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View more articles by Lawrence Steele
Lawrence Steele is the pseudonym for an NK News correspondent on the China-North Korea border.
CHANGBAI, China – Like the smell of coal that wafts from across the narrow Yalu River, suspicion and hostility toward outsiders hang thick in the air of this quiet border town, which peers into a dilapidated North Korean city.
Arriving after nightfall, our first interaction with a local besides our hotel’s receptionist makes it clear that foreigners aren’t welcome in the urban center of Changbai Korean Autonomous County, from which North Korea’s Hyesan is separated by as little as 30 meters (a little less than 100 feet) of water. When we enter a fruit and vegetable shop to ask about the origin of the produce, the owner immediately accuses our Chinese interpreter of being a prostitute. Back out on the dimly lit street, an elderly man follows our party for several minutes before apparently losing interest and resuming what seems like an aimless stroll.
The disdain for visitors in this town … is surely because of what lies across the water
The next morning, Chinese police, decked in heavy green coats and fur hats, are waiting in our hotel lobby. After they leave, the receptionist informs us they were looking for journalists. If we are media, she warns, we will likely have our equipment smashed and spend at least a week in jail.
The disdain for visitors in this town, which takes several hours to reach on the decrepit road leading from Changbaishan – the Chinese side of North Korea’s sacred peak Baekdusan – is surely because of what lies across the water, which only becomes visible in the day (such is the absence of artificial light at night). At the riverfront, under the glare of CCTV, signs direly warn against taking photos of North Korea, although Chinese have little hesitation about flouting the rules. Up close, Hyesan, a small city with an estimated population of fewer than 200,000 people, is a grim patchwork of gray and brown, interspersed with the occasional streak of red or blue from a painted roof.
Closest to the river, run-down, single-story buildings form a busy constellation against a backdrop of high-rises and bare mountains. Despite reports of North Korea’s economic revival, there are few signs of recent development, although a large concrete shell right on the river’s edge suggests some ongoing – or abandoned – construction. The surrounding Ryanggang Province is among the country’s poorest and was one of the worst affected by the famine of the 1990s, according to Wheat Mission Ministries, which has done charity work inside the country.
Apart from a handful of buses, vans and motorbikes that join residents traveling on foot or bicycle, the scene is almost static on a November afternoon, as well as disarmingly quiet. Noticing our gaze, a pair of North Korean pedestrians break the near-silence to whistle and jeer in our direction. Below the cityscape, North Koreans wash their clothes in the brown waters of the Yalu.
As we walk toward the outskirts of the town, a car with no license plate slowly rolls by. Soon, we are approached by a man in normal clothes, who admonishes us for taking photos. He describes himself as a “manager” of the area, and asks us to come with him to meet someone he calls his boss. When we decline, he calls his superior to come and examine our pictures. After 15 minutes, his much more genial boss arrives. Without checking our cameras, he tells not to take pictures of across the river and bids us goodbye.
‘The PRC has stepped up efforts in the border area this past year to detect foreigners nosing around’
While China is generally sensitive about its border with North Korea, we have arrived at what seems to be a particularly tense time. Just weeks earlier, Chinese police in the area arrested a Japanese man on suspicion of spying on military facilities.
“The PRC has stepped up efforts in the border area this past year to detect foreigners nosing around, and unfortunately for academics and journalists, the Chinese Communist Party has returned to its early 1950s roots and encourages locals to see any foreigner taking a photo as a potential spy,” says Adam Cathcart, founder of the Sino–NK website, who has visited the town.
Apart from its striking proximity, North Korea’s presence is felt in various corners of the town. At a local jade shop, the owner tells us much of the precious stones she sells comes from across the border.
“It comes from North Korea but it’s made in this sort of style by Chinese,” the owner says of items ranging from a thumb-sized Chinese cabbage, reported to bring luck to whoever shells out the 300 yuan ($45) price tag, to a foot-high stallion.
She doesn’t know where the jade comes from in North Korea, she said, because it’s bought from Korean-Chinese middlemen. Most of her customers are Chinese from Beijing or Shanghai, as well as Singaporeans and Indonesians.
A few miles outside of town, Changbai-Hyesan International Bridge acts as the official conduit of trade between the countries. A nearby shop sells North Korean Ponghak beer, blueberry wine and cigarettes, all illicitly traded by North Korean truck drivers who do supply runs across the border. As we browse the shop, a North Korean driver is preparing to take a load of Chinese goods back across the bridge. Among the booty are a few dozen large bottles of Coca-Cola.
Yet this mix of sanctioned and unsanctioned commerce cannot obscure the tensions between China and its wayward neighbor, which are keenly felt on the border. In September, South Korean media reported that two Chinese had been shot and injured by North Korean soldiers in the area for reasons unknown.
A local business owner we meet claims to know the motive: a dispute that broke out after the North Koreans told the Chinese to stop fishing in the river.
“The Chinese farmer said, ‘No, no way, it’s my fish.’ And then as he tried to get away in his car, the North Korean solider followed and fired five shots at his car and one into his body,” he says.
Local antipathy toward the North Koreans is also felt over more mundane annoyances. Changbai and Hyesan are so close that phone jammers used by the North Korean authorities interfere with Chinese phone signals. As a result, even tiny, nondescript family restaurants have Wi-Fi on their premises for ease of communication.
The business owner’s wife complains that protesting to the Chinese authorities is useless: “The government doesn’t care because everyone is the same.”
Amid rumblings of Beijing’s exasperation with Pyongyang over the latter’s repeated missile and nuclear weapons tests, residents express their own discontent.
Of the state of relations between the countries, the husband is blunt: “The relationship is not good.”
All images: Lawrence Steele