In March 2010 Daniel Kane made a three day excursion to Dandong, China (pop. 2.5 million). Dandong sits along the Yalu River and just across from the North Korean city of Sinuiju (pop. 360,000), to which it is connected by bridge. Dandong is the largest city along the Chinese-North Korean border and a major center of Chinese-North Korean-South Korean interaction.
Day One: Peeping on North Korea
Three times a week the Oriental Pearl departs the South Korean port of Incheon on its 16 hour journey to the Chinese city of Dandong, which sits just across the Yalu (or Amnok) River from the North Korean city of Sinuiju. Actually, the Oriental Pearl makes landfall about 40 kilometers south of Dandong near the coastal city of Donggang from where you must make your way inland to Dandong. The final hour of the overnight boat journey provided me my first glimpse of North Korea: the island of Sindo, whose high and naked bluffs stand guard over the Yalu River’s outlet to the Yellow Sea. The port of Donggang seemed busy enough, considering the vessels that occupied nearly every berth along its modern wharf. At one point, just before slipping into its own berth, the Oriental Pearl passed a North Korean cargo vessel, the Songji, identifiable by the prominent North Korean flag painted near its bridge. But in the half-light of dawn the port was quiet and the ships, seemingly crewless, undulated peacefully in a morning rain.
Considering the weather, a negotiated taxi ride seemed a wiser choice than searching out the rumored bus facilities. Most of my fellow passengers had their own transportation arranged. They were either returning residents – mostly Chinese traders like the portly one I’d met over dinner – South Korean traders, or part of a South Korean tour group, distinguishable by their matching vests and general air of anticipation, and of course their cameras. As a result, I had my choice of about a dozen taxi drivers all equally adamant to be my ride into Dandong. For a reasonable 80 yuan (about $12) I was on my way.
Despite the somewhat hazardous conditions and less than ideal roads, my taxi driver was determined to make the 40 kilometers to Dandong in half as many minutes. This in no way prevented him from also trying to carry on a conversation in a mixture of pidgin and sign language all while transferring his smoking cigarette back and forth between hand and mouth. After ten minutes he flicked his glowing butt out the window and then pointed to an expanse of dusty field enclosed behind a barricade of barbed wire strung between crucifix shaped concrete posts.
“Chaoxian.” North Korea.
I’d noticed the barrier but hadn’t fathomed it marked the actual border, which I’d always understood to be the Yalu River in these parts. In fact, the territory of North Korea includes several islands – some quite large – that bestride the Yalu, and some of which butt up so close to the Chinese side that the only thing making them “islands” at all is the shallowest of streams. In at least one place North Korean territory makes a toehold on the Chinese side of the Yalu.
We followed the barren expanse of North Korean territory on our right for several kilometers, the only sign of life a far off village of single story huts. By contrast, the Chinese side on our left seemed to be experiencing a building boom, with numerous apartment blocks and housing developments sprouting up from the mud. The pace of construction increased as we approached the southern limits of Dandong city, where the road also improved and expanded to a multilane thoroughfare moving pleasantly along the banks of the Yalu River, whose muddy expanse now dominated the view on the right.
The Zhonglian Hotel sits smack in the heart of things, facing the two bridges (one and a half to be exact) that link or used to link China with North Korea, and offering a front row seat on North Korea across the Yalu. Arriving in my eleventh floor room it became clear that the main attraction of Dandong for foreign tourists was the gawking factor of a failing state. The most prominent piece of furniture in the room is the telescope placed before the window allowing the guest to become a literal “North Korea watcher.”
Unfortunately, on this day there was not much to see of North Korea. The snow was falling heavy and thick – large white flakes sparkling against a backdrop of grey. Of the North Korean city of Sinuiju practically all that could be discerned were the shadows of buildings and two large smokeless smokestacks.
A walk around bustling downtown Dandong revealed a plethora of Sino-Korean establishments – restaurants, small groceries and appliance stores, wholesalers, even Korean saunas. One major business in Dandong is the sale of Korean kitsch. This falls into two general categories: “traditional” Korean cultural souvenirs and items ostensibly from North Korea. One can assume most of the North Korean items are in fact Chinese rip-offs. One pack of Chollima (“Thousand Li Horse”) cigarettes had Hangeul on one side and English on the verso. Chollima had become “Rapid Thoroughbred”, along with the claim that it is made from the “finest virginia [sic] tobacco”! I found this supremely ironic. North Korea has long been known to produce bogus Marlboro cigarettes for sale abroad as a way to earn foreign currency. This means that if you want genuine North Korean cigarettes in these parts you might be better off trying your luck with Marlboros, because the “North Korean” brands are all Chinese counterfeits. Also popular are the Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il badges as well as North Korean currency. But these too are certainly Chinese imitations. Counterfeit or not, their sale is a bone of contention between China and North Korea, or more accurately, between economic and political forces in the region. North Korean authorities are apparently deeply offended by the vulgar sale of such images and even Chinese officials are concerned lest it cause an international incident by offended North Korean visitors. An attempt in 2007 to crackdown on the sale of both the Kim badges and the currency has apparently foundered, perhaps a reflection of the more ambivalent relationship between North Korea and China in recent years, and of the abiding triumph of profit over politics.
