A reclusive regime rules North Korea, making it one of the most inaccessible countries in the world to foreign journalists. Jehangir S. Pocha of The Telegraph was in North Korea recently. The first of a series begins with a look at North Korea from the Chinese border.
Citizens in this town on the banks of the Yalu River, which separates China from North Korea, were surprised to see some of their neighbours coasting down the water in rusty boats festooned with colourful flags.
“We don’t really see them socialising on the river much,” said Yun Yi, 67, a local retiree as he gestured to the North Korean town of Sinuiju that lies across from Dandong. “I wonder what’s going on.”
North Korea was celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Workers Party of Korea, whose leaders Kim Il Sung, and his son, North Korea’s current strongman Kim Jong Il, have ruled the country since the end of World War II in 1945, and the weekend cruise was just one of a string of festivities the isolated state has been putting on for its impoverished citizens.
Gazing across at Sinuiju from Dandong it is hard to see why ordinary North Koreans would feel like celebrating. While Dandong glitters with the glass and steel of numerous skyscrapers, Sinuiju is drab and derelict.
The only gleaming things there were the AK-47 rifles slung over the shoulders of North Korean soldiers in khaki, inspecting the catch a few small fishing boats have brought in.
“It was not always like this,” said Ping, a Chinese resident of Korean descent who is a junior partner in a textile factory in North Korea and visits there often. “I’m 43, and I remember when we went there as kids to see our extended family it was a very warm, loving country. They were also much more advanced than us and had TVs, and we used to buy things there to sell in China.”
Now the tables have painfully turned. The collapse of the Soviet Union and North Korea’s unwillingness to reform itself, as China has done, has ravaged the country.
Every year, hundreds, if not thousands, of North Koreans try to bribe or steal their way across the border into China. Many are killed.
“It’s tragic,” said Ping. “Our (North Korean) workers there earn just $2 a month. Even then, it’s not really easy for us to do business there. The factory can never keep deadlines because they have no power. Sometimes we think of moving. But I’m Korean, and my partner is South Korean, and we feel a responsibility to our brothers.”
Such fraternal feelings are strong in this area, which is home to about two million ethnic Koreans. Most of them, like Ping’s grandfather, came here when northeastern China and Korea were colonised by the Japanese and organised into the puppet state of Manchukuo under the nominal control of China’s last Qing dynasty Manchu emperor, Pu Yi.
Today, China is the only nation to maintain close ties with North Korea, and every day an endless stream of trucks crosses the Friendship Bridge, with the North Koreans bringing in minerals and scrap iron for the Chinese, who drive over food, oil, electronics goods and clothes.
The trade, which provides North Korea with about 75 per cent of its imports, is estimated to be worth about $1.5 billion a year. Analysts say this lifeline is probably the only thing keeping the world’s last Stalinist state from imploding.
The feeling that Korea is a nation torn apart is palpable here. Frustrated and angry, many people lapse into a common, and often government-encouraged, response: blaming the US.
“It’s because of the American troops in South Korea and Taiwan that our countries can’t be unified,” said Fu Xiang Chun, 75, a local retiree who remembers the Korean War vividly.
But Chu Shulong, professor of international studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said the Chinese government might not be in a hurry to see a unified Korea either.
“It brings up the question of our Korean minority and how they will react if Korea is one again,” he said.
Ping said there is no doubt about what will happen.
“Eighty per cent of the Koreans here want to be one again,” he said. “We would all want to join Korea and, if we cannot, then we’ll just pack up here and leave.”
Across the river in Sinuiju, such concerns seem far away from people’s minds. The few people fishing in the river with home-made rods steadfastly ignore Chinese tourists sputtering up and down the Yalu in motorboats, trying to peer into a country many here describe as “crazy”.
“Poor guys,” said one of the tourists. “They just want to catch fish and go home.”