China Power

The Dandong Time Machine

A Chinese village on the North Korean border offers an alternative view on the meaning of Kim Jong-il’s death.

With the death of Kim Jong-Il, North Korea and China watchers have been engaged in some pretty intense Kremlinology, trying to make sense of elite politics in Pyongyang. But what do ordinary people living along the North Korean border think of the changes taking place inside their communist neighbor?

I took a trip to Dandong, a small Chinese port town on the North Korean border, to try a get a more bottom-up perspective on the hermit kingdom.

What struck me most was the sympathetic view many in Dandong took towards their neighbor. In Beijing, the standard reaction to questions about North Korea is pretty similar to the West: “They’re crazy” (tamen feng le), it’s hard to imagine life there.”

These kinds of responses are far less common in Dandong, whose residents can clearly see North Korea across the Yalu River and many of whom have been across the river to do business. Far more people told me things like “they’re really poor” and “they’re less developed than us.”

For many of the older residents of Dandong, looking across the river was like looking back into China’s past. One old man pointed to the desolate North Korean skyline in front of us, punctuated by only a few disheveled factory chimneys, and contrasted it with the high-rise buildings behind us in Dandong. “China was like that 30 years ago. Without reform and opening we’d still be like that now: poor and backwards.” For him, like most of China’s residents, China’s economic transformation over the past three decades has brought huge improvements to his standard of living, and China’s Maoist past is something he’s glad the country has moved on from.

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Not all of Dandong’s residents shared this positive perspective, however. Dandong has its share of losers from the reform process and, for them, looking over at North Korea provides a chance to reminisce about better times. One elderly woman who makes her living peddling North Korean cigarettes and postage stamps brought back by Chinese doing business across the border told me: “In North Korea, everyone’s poor, but everyone is equal. Here, the rich are too rich and the poor are too poor.” The woman, who used to work in a state-owned textiles factory looks back at China’s Maoist years with both longing and affection. In those days, she enjoyed a stable income and a guaranteed job. After being laid off in the economic reforms of the 1990s, however, she’s been struggling to live, unable to find a full-time job with her limited education. I asked her whether she thinks the North’s system is better than China’s. After a long pause, she told me “that’s right.”

For those with the ability to take advantage of it, however, North Korea presents an economic opportunity. Quite separate from government aid and trade across the North Korean border, there’s a roaring trade across the border that has nothing to do with the governments. “We do all kinds of business with them,” one man told me; “anything they need, we can get it to them.” A woman who owns a shop selling TV satellite dishes in Dandong told me: “Wholesalers come here and buy dishes to sell across the border. They’ve got lots of customers. Some of them are for foreigners doing business there, and some of them are for North Koreans who have money” Business hasn’t been interrupted so far, she told me. “It’s too early to tell.  We’ll know over the next year if Kim Jong-Il’s death with make any difference. For now, it’s business as usual.”

Nor did Kim Jong-il’s death or the freezing cold weather seem to have made any difference to the informal tourism business conducted on the border. There are numerous boats offering tours of the riverbank and many who offer travel services to North Korea. One woman approached me at the bank of the Yalu river and offered to take me across for 1,000 Yuan: “We take you across to the other bank, you can look round for a while, and then we’ll bring you back. No problem.”  I politely declined the offer.

Young people in Dandong take an altogether different perspective. For many of them, interacting with North Korea is a way of escaping the boredom of small-town life. One 27-year-old taxi driver told me that in the summer, he and his friends visit a part of the border where the two countries are separated only by a small stream. “We take lumps of North Korean money or loaves of bread and throw them across the steam. Then we wait for the North Korean guards to come along, hop across and take photos with them. They don’t mind because they want the money, but it’s really exciting because – you know – their guns are real!”

One 22-year-old student and part-time tour guide told me that she and her friends think it’s fun to rent one of the numerous small boats that offer to take people of river tours of the border and throw pens or even paper cups for North Koreans living across the border: “It’s so funny, they’re so happy with the stuff we throw to them.”

As life goes on in Dandong, however, people aren’t oblivious to the geo-political implications of China’s relationship with North Korea. I asked one shopkeeper in Dandong who sells trinkets from North Korea if there had been any change to his business after Kim Jong-il’s death. “There’s been no change yet, and there won’t be any change because China won’t allow any change.” He then asked me where I was from and I told him I’m from the United Kingdon. “There, you see,” he replied. “If we let them collapse, the Americans, you, and the Japanese will be on our border trying to interfere in our politics. They’re our friend and they’re a good friend. There won’t be any change for now.”

Peter Martin works for a political consulting firm in Beijing.