My first day ended at the Arirang Restaurant along the river front, which I read was known for its dog stew, usually called boshintang (“preserve the health stew”) by South Koreans but simply dangogitang (“sweet meat stew” for the supposedly sweet taste of dog meat) by North Koreans. Healthy and sweet it may be but it’s not for me. Besides, I’d heard that was a dish for the hottest days of summer. I opt for the far simpler bibimbap served in stoneware bowl. The restaurant’s small staff is all but indifferent to the site of a westerner. They’re engrossed in a South Korean drama on the television.
Day Two: Korea and Koreans in Dandong
The view from my room high in the Zhonglian Hotel made me almost loath to descend and face the cacophony of traffic and the cajoling of street vendors below. But my first morning in Dandong had dawned clear and sunny and I decided I must take the walk along the Yalu’s banks and across the Broken Bridge partially spanning the Yalu to within a hundred yards of the North Korean shore.
In Dandong there are two main bridges over the Yalu, the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge built by the Japanese in the 1930s and the adjacent so-called “Broken Bridge”, also built by the Japanese in 1911 as the first steel bridge over the river. The Broken Bridge was somewhat of an engineering marvel of its day in that it was a steel swing bridge, one section of it able to pivot on a giant hinge to allow large boats to pass. Since its partial survival (the eastern half of it was destroyed, thus “broken”) of an American bombing campaign during the Korean War it has become somewhat of an icon in Dandong. I decided to pay the twenty yuan ($3) to walk its length out to a small observation platform near the old swinging mechanism. Not surprisingly, once there I was greeted by a Chinese woman hawker, bundled up in several layers of clothing against the stiff wind blowing off the Yalu. I politely refused her Kim badges but did agree to pay the 10 yuan to use her telescope to get yet another glimpse of North Korea. The only human activity to be seen in the hazy Sinuiju morning was a group of soldiers lined up in a chain formation on the riverbank fetching buckets of water out of the river while near them a man in a small dinghy cast his fishing net. Further in shore I spotted Sinuiju’s signature monument, the Ferris wheel that doesn’t move. A propaganda slogan festooned in large red letters across a building front is large enough for me to read: “Let us Live in Our Own Way!”
North Koreans are everywhere and nowhere in Dandong. The most obvious place to find them is in the North Korean government sponsored (i.e. owned) restaurants. Dandong is awash in Korean restaurants, but discerning the merely ethnic Korean establishments from the “North Korean” ones is a fairly easy task. The first giveaway is the name. The use of “Hanguk” or even “Han” likely denotes a South Korean origin, while “Choson” likely denotes a North Korean or Chinese-Korean establishment. Another sure giveaway, if you time your visit during the evening hours, is the choice of songs being sung on the karaoke machine. But to be certain you’re at an official North Korean restaurant you need just look for the DPRK (North Korean) flag displayed prominently over the entrance. These North Korean establishments bring in much needed hard currency to the North Korean state. How exactly they operate and who decides on the staff, and based upon what criteria, is not clear, but it’s presumed they’re run by the highly secretive Office 39 (in charge of foreign currency operations) of the North Korean Worker’s Party. I had some misgivings about eating in one. My meal would ostensibly be helping bankroll the North Korean regime. But my curiosity was not to be denied.
In a shadowy corner down the road from the Zhonglian Hotel sits the “Pyongyang Koryo Restaurant.” The flag above the door (not to mention the giant image of the Kimsongilia – the national flower of North Korea) make it clear this is a North Korean business. Though barely eleven o’clock, I decided to walk in for an early lunch after my stroll along the riverfront.
