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When Chinese tourists visit the DPRK, their experiences there differ in key ways from those of the increasingly numerous Westerners who travel to the country.
In this second article on Chinese tourism to the DPRK – the first one is here – our China borderlands reporter focuses on the Chinese side to describe what kinds of tourist from the Middle Kingdom actually visit the DPRK.
Among Chinese visitors to North Korea, many have life experiences whose past challenges are reminiscent of the more recent struggles of ordinary North Koreans, and as a result, the country presents much that is familiar to them. This familiarity generates reactions characterized by a curious blend of empathy and condescension.
Sliding over the Tumen into North Korea as part of a tour group is a smooth process for Chinese travelers.
Not only do tourists face few obstacles in continuing many aspects of their daily lives once in the DPRK – they are able to spend RMB, operate on Beijing time, and interact with their limited local contacts in Chinese – but getting over in the first place is also very straightforward.
In the case of visits to the special economic zone of Rason, a passport is not even required. Prospective tourists can simply submit their ID card (shenfenzheng) to the Chinese Public Security Bureau in a border town (generally Hunchun) and the following day receive a permit (tongxingzheng) allowing them to cross the Tumen.
The dry facts surrounding documents, currencies and time zones thus suggest an experience in North Korea with many features that make for a simple transition from place to place, as though hardly traveling abroad at all. Moreover the past experiences of many Chinese visitors give them a degree of understanding of North Korean realities which are shared by few if any other foreign visitors to the country.
Waiting in line to cross the border, I was standing behind Mr. Zhang, a friendly looking 70-year-old who was, like many of the elderly members of our 40-strong tour group, retired and wearing a comfortable tracksuit and sport shoes. There were a large number of people between us and the front of the line where wide-hatted and surly DPRK border guards were scrutinizing documents, and so we got talking.
Mr. Zhang had come to North Korea as part of a group of eight friends from Changchun, the capital of Jilin province which runs along most of China’s border with the DPRK. Changchun itself is several hundred miles from the Tumen, but not only were Mr. Zhang and his companions no strangers to these borderlands, their very relationships had been forged there.
The friends had got to know one another in the early 1960s when they were assigned to the same work squad based close to Yanji during the Maoist “Down to the Countryside” movement.
Mr. Zhang had come to North Korea as part of a group of eight friends from Changchun…but not only were they familiar with these borderlands, their very relationships had been forged there
This campaign, intended to revolutionize China’s youth and provide relief to the country’s cities, which were starving under the effects of the disastrous Great Leap Forward, saw Mr. Zhang and the others, then teenagers, dispatched from troubled Changchun.
Yanji at the time lay over a day’s journey from the regional capital and in this remote location they had tilled the land, passing periods of their youth in exiles of between two and eight years.
Looking at these elderly tourists now, the very picture of leisureliness in their tracksuits and flower-pattern dresses, it was hard to imagine that they had endured hardships comparable to the experiences of North Korean citizens during more recent fits of political excess and food shortage.
Yet in many ways their travails were comparable: At different times famine had driven millions of both Chinese and Koreans to eke out a living from the land, engaging in toil justified on the official level as part of the latest campaign, but for individuals motivated by a need simply to survive at a time of mass shortage. In both cases, millions did not live to Mr. Zhang’s age.
Once over the DPRK border, further conversations with tourists revealed that parallel fates during challenging times were only part of a picture of greater connectedness which Chinese tourists have to North Korea than the average western visitor.
Being mostly elderly and thus brought up on cultural output from “friendly” socialist countries, almost all the travelers had seen the film adaptation of Kim Il Sung’s revolutionary opera Flower Girl (Kkot Paneun Cheonyeo).
As we were led by our guides to shops selling local goods and souvenirs, travelers also identified and purchased products from Korean medicine shared by the Chinese pharmacopeia.
Most non-East Asian visitors are baffled by the thought that these mysterious roots, herbs and animal parts might cure ailments, but our elderly cohort happily accumulated bottles of bear gall bladder essence and their maximum importable allowance of dried sea cucumbers.
By contrast, none had any interest in the hand-painted propaganda posters on offer, so loved by Western tourists: they had seen much the same thing at home in a none-too-distant Chinese past.
