Dandong: A view into North Korea
Updated: Jan 19, 2019
Ben is a British writer now based in Brooklyn, New York. He has travelled extensively in Asia and South America.
It is 6:39am in Dandong. I am sitting in a park on the Yalu riverfront, gazing out at North Korea. Two bridges stretch across. One of them is deconstructed on the North Korean side, pillars sinking into the water like knees into mud. The other makes it the full distance.
There are over a thousand kilometres by train from Beijing to North Korea and yet these last few yards span the greatest gap. On the Dandong side, high-rises buttress against the water, families stroll along the riverfront. There’s a tai chi class humming on the grass nearby.
The other side is quiet, divvied the short straw of time and circumstance. There’s a stopped Ferris wheel between the trees and two smoke stacks rising through the haze. There’s no sign of a riverfront.
For most Westerners, and I include myself, countries like North Korea exist in the dredges of the imagination, concoctions of fact and fiction whipped up in dark rooms by dark minds. Rarely are they lent humanity, geography, the dirt, water, brick and mortar that is the stuff of existence. They’re the butt of international summits, UN sanctions, pilloried in satire and sincerity alike. And for good reason. But that’s why I felt I needed to see it, to put my feet firm to the ground and gaze out across the shore. Stare it in the eye.
“Nihao,” sniggers a voice a few yards away. “Where you from?” the little girl follows up.
“England,” I respond. “Yingguo.”
She kicks her hair back and whispers in her friend’s ear. The girl searches for a second question. “You like Dandong?”
“Yes. I just arrived. Wo gang dao. Hen piaoliang.” My Chinese is limited. And thankfully so is her English. I spent the last 14 hours on an overnight train. I haven’t showered and I spent half the journey sandwiched to the window by a man who seemed to use my collar for a handkerchief. I smell. And by the nature of her giggle this young girl knows that too.
The two girls chirp a few more questions. A couple of adults usher them away and disappear across the road. Down below there’s a man straggling for fish, knee-deep in the water. There are kiosks by the railing teeming with banchan breakfast dishes and a road of cackled, frazzled car-horns coughing under the morning sun behind me. For a place bloating with activity it seems all eyes are on one another, none looking across the water.
And then the music starts.
It’s 6:52am now and North Korean anthems are belting across the waterway. It started with a drum and has not let up. There’s a crescendo choking through the air. Were it not for inward eyes and the calm atmosphere along the waterfront, you would be forgiven for believing that battle was upon us.
I have heard stories of how, during the Cold War, Chinese towns along the Amur River bellowed propaganda across the waterway to their Russian neighbours. It was styled by China as a calling card to their Russian neighbours to envy the enterprise of their southern counterparts. In reality, it was Pavlovian; a war of attrition on their own citizens to show that life across the gap could not be so good.
Hearing the music now, it seems like little has changed.
* * * * *
Dandong is where Korean and Chinese culture merge. Signs double up in both languages, North Korean waiters serve in restaurants and Korean barbecue lines the streets in the evening (if the smell isn’t enough to get you wolfing down some bulgogi, then a single bite sure as hell will. Pork belly just about sums up what you’ll eat and how you’ll feel)!
Dandong isn’t Dandong without the DPRK. That’s true when it comes to the finer things in life, such as food, culture and heritage, but also in the current economic status. Just as North Korean immigrants serve corner stores and kiosks, Chinese businesses looks south for profit. Recent years have seen the Chinese government plagued by international pressures to reel in their trade with North Korea, but still they find a way. The colossal government complex closest to the bridge is the Chinese customs building and, clocked like rush hour, trains and trucks trundle across the bridge. In the morning, freight cars and trucks packed to the brim burgeon south. In the evening, they come back, light of load, bereft of their goods. The next morning it’s the same. And then the same again. Day in. Day out. It’s a country on life support, propped up by their northern neighbours, and a day or two at the gateway city is enough proof of that.