The restaurant’s uniformed hostesses displayed a confident, almost arrogant, poise and spoke with polished English in a charmingly perfunctory manner (“Please take your seat.” “Here is today’s menu, sir.”). But their conviviality had its limits. Apologizing they had no English menu, and seeing I could read the Korean one, they became curious as to where I’d learned Korean. When I told them in South Korea (“South Choson”, that is), they nodded gravely and grew silent. Neither were they at all amenable to the idea of me taking a photograph. To this I acquiesced, except for a surreptitious shot of my meal –maeuntang and plate of broiled beef sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Not long after beginning my meal groups of Chinese, North Koreans, or Chinese-Koreans began trickling in. Almost as if expected they were led off to small dining alcoves along the sides of the main dining room. Curtains closed after them. A few, emerging from behind the curtain to use the restroom or talk briefly to the woman behind the bar, threw me curious stares – neither hostile nor friendly. It is only when leaving that I noticed one of the dining area’s karaoke machines had been turned on. I lingered long enough to hear what song would be sung. Despite being a North Korean establishment, I was still surprised to hear the pretty waitress launch into a rendition of “Memories of Barracks Life.”
A must see in Dandong is the city’s museum dedicated to the Korean War – the “Memorial Hall of the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea”, located on a high bluff in the western part of the city. By happy coincidence, on the day I visited admission was inexplicably free. At least I wouldn’t be paying for the insult. I was surprised to find the museum’s extensive displays carry not only Chinese but quite fluent English descriptions – though not a word of Korean! The museum is primarily a memorial hall to the Chinese People’s Volunteers who fought in Korea – and a giant bronze statue of Mao Zedong and Peng Dehuai (who led the Volunteers) fills the museum’s entry hall. It is secondly a museum meant to display China’s resistance to what it saw as American imperialism in Korea, and only thirdly an homage to Chinese-North Korean friendship.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese view of the conflict as presented in the museum is ideologically driven and plays fast and loose with the facts. It doesn’t go so far as to blame the United States for the war, but does accuse it of “imperialist intervention” in what China considers a Korean civil war. In any case, it provides an interesting window into how China officially views the Korean conflict. The museum also feels like a curious anomaly in the 21st century – a freezer where the Cold War is being kept on ice while the world outside moves on. Yet not two kilometers from here across the Yalu the propaganda of American aggression breathes in real time.
Near the museum exit I bought my official “Memorial Hall of the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea” coffee cup from another hawker, and again turned down some Kim badges.
Day Three: Up Close and not so Personal
The Great Wall section at Hushan (“Tiger Mountain”) north of Dandong is a recent rediscovery of a Ming Dynasty portion of the easternmost end of the Great Wall, which stretches (in bits and pieces now) as far west as the Taklimakan Desert in Xinjiang province. I’d heard good things about the Hushan section – how it offered great views of North Korea, how well preserved it was, how it had an interesting little museum. What I hadn’t heard turned out to be its most interesting attribute: it sits a stone’s throw from North Korea – or as the Chinese promotional posters say, “a mere footstep.” This turns out to be literally true. In the shadow of the wall it is possible not only to walk along the border but in several places to cross it by stepping over a ditch or skipping over a rock.
I’d missed the early morning bus out to Hushan so grabbed a taxi for the fifteen kilometer ride north along the Yalu to the wall section’s location. I was the
first of the day’s visitors and startled the ticket vendor out of her morning grogginess. Inside the park’s gate the only sign of life was a worker sweeping the empty parking lot with a straw broom.
The Hushan Great Wall is not a long section – probably just under a kilometer from beginning to end – but it rises impressively along the Yalu River and up over hills of fruit groves. The morning was cold and clear and snow and ice still clung to the wall’s stones, reminding me that in these parts it was still winter and making sections of the climb downright precarious. During my two hour walk I was alone on the wall. From the top of the uppermost tower one is awarded with commanding views of North Korean farmlands. I spotted several teams of farmers who seemed to be preparing the fields for spring planting – using oxen.
With a little over an hour to kill before the small public bus headed back to Dandong, I passed through the wall’s arched gate and down to a small tributary (really no more than a rocky creek) of the Yalu. Along the Chinese side of the river a large official looking sign reveals that this quiet scene is the China-North Korea border. Indeed, looking out over the creek I spotted the familiar barbed wire strung between crucifix shaped concrete posts. North Korean territory here is actually on the western side of the Yalu.
To me the sign read like something you’d see in the zoo. “Do Not Converse or Exchange Objects with People on the Other Side of the Border,” is order number three. In any case, the warning seemed redundant, for there were no North Koreans in sight. The Chinese have built a tourist trail that skirts along the bottom of Tiger Mountain within feet of the border. I decided to follow it, climbing up and down along the steep precipice of Tiger Mountain, at one point crossing a rope bridge before finally descending down to the fence itself. Then I spotted three North Koreans, not fifty yards from me across the fence, messing about in the small Yalu estuary. One seemed to be floating in a basket boat, using a stick to break up the ice on the water’s surface, while his two companions stood on shore yelling directions. I removed my hat and waved it at them, yelling a greeting in Korean. Not only did they not respond, they refused to even acknowledge my presence. I’m reminded of a North Korean song about the Yalu I’d only recently heard: “Guiding my raft along the two thousand li Yalu River, I use my paddle to break up the ice and float on!”
