Inside the Sometimes Surreal North Korea-China Border Town of Dandong
North Koreans fortunate enough to enter China mostly do so here, and this is the only foreign land that many of them would ever see in their lifetimes
Dandong, a trade hub in the northeastern region of China, is North Korea’s portal to the world. For almost anyone on the planet, the city of 2.3 million is easy to reach. There are daily flights from major Chinese cities, and it’s connected to China’s railway system. But for North Koreans, even though Dandong is just across the mile-wide Yalu River, it can feel a world away, decades ahead in time. Those fortunate enough to enter China mostly do so here, and this is the only foreign land that many of them would ever see in their lifetimes.
A few bridges connect, or used to connect, China and Korea, and they tell us the story of how Dandong came to be such an important place for North Koreans. Most striking of these crossings is the Broken Bridge, a remnant of Japan’s colonial era, when Korea was ruled by the Empire of Japan. Completed in 1911, during Emperor Meiji’s reign, the bridge established a much-needed link between the Empire of Japan with Western Europe, connecting Busan with Calais in part via the Great Siberian Way, as the Trans-Siberian Railway was called in the early 20th century—but only after China’s Qing dynasty rulers were strong-armed into allowing it to cut into Chinese land. The bridge was damaged by American bombs during the Korean War in the 1950s, destroying much of it but leaving a short segment connected to the Chinese mainland mostly intact.
What remains of the Broken Bridge has been refurbished—it is now a government-sanctioned heritage site—but its steel still wears marks from bullets and shrapnel. Some beams have been left bent or mangled. The Broken Bridge has carried multiple meanings for the Chinese, first being a symbol of humiliation by a foreign power, Japan. Four decades later, it became a reminder of how another invading force, America, crossed the Pacific to reach the fringes of China, primed with heavy firepower. Now, it is a tourist site and viewing platform for visitors to gaze into the hermit kingdom. Before stepping onto the Broken Bridge, one walks by larger-than-life bronze sculptures of soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army. A few words in both Chinese and English are set before their commanding officer’s feet: “For Peace.”
Americans just call it the Korean War. The Chinese unofficially call it the “anti-American struggle,” and the phrase is even invoked in reports produced by state-run media.
If the view of North Korea’s borderlands along the Yalu from afar isn’t enough, down the river bank, for the right price, Chinese speedboat operators will take you into North Korean territory, hugging the coastline on the other side for close encounters with peasants, fishermen, ill-equipped soldiers, and even a naval base that is normally unmanned. Sometimes, the soldiers look back, holding their hands around their eye like mock binoculars. At other times, they point their weapons at intruders in mock aggression, posing rather than attempting to intimidate. During the brief trip over the river, you might even zip under the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge (completed in 1943) or its intended replacement, the New Yalu River Bridge. The latter was built in the past few years in preparation for North Korea opening up to China, even when international sanctions were in place. It officially opened in late 2015, and is meant to be a border crossing and a portal for trade. China reached out, but in this case, their engagement fell flat.
Near the bridges, North Korean novelties are sold by street vendors. Stamps and sets of North Korean won are hawked as mementos, but it’s the tobacco that is truly popular. Smugglers say that cigarette factories are one of the few bustling businesses in the DPRK, constantly rolling and packing over 120 different kinds of smokes. Weirdly, Chinese knockoffs exist—the most expensive originals that used to be reserved for North Korean officials can sell for up to 200 yuan, or a little over $29, per cigarette.
It isn’t uncommon to see North Koreans walking on the streets in Dandong, often in clusters, sometimes ambling in sync. They wear pins with the images of the patriarchs of the Kim regime. As migrants, they keep to themselves, but are friendly when approached for small talk. You can spot North Koreans in sharp suits too. They might be officials in the country to meet with their Chinese counterparts, or traders scouting for new goods to haul back home. Some walk down supermarket aisles to select groceries to be bought in bulk later for the black market, or look for new TV serials and movies that can be loaded onto USB sticks for quiet distribution. Others—the donju, or “masters of money”—look for upmarket items like luxury vehicles, leather goods imported from the West, new electronic gadgets, and even purebred puppies for Pyongyangites.
The United Nations has restricted North Korean workers from working abroad in order to punish Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons and a missile program. But earlier in the year, Radio Free Asia reported that North Koreans weren’t leaving China to go home. Instead, additional workers have been entering Dandong in defiance of UN resolutions.
China constantly extends its hand toward North Korea, providing aid when the Kim regime needs it most. The Chinese Communist Party plays a critical role in the fate of the DPRK. On the ground, that narrative is rooted. Though there is friction—North Koreans are at times blamed for crimes in Dandong, for instance—there is also intimate cooperation. Bonds between the two nations are uniquely strong at all levels, with China being North Korea’s evergreen ally. Enforcing sanctions on North Korea will continue to be a challenge, as it is nearly impossible to monitor the two counties’ dealings in Dandong and beyond.