From a Chinese border town, measuring the impact of sanctions against North Korea

Customers select seafood at a wet market in Dandong, Liaoning province, China, August 8, 2017. REUTERS/Philip Wen

In April, when Reuters reporter Philip Wen last visited a Chinese border town across the Yalu river from North Korea, its Yicuomao port was bustling.

Fishing vessel after fishing vessel returned to the docks of Dandong loaded with puffer fish and mackerel after making a 16-hour trip from China to North Korean waters and back.

Months later, on Aug. 5, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution banning North Korean exports of coal, iron ore, lead and seafood in an effort to curb the country’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Journalists and economists around the world rushed to quantify the impact the sanctions would have on North Korea amid heightened global tensions.

Wen knew from his experience as a reporter in China for the past five years that Dandong (population 866,000), through which about three-quarters of China’s trade with North Korea flows, was an ideal place to assess the effect of the sanctions on North Korea’s seafood industry.

The rigorous, ground-level reporting that Wen practices is a crucial aspect of how Reuters supplies impartial and reliable news to its global audience.

“The Chinese border towns offer the closest view you can get of North Korea if you can’t get into the country itself,” Wen says. “This is the perfect first point of reference to view the impact of sanctions.”

While North Korea’s seafood industry had been on track to earn an estimated $295 million in exports this year, Wen found a much more subdued scene as Chinese authorities began to enforce their ban on North Korean seafood. Dock workers sat on ramps along the river bank, checking their phones. Groups of men gathered inside a convenience store to shield themselves from the heat and sun, smoking cigarettes and playing cards. “They were waiting for boats that never turned up,” Wen says.

Unaffected by the sanctions is cross-border trade between China and North Korea from tourism and consumer goods. Wen observed long lines of Chinese trucks filled with clothes and food queuing on Dandong’s Friendship Bridge, which connects with the North Korean town of Sinuiju across the Yalu.

Consistent with the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles’ commitment to accuracy, Wen takes pictures of what he sees in Dandong — from stockpiles of North Korean lead ore at a storage facility awaiting Chinese buyers to an empty Chinese customs center along the riverbank. He plans to return to Dandong regularly — interviewing locals and building on his photographic record.