When a green-and-yellow train carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong Un rolled slowly over a bridge into the Chinese city of Dandong late Saturday, few locals took notice.

“I didn’t really know much about it,” a 79-year-old retired farmer who gave only his surname, Shi, said Sunday, pausing during a walk along the river Kim crossed on his way to Vietnam to meet President Donald Trump for their second summit.

Over the past few decades, North Korea has receded into irrelevance as the contrast with China has grown starker and starker. Many Chinese now regard North Korea as a curious relic of the past, and Dandong does a roaring trade in tourism centered on China’s neighbor across the water.

In this Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, photo, a train similar to ones seen during previous visits to China by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un leaves Dandong Station in northeastern China's Liaoning Province. (Madoka Ikegami/Kyodo News via AP)
In this Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, photo, a train similar to ones seen during previous visits to China by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un leaves Dandong Station in northeastern China’s Liaoning Province. (Madoka Ikegami/Kyodo News via AP)

Street vendors hawk binoculars, boat tours and booklets of North Korean currency during the day, while digital billboards light towering apartments at night. Sinuiju, less than a kilometer (half a mile) away across the Yalu River, lays silent, with few signs of activity among its motionless cranes, marooned ships and squat, unlit apartments.

But some in this border city of over 2 million expect that if North Korea opens up, they will be among the first to benefit.

“Dandong is the biggest border city in China,” said Liu Yujun, a former trader from Dandong who says real estate prices have been going up in anticipation of detente on the Korean Peninsula. “Their economy could pull Dandong up along with it. If they open up, then we can invest a lot into their economy.”

China’s economy is facing its worst slowdown since the global financial crisis amid a bruising trade war with the U.S. Strict U.N. sanctions on North Korea have hit Dandong’s traders and shippers hard in the past few years, with some cutting employees or pivoting toward other businesses, a former freight company executive told The Associated Press.

But the sudden thaw in tensions on the Korean Peninsula over the past year has raised anticipation that tough sanctions against North Korea may soon be eased. Investors rushed in to snap up apartments, prompting Dandong’s government to enact new regulations on real estate last May. On the North Korean side of the river, a tall, round concrete building is under construction — a rare sign of development.

Shi believes if North Korea follows China’s lead by reforming its economy and opening up to trade, it could boom. He thinks the reason why North Korea struggled while China surged ahead was because of Pyongyang’s overemphasis on military spending.

“They put so much effort into missiles and nuclear weapons research,” Shi said. “If they didn’t focus on this research so much, they might not be so backward.”

In his upcoming meeting with Trump in Hanoi on Wednesday and Thursday, experts say Kim will seek a U.S. commitment for improved bilateral relations and partial sanctions relief while trying to minimize any concessions on his nuclear facilities and weapons.

While Kim wants to leverage his nuclear and missile program for economic and security benefits, there continue to be doubts on whether he’s ready to fully deal away an arsenal that he may see as his strongest guarantee of survival.

But Xiao Yue, a food seller in Dandong, doesn’t care too much about the politicking that will take place in Vietnam. She simply wishes that one day, she’ll be able to mingle freely with North Koreans.

“It’d help us communicate, culturally and on other levels,” Xiao said. “I just hope they can come over here and have some fun.”

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