Of course, the story they tell is very different. North along Xingqi road, across the main drag of Shanshang Street, is the Museum of the War Against US Aggression In the Aid of Korea. If you can get your mouth around that then you’re in good stead for the puff piece battle to come. Huge platoon statues flank the grounds of the museum. Chinese soldiers march with their heads high, kicking forward in unison. Their bodies are bloated in muscle, arms curled around one another. It’s a lesson more in self-aggrandizement than history, with a rewrite of the past so aggressive you might be forgiven for feeling a kick in the gut yourself. Mandarin has a knack for translating into English with a not-so-subtle flourish but the plaques around the museum, even they must be enough to give their own translators a blush. One read,
“[The Chinese] fought side by side with the Korean people and army, shared weal and woe, cooperated closely and supported each other. Aft cease-fire, they helped the Korean people rebuild their homes. The Korean people and army showed loving care for and supported the Volunteers with great enthusiasm. The great friendship cemented with blood between the Chinese and Korean peoples and armies will go down in the annals forever!”
The Chinese authorities are certainly not ones to hide an agenda. Of course, that is what made the museum all the more curious. History buffs are welcome to steer clear: it’s not a place for nuance or even-handedness but it does reveal a present inclination to display the nations as more brothers-in-arms than a hand that feeds and a mouth that takes. It comes from a clear, mutual desire that China and Korea be seen as comrades with a common message. After all, the shared heritage of the country goes back a long way here. The young girl I met in the morning had a grandmother from North Korea.
Yet, for all the blend of culture, one need not venture far out of the city to see that solidarity only goes so far. On a drive north, fences continue to be erected along the border and gun-toting guards line the Korean side at weak sections, more concerned about keeping everyone in rather than letting anyone across. So much for friendship.
On the Chinese side, however, the landscape offers quite a different transformation. Skyscrapers give way to run-down apartment blocks and then chortling rickshaws gunning along the derelict countryside. At a particularly narrow section of the Yalu River, 20 kilometres north of Dandong, there is Tiger Mountain, the most eastern section of the Great Wall. Even in its reconstructed, tourist-tramped state, this section of the wall still has a splendid aura to it.
The wall pulls up the mountain and a cobbled path gives way to a clambering rock side. It’s certainly not for the ill-of-breath but the reward at the top is magnificent. The view stretches over a 10-meter section of the Yalu River and into North Korea. The river shapes around farm fields and, at the foot of the hills a couple of miles away there is a village. North Korean farmers trek along dirt paths, donkeys kick up dust and there are the faint beats of cartwheels on rock, trundling into the village. It’s a place where you find yourself whiling away the time, perplexed by the vast political chasm that divides you from a place you feel like you can reach out and touch.
One can only imagine what the teasing, bulking remains of the Great Wall, bussing up tourists on the other side of the border, must lead the North Korean villagers to think. For me, atop the wall, it felt like arrogance and privilege all wrapped into one. I was a curious tourist gazing from a mark of history into North Korea. It was enchanting and I hated it, which was reason enough to go.
I took the bus back, skirting the Yalu river, where fields became apartments and, in their turn, skyscrapers. After I made it back to Dandong and tucked into a second evening’s helping of Bulgogi and Korean street food, I struck up a conversation with two Brits at the train station while buying my ticket north to Shenyang. It had been 3 days since I had seen anyone other than Han or Korean and the sight of two bumbling, apologetic British tourists (what else would they be?) was welcome, if for nothing more than to share our experience. Both were master’s students, one based in Beijing and the other visiting from Manchester. Both were studying Chinese literature and had bee-lined for the Great Wall the day before I had visited. Now was the first chance they had to stretch their gaze across the riverfront and delve into the treats that Dandong had to offer.
We cut between street market stalls and glass-fronted Korean restaurants with half the fish population of the Yalu River on display. I felt a second dinner coming on. We picked our poison – a duplex restaurant with a feast of banchan dishes fattening the menu. We dug in, filled to the brim with Kim chi, vegetable pancakes, spiced fish, crab, shrimp and more.
We parted ways after the meal, giving me one final tour of the city, alone, before I departed in the morning for Shenyang. I jaunted down to the river, passed the bench where the two girls had quizzed me two mornings before. The neon lights of Dandong rose up into the sky like a beacon, a calling card to light, sound and an energy that bustled through the day and into night. And the other side – it was quiet, dark, unfurled by the activity on the Chinese side. It looked like a mirage off the river and, if I stayed any longer, I think it would become just that. I would turn my eyes inward and lose significance for what stands in broad sight.