North Korea is one of the most mysterious, isolated countries in the world, suffering a self-inflicted locked-in syndrome. But along the Yalu River, the natural border with China, this benighted country is just one more sight for Chinese tourists.
Boatloads of them gawp at the forbidden shore. Mao said North Korea and China should be as close as lips and teeth, but now they are pulled into a grimace.
I’ve come here to make a documentary for the BBC on the relationship between the United States and China, and there is no doubt North Korea is one of the places that test my title: “Harmony and Hostility.”
U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, may have announced that their countries have a new relationship, but there’s little sign of it at another spot on the tourists’ itinerary.
Dandong’s museum commemorates what it calls The War Against American Aggression, which forged North Korea and ended 50 years ago this summer. It is very much a relic of the past.
The city of Dandong itself is an appealing place. Certainly some of the buildings look old-fashioned and have seen better days. There’s a sense of vigour, of hustle and bustle.
Motorbikes with improbable projections out front and back, carrying ladders, tea urns or bits of scaffolding, thread a precarious route between the often stationary, always honking traffic.
The bridge alongside it literally heads nowhere. It was bombed in the Korean War and never repaired, ending abruptly, cut off mid-river. But the working bridge, busy during the day with truck traffic, simply appears to go nowhere because the North Korean town on the other bank is all in darkness; not a single light to be seen.
China has been much tougher this year on its old ally, both in words and actions. The nuclear issue is of course the main problem, but it is fairly certain that North Korea’s failure to learn the lesson of China’s growth is a source of irritation. That is very visible a few miles down river in New Dandong District. There could hardly be a greater contrast with the old city’s chaotic vibrancy.
Stiff and lifeless identical skyscrapers rise in ranks from the virgin ground next to the river. This is a pristine ghost town. But this is on a much bigger scale, and the planned building is still going on. There are a couple of very big concrete clues to the reason for the absence of economic life.
Two gigantic H-shaped spans, the beginnings of an immense new bridge, stick out from the river.
Meant to link China and North Korea, the planned new economic area was a limited experiment in liberalisation. But it never happened and work on the bridge has apparently stopped.
China’s leaders prize two things above all others — growth and stability. North Korea provides neither, says Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University.
He even says that North Korea is no longer China’s ally.
When it comes to this troublesome regime, China is now largely doing what America wants. But is that cooperation or coincidence? Joseph De Trani is a good man to ask. Between 2003 and 2006, he was U.S. ambassador to the now-stalled six-party talks aimed at denuclearising North Korea.
“I think part is the U.S. factor. But they are not just going to jump because that’s what the United States wants. They’re going to initially decide what’s in China’s interest.
“That’s point number one. Point two, however, is to ensure that the issues of United States are also addressed,” he added. But America has to be careful. It puts pressure on North Korea by strengthening its military presence in the region and strengthening armed alliances with countries like Japan, the Philippines and, of course, South Korea.
That is something that the Chinese look on with wary distaste, and can see as a threat.
Ruan Zongze is a former senior diplomat to Washington and London. Now he’s vice-president of the Chinese Institute for International Studies, the think tank of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
“When Americans say they will conduct numerous military exercises here in order to check North Korea,” he says, “and also try to send a message to China, be honest. So the message is, if you don’t want this, put pressure on [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un.
“I don’t think this will work. As a matter of fact, it’s counter-productive because more military muscle show over here will reduce the desirability for the Chinese side to be cooperative, because it is a kind of warmongering at China’s doorstep,” he adds.
“Certainly this is not the right approach to send a positive message to the Chinese.”
In the motorboat on the Yalu River, we speed by a North Korean military camp, a rather wonky communications tower sticking out of a concrete block of a building.
On the other bank, you can see part of the Great Wall of China in the background, snaking down the hillside, a grand edifice meant to keep out the barbarians.
This is only a tiny part of the border between the two countries, which is about as long as the United Kingdom, 560 miles.
It brings home the importance of what is at stake. One thing the Chinese could never accept would be American troops here on the Yalu River, on their borders.
But that is the risk if North Korea collapsed and the peninsula was unified under a South Korean-style government — a strong ally of the Americans.
And yet, what if a neutral, peaceful, denuclearised unified Korea robbed the U.S. of its main reason — excuse if you like — to keep a strong military here?
The collapse of a one-time ally might be a price worth paying for China if “the Yanks” go home. — New York Times News Service