China appears to be stepping up its effort to build a concrete and barbed wire fence along the North Korean border. Although the project has been underway since 2003, progress appears to be accelerating in the wake of Kim's reported nuclear test. Whether the fence is meant to stop North Korean refugees, cross-border smuggling or simply meant to mark the border is not clear.
Scores of soldiers have descended on farmland near the border-marking Yalu River to erect concrete barriers 8 to 15 feet tall and string barbed wire between them, farmers and visitors to the area said.
Last week, they reached Hushan, a collection of villages 12 miles inland from the border port of Dandong.
"About 100 People's Liberation Army soldiers in camouflage started building the fence four days ago and finished it yesterday," said a farmer, who only gave his surname, Ai. "I assume it was built to prevent smuggling and illegal crossing."
Though the fence-building appears to have picked up in the days following North Korea's claimed nuclear test last week, experts said the project was approved in 2003. Experts and a local Hushan official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the project, said the military was in charge of the building.
A Defense Ministry spokesman, Ye Xing, declined comment, saying he was not authorized to release information on border security.
The fence marks a noticeable change in China's approach to North Korea. In the decades following their shared fight against U.S.-led U.N. forces in the Korean War, China left their border lightly guarded, deploying most of its forces in the northeast toward its enemy, the Soviet Union.
But the border became a security concern for Beijing in the past decade, as North Korea's economy collapsed and social order crumbled in some places. Tens of thousands of refugees began trickling across the border into northeast China, fording the Yalu and Tumen rivers or walking across the ice in winter.
I think this is a sign that Kim burned a lot of goodwill with China by testing the nuke. Whether that is enough to do permanent damage remains to be seen. China appears to want to keep North Korea and Kim's regime alive for the moment, but it cannot be entirely comfortable with an unpredictable madman running things just across an easily transited border.