by Nigel Callinan
The Yalu River marks the border between northwest North Korea and the Chinese provinces of Liaoning and Jilin, meandering across the landscape and shifting in width. In some places, it’s no larger than ten metres; in others, it’s over 400. Islands dot its length, with ownership given to whichever side of the river they’re closest to. One unusual case, though, is Ojok Island, a 40 minute drive north of Dandong.
Ojok is North Korean, but it’s only a few metres from the Chinese shoreline – so close, that the narrowest point is known as “One Step Crossing”. The island is overlooked by Hushan (“Tiger”) Mountain, a steep-sided 146m hill that carries a restored section of the Great Wall. The first remains of this section of the Great Wall were discovered in 1989, and they were renovated and opened to the public in 1992. From the top of the hill, it’s possible to see deep into the flat landscape on the North Korean side of the river.
The security is quite minimal at Ojok, especially on the Chinese side (to the surprise of many visitors). There are no cameras, and only single lines of barbed wire with tempting gaps at the bottom that could easily be crawled under. There is a large Chinese military barracks nearby, but most of the time the patrol near the One Step Crossing consists of no more than two young, bored Chinese guards. There are lots of soldiers on the North Korean shoreline, but very few on the island itself.
On Ojok there is a small agricultural collective that is almost entirely dedicated to growing corn, with (at a rough guess) between 300 to 500 people living there. As with most of North Korea, the majority of ploughing is done by hand or with cows. Each group of farm workers is closely watched by one of two armed North Korean soldiers. On the Northern Side of the island there are the usual signs for “motivating” workers, alongside some newly-painted ones praising Kim Jong-Un.
For only about $15, you can hop in a Chinese tourist boat to zip around between Ojok Island and the North Korean shoreline. It’s the deepest point into North Korean territory that tourists can visit without having to go through border controls, because the entire span of the Yalu river is considered to be neutral territory regardless of who owns each island.
The Chinese have taken advantage of this by setting up a lucrative tourist business mostly aimed at domestic visitors. As per anywhere else in North Korea, though, the usual tourist rules apply so, no photos are allowed of any military installations or people. A good tip is to make sure you sit directly behind the boat driver — he’ll usually be too busy driving the boat to notice exactly what you’re photographing. That won’t stop the North Koreans getting pissed off, though, of course.