Dispatches

Like Looking Back in Time

DANDONG, China—”Enjoy the view of North Korea in our 23F revolving restaurant,” says the brochure in my room at the Dandong International Hotel. When I venture up to the 23rd floor, I find that said revolving restaurant is, in fact, totally unrevolving. But the view of North Korea is as clear as was advertised. Over a breakfast of rice, porridge, and steamed vegetables, the guests stare silently across the river at North Korea.

Gawking at North Korea is a growth industry in Dandong. Scores of entrepreneurs and merchants have found a way to cash in on people’s penchant for voyeurism.

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On the banks of the Yalu River, hawkers rent binoculars to people intent on gazing at Sinuiju. A line of telescopes, like those you would find in New York’s Battery Park or Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, are also available to rent. Other peddlers sell souvenirs from across the river—things like North Korean currency and propaganda posters. On a lark, people rent colorful traditional Korean wedding attire and have their pictures taken with North Korea in the background. (Korean hanbok is strikingly beautiful, and Chinese women enjoy it as a costume.) Meanwhile, the outskirts of Dandong are home to the easternmost section of the Great Wall of China. But even that attraction is advertised in its tourist brochure with a reference to the “great views of North Korea” that hiking up the Wall affords.

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Yalu River boat tours are the most popular means of gazing at North Korea—and North Koreans. A series of “tourist wharfs” have been constructed along the banks of the river, where boats large and small, fast and slow, moor before carrying groups of tourists over to the North Korean side of the river. The boats do not make land on the North Korean side, of course, but they travel close enough to afford paying customers a remarkably close look at the shoreline of Sinuiju.

One morning, I went on one of these voyeuristic expeditions.

After shelling out 50 Chinese yuan, or about $7.50, I trot down to Tourist Wharf No. 2 and climb aboard a boat whose main cabin is designed to look like an ancient Chinese pagoda. Once on board, sightseers can rent binoculars and buy drinks and postcards.

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After a few minutes, the boat fills up, and most passengers elect to head upstairs to an outdoor deck. With that, the engine revs up, and we start to cross the Yalu. Within five minutes, we are no fewer than 50 yards from the shores of North Korea. Binoculars glued to their faces, the passengers begin to point, stare, and shout about what they can see over in the Hermit Kingdom.

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We cruise by an abandoned-looking factory, a seemingly unused Ferris wheel, a park, and a school, in front of which a group of children are playing a fierce game of soccer. We come to what must be Sinuiju’s main “port,” where a number of North Korean-flagged ships sit empty and in disrepair. One small boat has just come in, and a group of laborers are busy unloading the cargo. Many buildings carry propaganda posters, and I can make out one that declares Kim Jong-il the “sun of the 21st century.”

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We see many people and are close enough to the shore to make out the features of their weathered faces. Children laugh and play and splash in the muddy banks of the river—kids are kids, even under the world’s most repressive regime. Older men fish with what appear to be wooden poles. People cruise through the park on beat-up-looking bicycles. And, ominously, armed guards in military uniforms stand at the ready on the riverbanks, patrolling the border. All the people we see are skinny; many look as if they have hardly any flesh on their bones. No North Koreans acknowledge the presence of a group of tourists pointing and staring at them.

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After about 15 minutes, we turn around and start crossing back toward Dandong. As the boat pivots toward China, it is shocking to contemplate the view that residents of Sinuiju are confronted with each day. Dandong is not a rich place—the most recent statistics put per capita income at a little above $3,000 per year—but compared to Sinuiju, its skyline looks like Dubai’s. Thirty-story apartment high rises and hotels line the riverside. Cars and motorcycles zip by on wide boulevards. This is the view that the residents of Sinuiju, who don’t even have electricity, let alone private cars, are saddled with every day.

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North Korea fascinates even Chinese people living under nominally Communist rule. All the tourists on the boat clutching binoculars and pointing out sights on the North Korean side of the river are Chinese. The tourists at the Dandong International Hotel peering out into Sinuiju over breakfast were also Chinese.

Chenyin Jin, a Chinese academic, speculates that “Chinese people like to see North Korea because it reminds them of what life was like under Mao. There’s an almost nostalgic appeal.” Given how much China has changed in the last 30 years, looking at North Korea is like looking back in time for a lot of Chinese people. It is hardly surprising that the great majority of the 16,000 or so tourists who visit North Korea annually on stage-managed propaganda tours are Chinese. (Only a little more than 1,000 hail from Western countries.)

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But there’s something ghoulish about all this. Like “ghetto bus tours” of Compton or Harlem church tours, it can be argued that all this staring at North Korea amounts to little more than rubbernecking on a grand scale. Sure, North Korea is a country closed to the outside world, so it’s easy to understand why people would be curious about how life is lived there. Yet as our boat slows down and we look through our binoculars at the skinny and woefully abused people on the riverbanks, I can’t help but feel that this whole “industry” is a little disgusting.

Click here to view Entry 2 of the Staring at North Korea slide show. 

Tomorrow: How Big Brother Beijing keeps the Pyongyang regime afloat.

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