Sinuiju, North Korea’s most significant border town with 360,000 people is literally a few hundred metres from Dandong, a thriving city of nearly 3 million people in north east China. In practical terms, for all bar a select few citizens of Sinuiju, the two cities might as well be on different planets as there is as much chance of their getting to Dandong as there is of their getting to another planet.
There is no freedom of movement between the two cities separated by the Yalu River. While I could not see any overt border patrols on either side of the river, it would be foolhardy to attempt an unauthorised exit from North Korea by crossing the river at this point. To do so would almost certainly mean death. You would most likely be shot leaving but should you succeed and make it across the river you would, in all probability, be picked up on the Chinese side and (per China’s policy) returned to North Korea at which point death would most likely be your welcome home present. To further deter defections, and probably the greatest deterrent, the families of defectors and would be defectors are also ‘punished’.
With that sobering thought and in the knowledge that I had an official exit visa for later the same day, we had a short walk along the North Korean side of the Yalu River (called the Amrok in North Korea) and as you see from the attached photos there is a major contrast between the two river banks. On the Chinese side, Dandong, with its skyscrapers and bright lights (imagine!) has been built right up to the shoreline while the North Korean side is a series of mud banks and a path together with a few dilapidated buildings and a quite famous Ferris wheel (picture from Wikipedia as we were asked to restrict our photo-taking here to across the river). The Ferris wheel is visible from Dandong and, apparently, is never used which for the naysayers proves what an eerie, ghostly and backward country North Korea is.
When asked how come there were lots of high rise buildings and development on the Chinese side of the river and virtually nothing on the North Korean side, our guides quickly explained that this was due to a higher water table on the North Korean side which precluded building on this side. I wondered if there might be other reasons too.
While we only met a few people walking along the path I couldn’t but wonder what they think when they look across the river? Do they realise how different things are over in Dandong?
While we didn’t have time to have a walk along the shore on the Chinese side of the river, it is a major attraction in Dandong for locals and tourists alike to peer across the river to this most secretive of countries.
Over time the Yalu River has been the site of several battles because of its strategic location between Korea and China. These have included the Battle of the Yalu River in 1894 during the First Sino-Japanese War and the Battle of Yalu River in 1904 during the Russo-Japanese War.
During the Korean War, the advance of US/South Korean forces towards the river precipitated China’s involvement in the War, in support of North Korea, as Mao Zedong feared an American invasion of China.
Today, it is interesting to contrast the non-existent militarisation of this border with China with that along North Korea’s southern border with South Korea. You can read more about the latter on my Panmunjom entries. Of course, China is a friendly (if often frustrated) ally of North Korea while South Korea, seen as a puppet of the United States, most certainly is not.
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on my trip to Sinuiju, North Korea. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Bridge Across the Yalu – or to start the loop at the beginning go to my introductory entry – In North Korea – On the Border with China.