At North Korean tourist shops the Chinese had no interest in the hand-painted propaganda posters on offer, so loved by Western tourists
Traveling Chinese people, particularly those from older generations, thus have much to connect with in the DPRK, from an appreciation for the medicinal properties of ginseng to a superficial knowledge of culture and, on a more profound level, an ability to empathize with the difficulties ordinary North Koreans have faced.
In their efforts to reach out to the tourists our Korean guides keenly drew on a carefully selected range of these parallel cultural and political experiences.
But the existence of common ground had only a limited positive impact on the smoothness of interactions. In fact, the perceived similarities between the past lives of the older Chinese visitors and North Korea today were often less a source of mutual understanding than they were of criticism for what was observed during the visit.
As we peered into fishermen’s houses, visited a seafood factory and inspected Rason’s quiet rusty port, the most common refrain repeated again and again was “It’s like China in the 1970s.”
The most common refrain repeated again and again was “It’s like China in the 1970s”
Prominent among those pointing this out, and thus China’s implicit superiority, was Ms. Peng, a retired schoolteacher from Henan province who sat next to me on the bus throughout the trip.
Much of our tour was spent on the bus, and so she had plenty of opportunity to point out to me how backward much of the local technology was, how poor the farms looked and how there were so few cars. Most of this I initially took as straightforward criticism of the DPRK’s failure to modernize.
Ms. Peng was far from the only person making such comments, and age was not the only qualification needed to remark on Korean backwardness. Younger members of our party – though no tourist was under 40 – were equally keen to express to me and to each other how underdeveloped they found the place.
These included Mr. Liu, a man from Anhui province who was going through a rocky patch with his wife and had partly journeyed to northeastern China, and then to the DPRK, to escape it all. He was the only other solo traveler and consequently we shared a room at the hotel.
As we checked in together Mr. Liu explained that, aside from his family troubles, he was also interested in visiting the DPRK for possible business reasons. Back in Anhui, Mr. Liu worked for a company trading in stone but in China, he said, almost all resources had been used up. North Korea, he felt, might offer exciting new prospects.
“Look around,” he said as we settled into our shared room, “they’ve hardly used anything. We’d take away whole mountains if they let us!” Mr. Liu picked up the remote and turned on the TV. All the screen showed was static fuzz.
“People here are easily satisfied,” he said. “They don’t even have TV during the day. I mean, look at the road we came here on, it’s just like China in the 1970s.”
We had only been in the country a few hours, but Mr. Liu was evidently already having doubts about his decision to come at all. “It’s not really much of a tourist destination,” he concluded.
Yet later on Mr. Liu’s rather uncompromising views seemed to soften. At dinner that evening, whether motivated by the depressing atmosphere, his family troubles or the unaccustomed strength of North Korean beer, he became extremely drunk, and on his trajectory downwards towards total inebriation, his conversation took a different turn.
“In fact,” he said clutching a bottle of Taedonggang beer in his right hand a couple of hours into the drinking session, “being here in Korea is a really interesting experience for me. I recognize a lot of this. I myself grew up in a very poor family.”
Conversation grew increasingly incoherent from that point on, but as it continued Mr. Liu described the tough consequences of his family’s lack of money, including that they had not been able to afford for him to go to university and how this gave him a sense of what it was like for many North Koreans.
It began to seem that Mr. Liu’s references to the poorer aspects of DPRK society, rather than being straightforward criticisms, in fact came from a sense of connection with a chapter of his past which it was unpleasant to recall.
Mr. Liu was not as old as some of the other tourists but he was equally aware that, while North Korea was a poorer country than China, it was only very recently that most Chinese people were in far less fortunate circumstances.
Even after such a heavy night, however, the effects of alcohol eventually wore off, and with them went Mr. Liu’s candor about his humble origins. The following day driving along the rutted road to Pipadao, a picturesque islet just off Rason’s stretch of coast, comments from him and others in the group resumed their earlier character.
“This place needs to reform like we did,” Ms Peng sitting next to me exclaimed at one point with a tone which sounded a lot like criticism. But after my experiences with Mr. Liu, I now recognized the possibility that such comments were as likely to draw on painful memories as they were on a sense of national superiority.
Names have been changed in this article.