Thursday, September 14, 2006

Axis of Evil - Part 1

Dandong - Mao

That's Chairman Mao himself outside of the train station in Dandong. When I decided to focus much of my travel on China I knew that a must see destination would be the northeastern city of Dandong. I wanted to get as close as an American citizen can to Asia’s founding member of the “Axis of Evil”, North Korea. I’ve long been fascinated with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK. The DPRK has been described as a Stalinist Theme Park. If the communism in today’s China can be described as Communism Lite, the DPRK is old school Commie Classic. Stalin’s USSR had no cell phones and neither does the DPRK, they’re banned. Electricity is a sometimes thing as is food. After a bad harvest a few years ago and resulting famine that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives one of the government’s slogans was, “Let’s all eat 2 meals a day”. Anyone with a fast Internet connection can watch canned broadcasts of the nightly news from Pyongyang ( and understanding Korean isn’t a requirement to notice that things are just a wee bit odd in the DPRK. Since the DPRK is a one party state ruled by the Korean Workers Party and the head of the party, Kim Jong Il, is known as the “Dear Leader” most of the news is about his comings and goings, such as his visits to army bases or to collective farms to dispense “on the spot guidance” and tell farmers in person what they ought to grow or not grow. Or the historic comings and goings of his father Kim Il Sung, the “Great Leader” because the DPRK is the world’s first communist dynasty. In the dead of winter the news often shows office workers in winter coats and vapor streaming from their mouths because in the energy poor DPRK if it’s cold outside it’s cold inside. Does a rocky hillside have to be moved in preparation for new construction? No problem because although the DPRK lacks modern earth moving equipment I’ve seen workers on TV breaking big ones into little ones with sledge hammers and chisels while others dutifully carry off the debris in baskets. I’d love to go and see all this for myself but there are several obstacles:

  • American citizens are forbidden entry because although there's an armistice the US and DPRK are still technically at war.
  • Tourists that do make it into the DPRK are assigned minders and their itineraries are set by the government, wandering off alone and mingling with the locals is strictly prohibited.

  • Why give money to to aid and strengthen brutal dictators? We’re not talking Gitmo here. Read the Aquariums of Pyongyang; if you don’t catch snakes, lizards, rats and insects to eat while you’re in a North Korean labor camp you die of starvation. After a day of forced mining or logging committing the speeches of the ruling Kim clan to memory is mandatory.

OK, so I couldn't enter the country but I could get up close and peer in. To do so I had to go to Dandong. Dandong is on the Yalu River in Liaoning province and was once a staging ground for Chinese “volunteers” who fought in the Korean War against the US. Today there’s a museum there with the pretentious cold war name of Museum Commemorating the War to Resist American Aggression and Aid Korea.

Dandong is a Seattle sized city of roughly 500,000 people and is the eastern terminus of the Great Wall of China. The Yalu River forms the border between China and the DPRK, right across the Yalu is the North Korean city of Sinuiju. I booked a "Riverview" room at Dandong’s only 4 star hotel, the Zhonglian, a room with a view, a view of North Korea. Dandong on the Yalu: Hotel view

See those 2 bridges that my riverview room looked out on? Actually it’s just a bridge and a half. The austere bridge on the left connects Dandong and Sinuiju with one reversible lane for motor vehicles and one railroad track. The half bridge on the right was built during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and was bombed during the Korean war by the US Air Force in 1950 and was never rebuilt. On the DPRK side only the footings remain. Today the “Broken Bridge” is a tourist attraction, admission 20 Yuan. My admission ticket is below.

 Bridge mangled 3

Sinuiju has a slightly smaller population than Dandong but at night it might as well not exist, it's absolutely invisible. At night Dandong is alive with lights, cars and people on the streets or in their electrically lit homes living their lives. At night Sinuiju appears to be dead, maybe the Dear Leader sucked the life out of it. I saw no lights at all except what appeared to be somebody welding. I did see some diffused light off in the distance, I’ve since read that it’s the statue of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung which has the only artificial light in town.

Directly above and below is Dandong as seen from a boat on the North Korean side of the Yalu. It's so prosperous it even has air pollution.


There's not much to see on the Sinuiju side of the Yalu. Plenty of rusting hulks, a few propaganda slogans (this one supposedly proclaims that Kim Jong Il is the light of the sun) and not much else. If rigid communism has any benefits they weren't evident from just offshore.

Truck traffic between Dandong and the DPRK. No clue on what's in the trucks. I saw carpeting heading into North Korea and a refrigerated truck from a Japanese meat company come out.
The Great Helmsman bids you farewell.

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