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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.

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