A few days ago it was revealed that China had instituted a partial ban on some tourism to North Korea due to an impending visit by Donald Trump. An exception was granted only to daily tours to the border city of Sinuiju.
It just so happens that in early November I participated in such a tour, visiting the city with a group of Chinese tourists. I would like to tell you about my trip, and how North Korea has changed since I was last there three years ago.
Of course, one cannot be totally objective on the situation in the DPRK by merely going there as a tourist, since, as we all know, tourists cannot just walk around the country: one buys a tour and moves around the city on a bus accompanied by minders.
In general, when it comes to studying North Korea, tourist trips rank behind interviewing refugees, studying restricted documents which have been leaked outside of the country, working with satellite imagery, and analyzing open-source documents in terms of reliability. But they are not useless.
VERY DIFFERENT TWINS
Many things in Sinuiju are defined by the city’s location near the outfall of Yalu river. On the Chinese side of the border lies the city of Dandong. It could be called Sinuiju’s twin, but “twins” here would be more like a reference to the 1998 film featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito.
These two cities are very different. First, Dandong is larger – both in territory and population and, of course, standards of living there are much higher.
Three years ago, one could have easily seen this at night by taking a walk near the river: the opposite side was cloaked in darkness, with the exception of a sole light (later, when I was in the North, I discovered that it was a monument to Kim Il Sung being illuminated). The Dandong side, with all its hotels, restaurants and apartments, was covered in light.
One cannot be totally objective on the situation in the DPRK by merely going there as a tourist
Sinuiju is also a city which has been used by the DPRK government for various experiments with capitalism. The most radical of these was to transform Sinuiju into a Macao-like Special Administrative Region (SEZ) in 2002. A less radical one was launched by Kim Jong Un, who proclaimed the creation of a special economic zone in the city in 2013. Both projects failed: the Dutch-Chinese businessman who was to run the only free city in the DPRK was arrested for not paying taxes, and it seems that no one wanted to invest.
The bridges linking Dandong and Sinuiju are good visual metaphors for this system: the main one, the Bridge of Sino-Korean Friendship, is operational, while the nearby broken bridge was bombed during the Korean War and not restored, and the new South Bridge seems not to be linked to any serious infrastructure on the Korean side.
All this looks quite bad, but, fortunately, the situation has begun to improve.
BETTER CLOTHES AND HEALTHIER PEOPLE
There are two major factors affecting the North Korean economy at the moment. One of them is positive, the other is not. The positive is Kim Jong Un’s economic reforms aimed at decentralizing the country’s economy, reducing the role of central planning. The negative is continuing missile and nuclear tests, which damage relations with China and force more and more sanctions on the DPRK.
From what I saw and heard in Sinuiju and at the border I can surmise that, for now, the positive prevails.
The most notable change is in clothing. The percentage of relatively well-dressed North Koreans in Sinuiju is significantly higher than it was in Pyongyang three years ago. Their clothes are almost exclusively Chinese – and not always the cheapest ones. Many also wear famous Sinuiju products, such as the blue boots which are locally manufactured.
Second, the situation with electricity has also begun to improve. Before, as I said, only a monument to Kim Il Sung was illuminated. Now some houses have lights, too, and from Dandong one can clearly see at night that the other side is populated. Of course, there is a long way to go and I did not see a single working lantern on the other side, despite having walked a few kilometers near the border.
Sanctions have hit petrol prices the hardest. Taxis in Sinuiju are now much more expensive, and even people with relatively high-incomes struggle to afford them. However, there are cars on the streets, showing that there are rich people living there too (rich by North Korean standards, of course).
The situation with roads is bad, too – they are quite shaky, even on new asphalt.
The percentage of relatively well-dressed North Koreans in Sinuiju is significantly higher than it was in Pyongyang three years ago
MONUMENTS, MUSEUMS, AND THE LEADERS
It is well known that one cannot simply go to North Korea as a tourist – one must buy a tour. Tourists travel by bus, usually accompanied by a secret police officer (I saw the same man in civilian clothes observing our group several times). The overwhelming majority of these visitors are Chinese – not surprising given China’s population and the fact that the two countries share a large border.