Moving a few hundred yards further along the border, I was shocked to find the fence stop entirely. At this point all that separated China and North Korea was a shallow ditch. In fact, I could spot a well worn footpath linking the two sides. But recently there had been one too many accounts of westerners seized while crossing over – by accident or otherwise –and I decided to head back. My exploration along a surprisingly porous border had eaten up the hour. With no time to visit the small museum, I backtracked over the trail. It was with some relief that I passed under the Great Wall into what was definitely China.
The bus from Hushan deposited me at Dandong’s large central square, dominated by its colossal statue of Mao. But in Dandong one is always drawn back to the Yalu. Dandong’s real center is no center at all, but rather its long extended riverfront. Here Dandong seems to gaze with a mixture of longing, fascination, condescension, and sympathy towards North Korea. Even Mao’s outstretched arm points towards the Yalu.
It is the Yalu – or rather the border that it describes – that defines Dandong and holds its promise. Long discussed plans to build a new modern bridge over the river were apparently finally inked last fall. It is said construction will begin this month, with China footing the lion’s share of the bill. Not surprisingly, Dandong’s mayor has boasted that it will make Dandong “the second Shenzhen” (referring to China’s first special economic zone and boomtown outside of Hong Kong). Recently China announced that it would permit the entry of hundreds of North Korean workers to man factories in the city. Clearly, the fate of Dandong is intimately tied to the fortunes of North Korea. These fortunes are often at the mercy of the political winds, but not much, I suspect. Though China agreed to economic sanctions against North Korea following that country’s second nuclear test last year, there was little evidence of embargo. From what I observed, trade still flows between China and North Korea, at times quite abundantly. Trucks regularly ply the bridge between the two countries. During those select hours when bridge traffic is opened between the two (this seemed to be late afternoon), I counted as many as 50 trucks an hour passing over. Trains were also running regularly back and forth. Then of course there was the port, where I’d seen at least one North Korean cargo vessel.
But with ever closer Chinese-South Korean ties, Dandong has become as much – indeed, perhaps much more – a gateway for South Korean as North Korean trade and tourism. In the case of South Korea the route is by sea, with goods coming in the way I did, via the southerly port and often in the literal luggage space of teams of zealous traders. China has long recognized Dandong’s importance as a gateway not just for North Korean but for regional tourism and trade. This year China inaugurated work on a high speed railway linking Dandong with both Dalian and Shenyang. When the two are completed around 2012 Dandong will be a mere 2.5 hour train journey from Dalian and a mere hour from the provincial capital of Shenyang. Recently China also brokered development rights for two of the North Korean islands in the Yalu.
Yet how was one to reconcile all this apparent activity with what one heard about North Korea? When I was in Dandong I’d only just read reports filtered out of North Korea by the humanitarian organization Good Friends relating how starvation was a growing problem and had claimed the lives of more than 300 Sinuiju residents since the beginning of this year. Though signs of it were hard to discern through my telescope, my visit to Dandong coincided with the so-called “spring lean season” – when the previous year’s rice has run out and the barley is not yet ripe.
North Korea may guard many of its secrets well but it is no mystery that that the country, far from being a socialist paradise, is a land of dearth and wide disparities between the powerful and powerless, between the wealthy and the abjectly poor. Above all else, the key to the North Korean regime’s survival is the isolation of its populace. Yet the regime itself cannot survive without needed foreign currency and aid from China. This is Dandong: a window on that contradiction, where the contending political and economic exigencies of North Korea share a common space. Where the Kim cult gives way to Kim kitsch.
On my final afternoon in Dandong I took another stroll along the Yalu promenade. The river’s gentle flow seemed incongruous with the volatile world its waters seemed to hold imprisoned. On the railing along the wide promenade I passed a small, nondescript sign with juxtaposed Chinese and North Korean flags and the words: “Dandong’s Yalu River, the China-North Korea Border.” In front of it a Chinese souvenir vendor had convinced what was clearly a South Korean couple to don a traditional Hanbok and have their picture taken with the Yalu and North Korea as backdrop. Above me a steady flow of afternoon trucks moved slowly over the Friendship Bridge.