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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.
Reasons for these differences stem from the unique historical relationship between China and North Korea and how this influences both the Korean guides’ presentation of their nation to Chinese groups, and the perspective of the Chinese tourists in return.
In the first of a two-part series on Chinese tourism to the DPRK, the NK News China borderlands reporter describes the picture of the DPRK which is painted by local guides in Rason, northeast DPRK.
While the message is primarily one of Sino-Korean friendship, explicit efforts to highlight historical, cultural and linguistic parallels between China and North Korea in practice often jar with the less friendly realities of encounters between DPRK guides and their Chinese charges.
A CHINESE TOUR GROUP IN NORTH KOREA
As the packed shuttle bus clattered over the Tumen River on the Quanhe-Wonjong bridge, our Chinese tour operator Mr. Wang shouted a last bit of background information to the tightly pressed passengers.
“This bridge was built by the Japanese in 1937,” he managed to squeeze out, straining to push his head above the thronging crush of bodies. For the few people on-board who could actually see him, he jerked his head towards the much larger new bridge nearing completion several yards upriver. “But we’re building that one.”
Mr. Wang’s relatively matter-of-fact statement about the historical Japanese role in connecting what is now China’s Yanbian prefecture to the Korean peninsula would be the last ideology-free reference to Japan we would hear for a while.
After filing dutifully through the austere Wonjong border point under a large banner extolling the songun (military first) policy, we set foot on DPRK soil and settled into two more buses, like the bridges one Japanese-made, one Chinese-made.
In front of me a Chinese passenger asked one of the Korean guides who had been waiting for us whether the clock at the front of the Toyota was showing the correct time.
“Yes,” she replied, “Korean time is an hour, I mean half an hour, ahead of Chinese time.” The country’s recent 30-minute time-zone shift was apparently taking a while to sink in. Yet such concerns bothered the Chinese tourists little: they lived the entire trip on Beijing time anyway with wake-up calls, meals, and departure times all announced to fit to the group’s unadjusted China-appropriate watches.
This, and the fact that all shopping was done in RMB and all conversations with Koreans were conducted in Chinese, meant that by certain indicators, they had barely left China at all. There were also other rather “make yourself at home” aspects to the Chinese tourists’ behavior, and these led to a certain amount of friction later on in the trip.
“We should call each other comrade…it’s a friendly thing to say to people.”
The Chinese visitors’ ability to travel around the DPRK as though in an alternate-reality version of their own country did not, however, mean that the Korean guides were going to hold back from giving the visitors a full account of their country. As the last few tourists took their seats on the bus talking excitedly, a young female guide – Ms. Ri – stood up at the front clutching a microphone.
“Hello comrades,” she said in Chinese, the echo from the speakers making it sound as though her high-pitched voice was emanating from some kind of resonant communist cave. “We should call each other comrade,” she continued, “it’s a friendly thing to say to people. In Korean it’s dongji so very similar to the Chinese tongzhi.”
This was the first of many parallels we would hear made between the languages, cultures and history of the two neighboring countries. Ms. Ri then nervously sung the Korean folksong Arirang to excited applause and handed over to the man who would be our main guide.
“Welcome to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea!” Mr. Kim beamed, “do you notice that the full names of our countries differ by only four characters?” China officially only claims to be a “People’s Republic,” but the DPRK indeed goes the extravagant lengths of adding ‘democratic’ to this, and the Korean word for “democratic,” minjujuui, does indeed correspond to four Chinese characters.
“Rason is a ‘Special City,’ this is like your ‘Special Zones’ in China,” Mr. Kim continued before providing a full breakdown of the DPRK’s various administrative divisions from provinces to counties, districts and villages.
Thanks to a mode of land organization forged under common supervision from Soviet technicians, North Korea shares many of its administrative structures with China. Consequently Mr. Kim’s explanation of the intricacies of how villages relate to counties and so on was much more intelligible to the assembled Chinese audience than it would have been to any westerner unfamiliar with socialist territorial management.
Mr. Kim then rattled through a data-heavy summary of surface areas and populations of these various administrative subdivisions, in a manner deeply reminiscent of the facts and figures-based accounts beloved by guides at domestic Chinese tourist sites.
The narrative then moved from land management to culture and politics.