The tour is aimed, therefore, at Chinese people. All guides speak fluent Chinese and they learn it in Sinuiju – slightly surprising, given Pyongyang is not a big fan of people in the borderland areas learning Chinese, a language skill that could ultimately lead to defection.
The tour includes a visit to the central square of the city, the Museum of Revolutionary Achievements dedicated to the three Kims, a park selling souvenirs, a restaurant (lunch is included) and a kindergarten. For a symbolic (for a foreigner, of course) sum of 10 yuan, one can also have a walk on the Korean side of the Yalu river and take a few photos.
The central square features monuments to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Several years ago, there was only one monument to Kim Il Sung erected in 1968 – after the infamous May 25 Instructions. But after Kim Jong Il’s death, a monument was erected near his father’s.
The new design is basically a copy of the Pyongyang monuments – the cult is very standardized under Kim Jong Un. However, Sinuiju statues are more aesthetically pleasing. The Kims have to be portrayed with a smile – and Sinuiju Kim Jong Il’s smiles are more natural than those of his Pyongyang counterpart.
Near the monuments – both in Sinuiju and Pyongyang – the DPRK has a good scheme to get a little extra cash from foreigners. Foreign guests are sold artificial flowers for 20 yuan (roughly equal to $3). The guests then place them at the monument, after which the flowers are collected and resold.
The Museum of Revolutionary Achievements, just behind the statues, looks good, of course: North Korea always has enough money for things related to the Kim family. The museum is divided into a dozen or so chambers with each one dedicated to some topic, like “Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un, Sinuiju and farming” or “Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un, Sinuiju and industry”.
One could easily think that nothing at all could be interesting in such a museum. But local historians tried to do their best – and the museum has some authentic documents and items from the 1940s, i.e. from before the war.
Sanctions have hit petrol prices the hardest
There are fake documents there as well, but the museum workers are probably innocent. Since this is an important and interesting story, I will tell it in greater detail. It is based on the testimony of Georgiy Plotnikov – a colonel in the Soviet army and one of the very few foreigners who actually worked in the North Korean archives in the 1950s.
In the late 1950s, North Korean archivists started to collect documents about the war, which had ended in 1953. The process was led by then-deputy minister of national defense Kim Ung. Archivists soon discovered that many documents had not survived, and Kim and his colleagues decided to write the documents themselves from memory. The fakes were compiled and filed into archives. Kim Ung was later executed but the documents remained, and part of them (of course only a very small part) were copied and placed in museum collections by local historians.
There was one more interesting episode in the museum: when we were there, the museum worker was giving a lecture. She said: “and then the Great Leader instructed that our socialism should be our own, not Soviet or Chinese one.” The guide then translated the sentence into Chinese as “and the Leader comrade Kim Il Sung instructed that that our socialism should be our own, not Soviet or any else,” in order not to offend the Chinese guests.
Taking pictures in the museum and in the central square is forbidden – cameras are confiscated by a Chinese guide at the border and are returned later. The control has tightened here: in 2014, one was not allowed to take photos of men in uniform and parts of Kim-related objects (the latter could only be photographed as a whole), but now photos outside of the bus can be taken only if permitted by a guide. At the end of the journey, cameras are temporarily confiscated again and unwanted images are deleted. The secret police work well – deleted images cannot even be restored with restoration programs.
However, there is hardly any profit for the North from this – some tricky Chinese tourists still manage to take “forbidden” objects and then upload them to the internet.
LIFE OF THE CITY
Sinuiju cosmetic factory is the first location where one can take photos with no questions asked. The workers work, albeit not very hard, while tourists watch them. Here one can also buy drinks, like strawberry milk and the cosmetics produced by the factory.
