In my previous attempt to approach North Korea, the road from its southern neighbour to the so-called Demarcation Line was quite tense and at times dramatic—judging by the faces of my fellow travellers. Touring the North Korean border from the Chinese side was surprisingly the exact opposite.
A few weeks ago, on the precise day when China pulled a surprise move and introduced some of the harshest economic sanctions on North Korea over the past decade—due to the recent launching of ballistic missiles—we went to Dandong—a city in the Chinese region of Dongbei (literally translated as east-north).
It’s also one of the largest customs centres and routes for commercial exchange between the two countries; some even say it’s the largest border city in the country. Dandong and the neighbouring city of Sinuiju, North Korea, are divided by the Yalu River and forms a long natural border between the two countries.
Yalu has historical significance as it was the location of several battles in various world conflicts. In the battle for the river during the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894, it was the scene of the largest naval battle (Dandong is about an hour drive from the beaches of the Bohai Gulf). And the first land battle in 1904 was fought there during the Russo-Japanese War, and also the Korean War, which China entered in October 1950.
The main crossing from Dandong is a half destroyed bridge that stands as a reminder of that period. The original Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge (built in 1911) is located about a hundred meters from another larger bridge that has used the same name since 1990.
The second bridge was built during the occupation of Manchuria by a unit of the Japanese Imperial Army (construction was completed in 1943). Both bridges were bombed by US forces during the fighting around Dandong (from 1950 – 1951) in an effort to cut off the supply lines to North Korea from China.
All the bridges spanning the river from that time were demolished. Of the two Friendship bridges in Dandong, only the newer one was restored. Today it’s in many ways a vital artery and one of the rare land connections that North Korea has with China, and thus the rest of the world.
Some say North Korea insisted that the original bridge not be repaired so that the United States wouldn’t be able to deny destroying it.
The so-called ‘Broken Bridge’ has become a tourist attraction due to the stringent measures and a ban on entering North Korea. The broken parts now stand as a lookout with a beautiful view of Sinuijua, including some North Korean customs buildings, an amusement park (which is practically never used), and sometimes even passers-by. It’s a must-see for anyone visiting the city.
The city is quite lively even in the winter when temperatures dip well below zero. Residents enjoy walking the promenade as the clean and sharp wind descends from the north along river. Dandong historically has a large community of immigrants from the North, and therefore many fantastic restaurants inspired by their national cuisine, as well as Korean schools and cultural centres.
The town also serves as a lively business hub with North Korea and you can easily meet people from there who come over for business or who live and work in China (most commonly they own restaurants and hotels, work in such places, or are girls for entertainment).
This city and its surrounding area are known as illegal crossings for North Korean nationals trying to escape—especially due to the fact that in some places the river is only five meters across. I’ll tell you about one such place next week.
Franka Gulin has been living life to its fullest in Beijing for four years. Since the summer she has been writing a blog and sharing her experiences from far-off China and the surrounding region.
*The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of HRT.