Hurt in past by false dawns, Chinese businessman is wary of bets on North Korea opening up

Wang Chenglin, who runs a construction machinery distributor, poses for a picture at his office in Dandong, China June 11, 2018. Picture: REUTERS/Brenda Goh

DANDONG, China – Property speculators in China may be betting that Tuesday’s US-North Korea summit is poised to unlock riches across the border but Chinese construction machinery dealer Wang Chenglin is far from convinced.

Like many business owners in Dandong, through which most of North Korea’s trade flows, Wang’s hopes have been dashed before.

In particular, he remembers supplying three excavators for the construction of the New Yalu River Bridge, a project that was meant to represent a new era of economic ties but was abandoned after Pyongyang reversed a decision to engage with China.

Wang also tells of tough bargaining with North Korean buyers: they sought discounts of as much as 20 percent, and sometimes put up a deposit and then vanished.

Before United Nations sanctions on the North last August halted his cross-border trade entirely, Wang said he was selling between five and 10 machines a year to North Korean buyers, accounting for roughly 20 percent of his business. He has run his company, Dandong Shuoyu Machinery, for over a decade.

North Koreans have started turning up again to look at his machinery since the nation’s leader Kim Jong Un visited China in March on his first trip abroad since assuming power.

That is just one of a number of recent signs that cross-border business may be about to pick up. Investors have also been snapping up real estate in this city, which is opposite the Yalu River from North Korea.

Yet Wang preaches caution about hopes that the North could open its economy after decades of isolation.

“We’ve experienced many flip-flops … and I don’t entirely believe him,” he said of Kim’s apparent willingness to end North Korea’s isolation by doing a deal with the United States.

Kim is set to meet U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore on Tuesday at a historic summit to discuss dismantling of the North’s nuclear weapons program.

Still, if the summit leads to economic opening, Wang said he would look to bring in additional cheaper models that would appeal to North Korean buyers. In that case, he also expected competition from the likes of South Korean and American firms.

“Thankfully China’s market is big enough,” he said.

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