Foreigners have to pay in foreign currency – everything from Chinese yuan and American dollars to Swedish krona and Vietnamese dong is welcome. The DPRK is remarkably liberal in its policy towards foreign currency – some even say that there was a time when factories inside the country made transactions in British pounds, until Kim Il Sung ordered this unpatriotic practice terminated.
The next stop is Sinuiju park, where one can have a snack – they sell boiled eggs there, which – like in most poor nations – are a delicacy in North Korea. I asked two schoolboys who were walking in the park to take a photo of me with my camera – they were slightly scared, but they did take it. The guide saw this, smiled and told the boys: “Don’t be afraid of him, he speaks Korean. You can talk in our language to him, not necessary in English.”
North Korea always has enough money for things related to the Kim family
There are lots of solar energy accumulators in the city, possibly one of the major reasons why the situation with electricity is improving. They are made in China and there is at least one shop in Dandong with captions in Chinese and Korean selling such products.
After the park, tourists go to a local art gallery. Most of the pictures are drawn by local artists, although some are imported from China. There are many beautiful pictures of animals and nature in the museum.
We have Kim Jong Il to thank for that – it was he who relaxed censorship in art. The Fatherly Commander used to manage the country’s art and unlike his father, had a sense of taste. Later Pyongyang also found out that the pictures on neutral subjects sold well.
But the old official art did not disappear and Kim-related pictures occupy most of the first floor. It is also quite interesting for example, on a picture showing the people of the world hailing Kim Il Sung, the African man looks suspiciously like Robert Mugabe (the President of Zimbabwe was a big supporter of North Korea), despite other characters being non-descript. Perhaps the likeness of Mugabe was the only image of a black man available to the artist and that’s how it ended up being so similar.
My Ph.D. thesis was dedicated to the North Korean army and thus I was impressed by a picture showing Kim Jong Il in military uniform. As readers may remember, the late Kim was ranked Marshal before, being promoted to Generalissimo after his death.
His collar insignia is drawn in a way that one cannot tell whether he is a Marshal (which is historically correct, as he never worn a Generalissimo uniform) or a Generalissimo (which corresponds with the current state discourse – he is now retroactively called Generalissimo in most occasions).
The last stage of the tour is a visit to a local kindergarten. Outside the country, they say that this a kindergarten for the children of the elite, but after seeing it I can only applaud – the children marvelously play their instruments and dance.
One can clearly see why Beijing likes the idea of its citizens going to the North
Visitors can see that years and years of hard work, both by teachers and students, are invested in this. Even if your dad works for the Sinuiju Party Committee, this doesn’t make learning how to sing or dance any easier.
From the tour, one can clearly see why Beijing likes the idea of its citizens going to the North. A Chinese visitor to Sinuiju will immediately remember the poverty and atmosphere of terror of the Mao era – and feel gratitude to Deng Xiaoping for his policy of reform and openness.
The tour is cheap (1800 yuan for foreigners, but merely 750 (~$113) for mainland Chinese) and quite interesting – and there are always lots of tourists (Chinese tourist agents say that visiting the DPRK is especially popular between April and October).
When you arrive in a new city you usually understand quite quickly who is more efficient – the city authorities or the citizens. In Hanoi, for example, it is clearly the latter – the locals manage to drive calmly across the city center, despite its substandard roads and trash on the streets.
In Dalian, one sympathizes with the city authorities – the local CPC committee and city hall has basically solved the traffic problem, quite an achievement for a city with 6+ million people, but the locals still tend to ignore the rules.
I’ve never seen such a contrast like I did in Sinuiju. Despite the all-powerful presence of personality cult and the Kim family power, the locals – from kindergarten teachers to historians – are doing their best to make life here more convenient and cozy. It is quite likely that when Kim rule ends, Sinuiju will be one of the most successful places in North Korea.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 2521 words of this article.
Featured Image: IMG_3429 by nknews_hq on 2016-06-15 05:41:43