BY MINAMI FUNAKOSHI
When my friends and I arrived in Dandong, the largest border city in China, our first destination was duanqiao: The Broken Bridge. The bridge, which connects Dandong and Sinujiu, North Korea over the Yalu River, is a relic of the Korean War. Bombed by American aircraft, it serves as a reminder—or proof—of “American aggression,” and, according to the propaganda poster by the bridge, is a symbol of the “greatest achievement of [Chinese] voluntary army…to aid [North] Korea.”
The Broken Bridge is also one of the few spots in China where you can see North Korea, the most corrupt nation in the world according to Transparency International’s 2011 corruption index. North Korea, a totalitarian communist regime, maintains an extreme disparity between the rich and the poor: While Kim Jong-Un, supreme leader since December 2011, enjoys a rollercoaster ride in a new amusement park, more than 30 percent of the population suffers from undernourishment.
Eager to see North Korea with our own eyes, my friends and I hopped in a battered cab that reeked of gas and cigarettes and headed toward the Broken Bridge. Within 20 minutes, we had left the city center and were driving on a deserted mountain. Amidst the trees I spotted a decrepit motel named Taiyangdao, island of the sun. Who would stay in such a place? I thought to myself as we continued down the dark, one-way road. Where is the sun?
After an hour and a half of driving, our cab finally halted at a sign that read Hekou Duanqiao, the Broken Bridge at River Mouth. Excited, we burst out of the cab and ran toward the empty bridge.
An eerie silence hung over the site—there was no one else there, except for the old Chinese woman at the ticket booth and the bronze bust of Mao Anying, the eldest son of Mao Zedong. On October 23, 1950, Anying crossed the bridge to join the Korean War.
As I tiptoed down the bridge, I passed posters explaining the brief history of the bridge and the Korean War. One of them read:
On March 29, 1951, American warplanes bombed Qingcheng Bridge. It was finally destroyed. The remained parts of the bridge are called as “broken bridge” today…
To commemorate the great “war to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea” and the great achievement of voluntary army, the relevant departments of Dandong City built the statue of MAO Anying… The statue at the bridge will be looked at by people with reverence forever.
Suddenly, I hit a dead-end: A metal fence blocked my way. I leaned over the fence; just a few feet away the bridge ended abruptly, its jagged, splintered edge hanging awkwardly over the water. I tore my eyes off from the drop-off, and looked up. North Korea was just a few hundred feet away. Gray haze hovered over the shore, masking what was on the other end of the Yalu River. I reached out my arm then clasped my fingers, as if to grab and clear the fog away.
Standing there, halfway between North Korea and China, I felt as if stranded between two worlds. On the right on the Chinese shore, stood tall office buildings. On the left on the North Korean shore, stood trees. Lamps lit up the city of Dandong, bustling with activity; Sinujiu lay in lifeless darkness, with no power to defy the night, helpless before the sinking sun. Staring at the other side, it was if the bridge disappeared into a black hole.
After a while we left the bridge and headed to Hushan (Tiger Mountain), the eastern-most known section of the Great Wall of China. As we climbed up the steps, fighting against the piercingly cold wind, a panorama view of Dandong, the Yalu River, and Sinujiu spread before our eyes: Hills lush with red and yellow foliage on the Chinese side and, just across the river, barren, hay-coloured farmland. Even the few grey clouds that hung over Dandong were crawling toward the other side; as the Chinese land emerged under the sunlight, shadows shrouded North Korea.
When we reached the watchtower on the Wall, we found a pair of mounted binoculars. Attached was a piece of paper that said, “5 RMB (80 cents).” As I stepped toward the binoculars, a Chinese man appeared at my side. I gave him a 5 RMB bill and began to examine North Korea. Through the binoculars, I saw huts built with wood and straw dotting the farmland. Nothing moved. I continued to scan the shore. Finally, I spotted a lone truck driving down a one-way road: The first sign of activity. “Look, there’s a truck!” I shouted. Then, I saw a dot moving nearby. I squinted: “There’s a man running in front of it!”
I shouted excitedly, pointing out each little thing that I saw. “A propaganda billboard! It’s red with white letters, just like in China!” “Look, farmers!”
The farmers fascinated me; ten or twenty North Koreans, all wearing the same black clothes, bent down in unison to harvest their crops. Every few minutes, they left their positions in the field to dump armfuls of potatoes onto a wheel-cart. Amongst the black-clad farmers strolled one old woman, dressed in red. Who is that woman? Why is she wearing red? Questions continued to run through my mind.
One North Korean left the line of farmers and descended to the shore, growing bigger in my view. He wore loose black pants, a black jacket, and black rubber boots. Despite the biting northern wind, his hands were exposed. He stood at the edge of the shore, the farthest he could go, facing me. With still a tuft of black hair on his head he seemed relatively young, perhaps in his early middle age. I could almost make out his face but he turned away, and the image I pieced together in my mind turned into a faceless blur.
I stepped away from the binoculars and realized that I could see the North Koreans with my bare eyes. And it hit me: If I can see them, they can see me—and everything behind me. The lush mountains; the neon-lit restaurants and hotels. The cars; the buildings; the lights on the streets. They see Taiyangdao—island of the sun, so bright and close, yet so far away.
As I stared at the desolate land, I could not help but remember what the cab driver had told me on our way to the Broken Bridge. “When North Koreans come to Dandong, they stuff themselves with our apples and dumplings.” He laughed and added, “They say the food here is cheap and good—they get so excited when they see that the dumplings are stuffed with meat.”
