Dandong, China (2017)
It was early. 07:30. I’d only been in Dandong a few minutes having just arrived off the overnight train from Beijing.
“Sinuiju” said the taxi driver pointing to his left, to the far, southern bank of the city’s Yalu River. I’d never heard the word before, but I understood its meaning – the city in North Korea that faces Dandong.
It was obvious. North Korea.
About a kilometre away. North Korea.
A few minutes later we passed a dozen or so girls in a procession. Nothing unusual about that except for the fact that the taxi driver felt the need to bring the grouping to my attention. I’d no idea what he was saying, but again I understood. Having read pre-arrival that Dandong is a popular place for North Korean hostesses working in Korean restaurants, a much needed source of revenue for their impoverished homeland, I deduced that they were North Koreans.
“Anyong haseyo” I said in reply to the taxi driver, ‘hello, how are you?’ in Korean.
Immediately he laughed an appreciative laugh, understanding I understood him by him understanding me. No more words were said until we arrived at my hotel.
The Chinese flock here to Dandong for the uniqueness of the place – to be able to buy Korean things while still in China and to be able to gawk across into the Hermit Kingdom, either from the banks of the city’s Yalu River, from a tourist boats plying its waters or from the end of the so-called Broken Bridge, the city’s definite symbol and its biggest draw.
Going The Extra Kilometre
Most who come here to Dandong are happy to ogle at North Korea from a distance. Few, relatively speaking, take the next step and cross the river to enter the regressive totalitarian dictatorship itself, a niche adventure to say the least. Tomorrow I’ll do just that. But I can’t help but question my timing, something I don’t seem very good at with regard to North Korea. Two-and-a-half-years ago my trip to there was cancelled due to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, a geographical region nowhere near the Korean Peninsula. This time regional tensions are high – are they ever? – with young Kim Jong-un, determined to push forward with military modernisation, lobbing missiles around the region for fun of late. People are worried, the South Koreans & Japanese in particular, and outcomes remain uncertain. The Stalinist state is also a tad miffed right now with the UN decision to increase economic sanctions against it. Suffice to say it’s not the ideal time to be paying a visit to North Korea. That said, it – my visit to North Korea – will be brief, but with the US military seemingly “locked and loaded” and with Trump threatening less than a week ago to rain down “fire and fury” on Pyongyang, where I’ll spend the next few days, here’s hoping my timing isn’t that bad after all.