SHENYANG (NYTIMES) – There are plenty of reasons that business has been lousy recently at Ms Steven Wen’s clothing store in Shenyang, the largest city in northeastern China.
Local officials locked down the city for one month this spring after detecting just a few dozen coronavirus cases among its 9 million people. Residents have guarded their spending closely since the lockdown was lifted. And in a region often referred to as China’s Rust Belt, the local economy had already been shaky for years.
Possibly the main problem, though, is that Ms Wen’s primary customer base has virtually evaporated.
“With North Korea closed because of the virus, they can’t come or go at all,” she said from behind the counter of her store in Shenyang’s Koreatown, where signs advertising steep discounts on imported South Korean styles had done little to draw in shoppers. “Before, we’d have maybe dozens of North Korean customers every day. Now you don’t even get 10.”
China’s continuing strict coronavirus controls have battered local economies across the country. But Shenyang has endured a double blow. Just 150 miles from the North Korean border, it is suffering not only from the restrictions in China but also from those imposed by the even more isolated country next door.
Before the pandemic, Shenyang was a rare bridge between North Korea and the outside world.
It was a top destination for the select number of North Koreans allowed to work abroad, who would then remit home the money they earned in factories or restaurants to bolster the country’s foreign currency reserves.
It was also a launching pad for foreign tourists, mainly Chinese, seeking to visit North Korea. Multiple flights each week connected Shenyang to Pyongyang, North Korea, or travellers could take a one-hour high-speed train to the Chinese border city of Dandong, then enter North Korea by bridge.
The city’s Koreatown is home to the Pyongyang Restaurant, a multistory venue featuring a giant image of the skyline of the city for which it is named. Alongside smoky Korean barbecue joints and street stalls pungent with fresh kimchi, shops advertise red ginseng, a North Korean specialty, and traditional medicines labelled “Made in DPR Korea”. Not far away is the Chilbosan Hotel, founded as a joint venture between Chinese and North Korean companies.
There are not exact figures for the number of North Koreans in Shenyang, but North Koreans made 165,200 visits to China in 2018, the last year for which China published statistics.
Many of those visits, and many North Koreans residing longer term in China, were concentrated in the city’s northeast, including Shenyang and Dandong, in a region also home to a sizeable population of ethnically Korean Chinese.
Those close ties brought risks even before the pandemic.
When the United Nations imposed sweeping sanctions on North Korea in 2017, China, by far the country’s largest trading partner, said it would shut down North Korean joint ventures and companies and would send North Korean workers home. Still, many North Koreans remained in China on short-term visas that allowed them to skirt the restrictions, according to analysts and foreign governments. Chinese tourism to North Korea actually grew after the sanctions.