I asked the only other person at the watchtower—the man renting binoculars—what he thought about the life he saw on the other side of the river. “I think it’s pretty good,” he answered leisurely as he smoked his cigarette. “No stress. Everything is organized. You just have to farm.”
“What do you think about the life here?” I asked. “It’s fine. Not too much stress here, either.”
After climbing down the Great Wall, we headed toward the narrowest section of the Yalu River known as yi bu kua, “one step across.” This thirty-foot long “step” was perhaps too wide to hop over, but you could still easily wade your way over to the other side.
There, I found one sign titled: “National Border of P.R.C. and D.P.R.K. Reminder.” The sign requests people not to “climb or cross separation obstacles such as barbed wires,” “throw any objects over the border,” “converse or exchange objects with people on the other side of the border,” or “take pictures or videos of the military installations.”
Such warnings, however, do little to stop people from crossing the river. In 2009, North Korean guards detained two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, at the Dandong-Sinujiu border. In 1999, Evan C. Hunziker, also an American citizen, swam across the river while inebriated and was detained in North Korea for three months.
“Do many North Koreans try to cross the border?” I asked the Chinese worker at the ticket booth. “During the winter, when the river freezes and you can walk over to the other side,” he answered. “But not too many try,” he added, “They know they will just get caught and be sent back.”
After talking to the Chinese worker, I walked down to the border. I spotted another sign by the barbed wires that read: “Compete to be a civilized border resident; construct a harmonious border.” On the sign were six cartoon illustrations. In one of them, two children dressed in traditional North Korean clothes stand at the shore, smiling. Across from the two North Korean children is a Chinese backpacker on a boat, who is throwing a package labelled “Food” toward them. At the bottom of the picture, the sign warns, “Forbidden to throw things to North Korea.”
Why did the Chinese government specifically choose “food” as an example of what not to throw to North Korea? This policy may stem from political and practical considerations on both sides.
In 2005, the North Korean government denied the presence of famine within its borders and expelled aid organizations from the country to decrease its dependence on foreign aid. Despite such moves, however, it continued to rely on outside food aid. The warning against throwing food, among other things, to North Korea may be a manifestation of such contradicting stances.
Perhaps it is another desperate attempt by Pyongyang to convince the world of its “self-sufficiency” and, in extension, the legitimacy of the current communist system.
This, however, could not be further from the truth. In January 2013, “citizen journalists” in North Korea reported incidents of starvation-induced cannibalism. One journalist told Asia Press, a news agency based in Osaka, Japan: “In my village in May, a man who killed his own two children and tried to eat them was executed by a firing squad…While his wife was away on business he killed his eldest daughter and, because his son saw what he had done, he killed his son as well. When the wife came home, he offered her food, saying: ‘We have meat.’”
China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and strongest political ally. Last October, the government of China’s Liaoning Province hosted the 2012 China-DPRK Economic, Trade, Cultural and Tourism Expo in Dandong. The theme was “friendship, cooperation and development.” Why, then, does China forbid people from throwing food—among other things—to North Korea? Perhaps it is as simple as this: China, with 1.3 billion people and serious demographic issues of its own, does not need starving North Koreans, lured by food, to swim over to its side.
But as I gazed at the Chinese tourists clustered on a motorboat on the Yalu River, obsessively taking photos of North Koreans, I could not help but wonder if the Chinese people, by doing so, were trying to forget their painful past as well. For the older Chinese generations, the North Korean famine in the 1990s perhaps stirs memories of the 1957-1961 Great Leap Forward, a disastrous economic and social campaign led by Mao Zedong that caused 18 to 45 million famine-induced deaths. During the Great Leap Forward, almost all property belonged to the state, just as is the case in North Korea now.
For China, North Korea is, in a way, a phantom of its traumatic past. When faced by North Korea, an eerie shadow of what China used to be, what do many Chinese citizens do? They take photos.
Tourists take photos of what to them seems unusual or fascinating. By transforming North Korea into a tourist site and by taking photos of North Koreans, Chinese people can objectify them as “foreign” specimens that they can observe through their lenses. With high-tech smart phones and DSLRs in their hands, they perhaps feel how far their country has come, and how fortunate they are to be living in China today.
And they have the numbers to confirm their sense of pride. China, according to World Bank Development Indicators, reduced its poverty rate from 85 percent to 15.9 percent in less than twenty years. In 2010 its GDP surpassed Japan’s, and China emerged as the world’s second largest economy.
Despite such economic feats, however, China is not an “island of the sun.” Shadows of the Maoist era still haunt Chinese society today, and issues such as corruption, inequality, and human rights abuse darken China’s glory.
But this country—where the government imprisons ordinary citizens at re-education labour camps for “online speech crime,” where officials drive around in BMWs while elementary school children, seeking warmth, crawl into a dumpster, light some matches, and as a result, die of carbon monoxide poisoning—is, for those on the other side of the Yalu River, a land of hope, prosperity, light, and freedom.
Before leaving Dandong, my friends and I went to see the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, which, like the Broken Bridge, was also bombed by American aircraft but has since been repaired. As I stood by the bridge— one of North Korea’s few links to the outside world—I saw a truck heading toward the other side. The sun had already sunk; the truck became smaller and smaller until, finally, darkness sucked it in. What is that man I saw on the shore doing now, I wondered. Will he find some food to eat tonight? The land remained unlit and silent as before.
Minami Funakoshi ’14 is a Literature major in Berkeley College. Contact her at minami. firstname.lastname@example.org.