“China and Korea have many shared festivals and much shared history!” Mr. Kim observed, “and in Korea we have two busts of Chinese people.
As the group pictured the bust of the PRC’s first premier…there were mutterings about the dastardly Japanese
“One is of course Mao Zedong’s son Mao Anying who died in the Korean War,” he said before pausing briefly to add a few words of thanks for the help of China’s volunteers, up to 3 million of whom participated in the War on the Northern side. This was met with rapturous whoops and manly exclamations of approval from a group of raucous males from Tianjin, sitting at the back of the bus.
“The other bust is Zhou Enlai,” he said. “Zhou assisted with the development of industry in our second city Hamhung. The Japanese had built factories here to allow them to invade China and Russia, but China helped turn this around for Korea’s benefit.” As the group pictured the bust of the PRC’s first premier, which stands in Hamhung’s Hungnam Fertilizer Plant, there were mutterings about the dastardly Japanese.
Around two hours in to the ride with Wonjong, and China, far behind us, we rounded a bend high at the top of a hill and the sea came into view. “That’s the Korean East Sea (Chaoxian Donghai),” said Mr. Kim.
“You might know it as the Sea of Japan, but Japan is over 800km away so here we call it the Korean East Sea,” he continued. “We all have problems with Japan, like you with the Diaoyu Islands.”
For the tourists the idea that it could also be called Chaoxian Donghai and not Riben Hai (‘the Japan Sea,’ the usual Chinese name) was a novelty. They repeated it several times to each other as though trying out a new and appealing toy, with the Tianjin men, fired up by the call to solidarity over the Korean War, particularly excited about removing traces of Japan from this particular body of water.
But these early attempts to stress the historic closeness between China and the DPRK – basking in a brotherly socialist past, cultural similarities or common antipathy towards Tokyo – only went so far, and the narrative quickly started to come unstuck.
“There is a difference between China and the DPRK. Even though both are brother countries and both are socialist, Chinese socialism has special characteristics. Korea is a purely socialist country”
Thanks to Mr. Kim’s early explanations, the Chinese tourists were now fully informed about whether the tumbledown single-storey white houses we passed during our tour belonged to ‘villages’ or ‘workers’ districts’ (it varied), but questions remained, some of them rather probing. At several points on the way, many asked whether the houses, and the maize-planted fields around them were private property.
“No,” Mr. Kim always replied flatly. “There is no private land in Korea except what immediately surrounds people’s houses. But those houses are also provided for free by the state.
“You see,” he would continue, departing from the language of Sino-Korean commonality, “there is a difference between China and the DPRK. Even though both are brother countries and both are socialist, Chinese socialism has special characteristics. Korea is a purely socialist country.”
The spell of everlasting friendship between the countries was broken, and with this statement Mr. Kim also hinted at a certain attitude of superiority – political as well as cultural – which was increasingly evident in the guides’ approach towards the Chinese tourists as the trip wore on.
PUT ON A SHOW
Early in the tour we were standing outside Rason’s main theater following a musical and dance performance by local schoolchildren.
The spectacle was met with a far more positive reception from the Chinese audience than is usually seen among western groups on such occasions. While the latter are sometimes disturbed by what appear to be rather robotic performances by heavily pressured children, Chinese adults are more used to seeing their own offspring don the same makeup and eerie forced grins as Rason’s youngsters bore that day.
At the final curtain many in the all-Chinese audience had flooded the stage to take photographs with the children, and after exiting the building were still talking loudly and excitedly about the show, many of the men drawing on cigarettes as they did so. Ms. Ri who had earlier performed Arirang on the bus looked on nervously.
“They’re so loud,” she said to me quietly as we stood back near the bus. “And they spit all the time.”
Seeing a group of men finishing their cigarettes and simply dropping the butts on the floor, she ran over to tell them to pick them up.
Hushed comments about the ‘low cultural level’ of Chinese people grew more frequent
Such habits appeared to become increasingly jarring to the guides as time passed, and their hushed comments to me about the ‘low cultural level’ of Chinese people also grew more frequent. This reached a peak when one evening in the hotel after a day visiting fishermen’s cottages and the greenhouses holding the DPRK’s national flowers Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia, a tourist from Anhui province got irredeemably drunk on North Korean Taedonggang beer.
