lack of respect for contracts.

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