The border between China and North Korea is separated by the Yalu River. Each side is vastly different. I arrived through the Chinese border city of Dandong via a train from Beijing. The moment I arrived I was met with a large statue of Mao Ze Dong looming overhead. I knew then that I was about to learn about the Korean War from the other side’s perspective.
The Korean War ended in an armistice that divided the two ends of the Korean peninsula at the 38th Parallel. Everyone who visits the 38th Parallel can take a peek at the isolated state that is North Korea. It is shrouded in mystery and controversy. If you want to go and see more than a few fleeting seconds of a North Korean soldier staring at you through a window, but you don’t want to risk your life sneaking over the border or spend a hefty penny on a guided tour, then head to Dandong. It will fuel your fascination and make you understand the gravity of the hardship that North Koreans face.
When walking along the Yalu River, I was bombarded with loads of propaganda– various statues and memorials that proudly declare that China and North Korea were the “winners” of the Korean War. Alternatively, the US and South Korea have a similar area in Seoul declaring themselves the “winners.” The cult of personality mentality that the North Koreans have adopted flourishes all across the Chinese side of the border. Propaganda music praising Mao blared over loudspeakers while street side vendors sold Memoirs of Chairman Mao and cigarettes, stamps, and pins imported from North Korea.
Even with all of the Korean War and Cold War memorabilia on every corner, China was clearly the more successful of the two. Skyscrapers, nightclubs, and shopping malls were littered across the small port town. As I stared across river during the day, I saw tiny apartment blocks and rusty tug boats all along the North Korean shore.
To get the best view of North Korea, I had to go to the “Broken Bridge,” which costs around 5 dollars. The bridge was destroyed by bomber planes during the Korean War by US forces. It was never repaired and a second bridge was erected next to it, which still stands to this day. As you go, there is more propaganda and a big memorial showing Mao looking over the river defending its country from the “aggressive US forces”. As I walked along the bridge, getting closer to the broken end, sad music was blaring over the loudspeakers. Images of injured soldiers were plastered along the center of the bridge. Once I reached the end, I was greeted with a carnival type event where I paid a dollar to look into some binoculars to get a zoomed in look at North Korea. I handed my dollar to a grouchy businessman and looked in. I saw kids cheerfully playing soccer and old men enjoying a spring afternoon over a smoke. All of the men were sporting state mandated government pins with either a member of the Kim family on it or a socialist hammer and sickle. When my time with the binoculars was up I was left with a confusing impression. The children I saw were are well dressed and seemed to be well fed. The men looked healthy, if not joyous. It seems paradise propaganda was portrayed even to North Korea’s closest ally.
The real show was taking the boat tour from Dandong to Sinuiju. For about 8 dollars I went into North Korea, visa free, for about 45 minutes. That 45 minutes was all I needed to begin to understand the reality of the impoverished life that these people live. You can usually find people to take you on the boat tour right by the riverfront. They hold laminated flyers and show you pictures of where you’ll stop. I haggled to get a decent deal. If you can’t speak bare minimum Chinese, be prepared to spend upwards of 30 dollars due to being a vulnerable tourist. Once the price is agreed upon, you’ll hop on a cramped van full of strangers and be taken away from the main city to a countryside port. After arriving and paying, you’ll be whisked away on an older tugboat with local Chinese tourists drinking and chain smoking. The boat took off and I was officially in North Korean waters. As I was keeping my eyes peeled and absorbing the drab farmland in front of me, Chinese tourists were being obnoxious and screaming to the farmers they saw along the river banks. It seemed like our minds were on total opposite ends of the spectrum. I wanted to quietly see for myself what the propaganda fails to portray, meanwhile Chinese tourists were hellbent on pissing the North Korean locals off.
Moving through Sinuiju and Uiju was the most surreal experience I’ve ever had. The only colors other than brown to be seen were the dark shades of green that soldiers wore and the red, white and blue of the North Korean flag posted on nearly every building and structure. It was a particularly chilly day with drops of cold water stinging my face. As I winced in pain, I saw people wading in the same exact water attempting to catch fish with their bare hands and a few farmers with primitive nets. Soldiers were lined up along the valley in guard towers staring out at us, armed with AK-47s. It almost felt like a sadistic Truman Show.
As we returned to the boat dock, the familiar signs of Chinese tour groups were coming back into view. I was again bumrushed by people attempting to sell me North Korean goods, such as the usual cigarettes and stamps proudly portraying Kim Il Sung’s cheery Santa Claus like face. We hopped back in the van and in an instant I was seeing the familiar skycrapers that I had left just hours before. The realization set in that these two cities were only miles apart but existed in entirely different eras.
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