Taedonggang is considerably stronger than Chinese beers, but from early in the evening Mr. Liu had been drinking it as though it were some more watery tipple from back home – in great gulps glass by glass – with inevitable consequences. Well before 10pm Beijing time, he was hunched over a table vomiting profusely onto the restaurant floor.
This served as yet another prompt for comments to me from the understandably appalled guides about how uncivilized they felt Chinese people in general, not just the drunkard in question, to be.
It was certainly true that the requirement for the DPRK guides to accompany Chinese tourists at all times during a tour had forced them to be exposed to this unappealing spectacle and its attendant awkwardness. But regardless, the sense that the prim and proper Koreans saw Mr. Liu’s apparently limitless capacity for vomiting as further evidence of their greater sophistication over their Chinese neighbors was unmistakable.
The guides certainly felt able to point to evidence both for their claims that the DPRK was still “pure” in its socialism (state-provided housing), and for their hushed statements that the Chinese were “uncivilized” (Mr. Liu). But rather than this leading to a calm sense of smug superiority amongst them, it in fact generated further friction in light of the obviously superior wealth which the Chinese tourists flouted during the trip.
Enthusiastically handing over stacks of RMB in exchange for everything from seaweed and bear gallbladder extract to liquor made with fur-seal penis, group members repeated how incredibly cheap they found the local produce. As we were ferried between tourist sites and the shops selling these items, tourists reflected on the level of business in the city and wondered aloud how it was that Rason could be a special economic zone in this “purely socialist” country.
Mr. Kim explained patiently, with another weary attempt to draw a parallel between PRC and DPRK realities:
“Trade has been allowed since 1994 when the Great Leader Kim Il Sung died, he said. “When the Great Leader passed away there was much natural disaster – a lot like the earthquake which happened in Tangshan when Mao Zedong died in 1976.”
This comment, like many before it, was intended to elicit a sense of kindred experiences from the Chinese visitors, many of whom were more than old enough to remember Mao and his traumatic death.
But the comparison in fact did more to highlight divergences between the two countries’ trajectories since the respective deaths of their first revolutionary leaders.
The Tangshan Earthquake had indeed fed into a sense of national crisis in China after Mao died, but the PRC’s subsequent development means that the quake is far less prominent in the national narrative than the post-Kim Il Sung famine is in the DPRK.
Lives in the DPRK and China have not always been so different, something made clear by the fact that Chinese citizens once fled to the DPRK. But since Tangshan, social and political life north of the Tumen has transformed in ways which today provide the “evidence” for many of the implicit and explicit claims to Chinese inferiority I heard our North Korean guides make in Rason.
From Chinese TV, North Koreans had learnt that Chinese men seem to spend a lot of time cooking and doing housework
The divergence in lifestyles which changes in China have brought about was perhaps best summed up as Mr. Kim informed us that from Chinese TV, North Koreans had learnt that Chinese men seem to spend a lot of time cooking and doing housework. By contrast, he noted, Korean men do nothing in the home (this last statement met with by-now-predictable approval from the all-male group from Tianjin).
“Korean wives watch those programmes these days and tell their husbands – be like him!” Mr. Kim continued jokingly, “but there are still many differences. Chinese wives want their husbands to be ‘tall, rich and handsome’,” he noted, quoting the modern Chinese catchphrase gao fu shuai. “But the three qualities our men should have are military service, university education and party membership.”
Mr. Kim’s unusually frank admission of the openness of today’s North Korean media environment (the flow of foreign TV into the DPRK remains a political issue) showed how life there has also transformed since the country’s own crisis. But once again, our guide was keen to assure us that where it really mattered, traditional (and, by implication, superior) Korean ways still predominate in DPRK households.
Even if military service is hardly foremost amongst spousal considerations in today’s China, there is still much in the DPRK that is deeply recognizable to a Chinese audience. PRC tourists in the country are also able to pass their time there more or less as though at home, even if this can lead to disaster.
But while Korean tour guides are able to draw on some shared history and culture as they teach these visitors about their country, actual touristic encounters between citizens of the neighboring states generate situations which go well beyond abstract references to a distant past, thus revealing modern cultural differences and tensions which are equally, if not more, significant.
Read part II of this mini-series on Chinese tourism to North Korea here
By NK News borderlands correspondent. Some names have been changed to protect identities in this article
Main picture: Eric Lafforgue