On the way to North Korea, unless you’re going directly, Dandong is an interesting stop. Directly facing the DPRK, the diverging worlds of China and its neighbour are set apart by the Yalu River, which is classified as “international waters” between the two countries. Much is made of the ability to be able to glance across to see life on the other side, which, further upstream is incredibly insightful. In January 2017 we were able to a boat ride opportunity into the river itself and go right up to the North Korean shores. What we were about to experience would prove fascinating.
Life in the borderlands is about as far from the increasingly consumerist lifestyle of Pyongyang as it is in terms of distance. To see it gives a humble and realist depiction of North Korean life. Drawing close in the boat, the border is unsurprisingly occupied by an increasing number of guard posts armed with soldiers. One might presume they are hostile, but surprisingly, they aren’t. As long as you don’t get out of the boat, they don’t care if you come up close. They seem quite happy to chat with the boatmen and even try to solicit things such as cigarettes. On a more tense note however, one may observe a number of North Korean soldiers attempting to make themselves hidden in the grassy hilltops above; these people were watching us carefully. That felt less comforting.
As we proceeded along the shoreline and the islands in the estuary there were a number of very small and modest North Korean village homes. Quite clearly, evidence pointed to them lacking electricity and other basic necessities. We spotted some North Korean women washing clothes in the freezing cold river, that was quite something. We also encountered some North Korean fisherman, as well as some other Chinese boatmen who were eager to sell us some smuggled North Korean currency, which isn’t legally available to foreigners
Afterwards, the driver stopped the boat after some very modest looking North Korean soldiers situated outside of a housing area, called for his attention. The soldiers pointed towards a duck swimming in the river. They wanted the boatman to scare it towards the shore so they, the North Koreans, could throw rocks at it and kill it for food. The driver obliged. Thus, we spent a whole 10 minutes or so in a literal “wild goose chase” to try to harass this duck to the shore to appease hungry (and armed) soldiers as they hurled stones into the river. For you animal lovers, they were unsuccessful, the duck escaped. Nevertheless, it was an eye-opening moment to see North Korea’s army doing this. It painted a grim picture of rural life in the DPRK, a scene any higher authorities in Pyongyang would have been furious about.
In the end, we returned from a freezing river boat ride feeling enlightened and surprised. Without even having entered the country, we got as close to the scenes of “average life” in the DPRK as one possibly can. In doing that, we observed the hardships, struggles and also the humility that characterizes North Korean rural life. The locals were simply seeking to make the most out of extremely modest circumstances.
And despite what you might have read you may even meet some North Koreans as they can travel outside of the country.