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Tea Leaves

Peering into North Korea

Dandong is the world's last remaining cross-border observation post

Tourist boats ply the Yalu River near an incomplete "bridge to nowhere," stretching north of Dandong with rural North Korea in the background. (Photo by Eric Richardson)

In my studies of totalitarian states, I often had to use a nearby country as an observation post. I was lucky to study first in Vienna and then in Krakow, Poland, as cracks began to appear in the Iron Curtain. In the early 1990s, peering across the border from Hong Kong was the only way to gain glimpses into daily life in China. More recently, I helped to keep an eye on Libya from the U.S. Libya External Office in Tunisia.

As the former Soviet Union and China opened up, the need for such observation posts gradually disappeared. Technology, mobile phones and social media offer multiple possibilities for contact across borders. But for firsthand insight into North Korea, there is no better observation post than Dandong, on the Yalu River in northeastern China.

Dandong's economic fortunes are tied to North Korea, whether in trade, tourism or cultural history and souvenirs. Dandong has long been an important crossing point between China and North Korea. The ruins of an early 20th century bridge jut into the Yalu River from Dandong's city center, its North Korean end destroyed by U.S. bombing in the Korean War.  

Hundreds of Chinese, South Korean and Western tourists walk this "bridge to nowhere" past the smiling statues of Chinese volunteers who repelled U.S. forces.  The tourists squint or use binoculars to catch a glimpse off the bridge's end.   Others board boats to see across; tourist vessels pass close enough for passengers to shout to North Korean farmers working their land.  Nearby, the Friendship Bridge carries lorries and train cars laden with goods and minerals from North Korea, as well as occasional passengers. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's special train has crossed the bridge three times this year before summits with China's Xi Jinping.

Shopkeepers say that trade was easier before United Nations sanctions, imposed because of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. But North Korean seafood is seen as healthy fare by some Chinese because of the lack of pollution across the border, and it remains plentiful in Dandong's many Korean restaurants. In some, North Korean waitresses perform dance routines. More often than not they are offspring of the North Korean elite, rigorously supervised by their employers.

In recent years, sanctions have reduced the number of freight wagons crossing the Friendship Bridge carrying coal or other North Korean products. But goods still cross the river, some smuggled or counterfeit, including North Korean cigarettes and lapel pins featuring Kim Jong Un that sell for a few dollars along the riverfront.

Dandong has even begun to sell its status as an observation post. Business people eagerly await a political and economic opening in North Korea, and luxurious South Korean-designed apartments on a Chinese island a stone's throw from the North Korean shoreline are selling for 3 million yuan ($436,000). The apartments can be outfitted as offices or residences, and all have balconies looking into North Korea. House prices in Dandong rose faster than anywhere else in China in the first half of 2018, helped by the North Korean leader's visits to Beijing.

According to a local real estate agent these apartments were initially intended for business people from Shanghai and Hong Kong, but many have been sold to South Koreans. All are seeking to get an early advantage in trade with North Korea if sanctions are lifted. Labor costs of $1 a day have industrialists from across Asia drooling at the prospect of opening factories in North Korea; others will seek their fortunes in exporting raw materials.

Like East Germans before them, the North Koreans know what it means to be watched, and have set the stage accordingly. A faux amusement park, military and fishing boats, and a never-ending construction project are among the sites visible from the Friendship Bridge. There are no signs of North Korean children enjoying the wooden ferris wheel or faded water slide that face observers in China. But there are people, possibly actors, in the construction site that never gets completed and on board the military ship that never patrols the river.

As a key crossing point from China, Dandong is likely to benefit from growing tourism to North Korea, which is increasingly available to Chinese citizens, though Americans are forbidden to visit by the U.S. government and other Westerners largely remain reluctant. That could change if sanctions are eased, but Dandong's role as an observation post is likely to continue for a while, not least because it is useful to North Korea as a gauge of its relations with the outside world. That in itself could give Dandong an extended shelf life as a listening post. Eventually, though, it will become another relic of a bygone era.

Eric Richardson is president of UNHRGeneva.org, a non-government organization dedicated to leveling the playing field at the United Nations. He served more than 20 years as a U.S. diplomat and negotiator, primarily in Asia.

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