DANDONG, China—There is something about boarding a train whose terminus is Pyongyang, North Korea—a certain spine-tingling chill that boarding passes to Cincinnati or Greyhound stubs for Stockton rarely elicit. Although nearly all of us who started out in Beijing would disembark at the last stop on the Chinese side of the border, I still fretted that I would oversleep and wake up to find myself under the boot of the world’s most brutal regime—and with no former U.S. president to come rescue me.
No snafus though, and at 7:16 on a rainy Friday morning, after 14 hours of train travel, I arrived in Dandong, China’s largest border city. It’s bustling and chaotic, like most Chinese cities, although, notably for the Middle Kingdom, fewer than 1 million people live here. (China has about 200 cities with more than 1 million residents; the United States has only nine.) It sits astride the Yalu River, about half a mile across from the North Korean city of Sinuiju.
Viewed from Dandong, Sinuiju looks exhausted. On its riverbanks, you can see a few old factories, huge swaths of paint peeling off their sides and, judging by their lack of emissions, idle. At night, Dandong is lit up with neon signs, streetlights, and a massive TV tower perched atop a hill. Sinuiju, a city of more than 300,000, is in total darkness.
Dandong is characterized by its close proximity to the Hermit Kingdom. The city and its environs boast a population of about 30,000 China-born ethnic Koreans, and many store and restaurant signs are written in both Chinese characters and Korean letters. As much as 40 percent of all trade in and out of North Korea (including copious amounts of foreign aid) passes through the city via the so-called Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge. The local cuisine, meanwhile, features many Korean elements, although it is nowhere near as tasty as the Korean food in Seoul—or in Los Angeles, for that matter.
Perhaps what is most striking is how little Korean you hear spoken in Dandong. Go to Tijuana or San Diego, and you’ll find a mélange of Spanish and Anglo culture. In Strasbourg, you encounter both French and German. But here in Dandong, less than a mile from North Korea, the absence of Korean is marked.
Borders are artificial things, yet they have profound consequences. Here, within sight of North Korea, there is no sign of Korean people—aside from the ethnic Koreans who are culturally Chinese. Korean restaurants are filled with Chinese diners, and when I speak Korean to the proprietors, they mumble a bit before switching to Chinese. Stores that sell explicitly Korean items, like hanbok—traditional Korean wedding attire—are run by Chinese people, and the customers are Chinese as well.
This cuts both ways. I spoke with dozens of Dandong locals—restaurateurs, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, college students, all of whom were born here. They’ve lived their whole lives within a mile or two of North Korea, close enough to see people walking on the other side of the river. Yet not one of them has ever crossed the Yalu. The old cliché, “so close, yet so far,” seems apt here. Stringent visa requirements and tight border security keep Dandong residents out.
It used to be relatively easy for North Koreans to cross into China, particularly here in North Korea’s northwest corner. A defector I met in Seoul, who goes only by his family name, Choi, told me that during the height of the North Korean food crisis in the mid 1990s, he crossed back and forth between the two countries three times. “I would work for a while in China,” he said, “and buy enough medicine and food to bring back across the border to my family. It wasn’t that difficult to cross the border. But when we were in China, we still had to be careful.” Even in those days, the Chinese government had a policy of repatriating North Koreans. Forced repatriation would mean a terrible fate: time in a labor camp, torture, and sometimes even execution.
As recently as two years ago, North Koreans were crossing somewhat regularly into Dandong to shop for much-needed supplies. Those crossing into China included both highly privileged North Korean Workers’ Party members and impoverished peasants who slipped across the border in rural areas near Dandong. A 2008 report in Britain’s Daily Telegraph noted that North Koreans were visiting the Tesco supermarket in Dandong in order to “escape starvation.” Apparently, Tesco had even set up a “special counter” to assist North Korean shoppers. Many of the Chinese items were smuggled into local markets, where North Koreans, in response to the collapse of the ration and distribution system, were able to sell and barter essential goods, like rice and cooking oil.
But recent years have seen a harsh clampdown. The North Korean regime has grown weary of seeing its citizens escape, and the Chinese government wants to stanch the flow of the desperate into its territory. A wall has been constructed along the border outside Dandong, including at the famous yi bu ka, or one-step crossing, where the Yalu narrows and it was once relatively easy to walk between the two countries. The Pyongyang regime has also set up a network of security cameras that monitor the border, and armed guards are posted along the river.
Signs of the clampdown are all over Dandong. On a walk along the Yalu River, I count no fewer than four police stations in the space of about two miles. Chinese-flagged police vessels prowl the river, looking for swimmers. One day, I even notice a Chinese helicopter flying high above the Yalu, patrolling the border.
People I speak with tell me they are seeing far fewer North Koreans than before. A female shopkeeper in downtown Dandong tells me that in the past she would regularly sell toilet paper, soap, and other items to groups of North Koreans. “They never came alone, they were always together,” she tells me. This happens rarely now. Another Dandong businessman who goes by the English name Stanley told me over lunch that “North Korea is entirely closed. We don’t see them here.” Meanwhile, that special counter that Tesco used to operate for its Korean customers? It’s gone.
Tomorrow: Scores of Chinese entrepreneurs have found a way to cash in on people’s penchant for voyeurism.