Whilst it s common for visitors to North Korea to take a boat ride along the Yalu River, which separates China from its neighbour, one summer when on one of these rides I would experience an unprecedented encounter with locals which would reveal telling truth about the quality of life in the rural provinces of the country. It’s an experience I think about a great deal, one I look back on with sadness above anything.
When on boat rides along the river, there are several islands in the middle of the water which are owned by the DPRK. These islands contain small chalet like homes made out of wood, they clearly lack any kind of electricity or flowing water. Often, the locals may seize an opportunity to try and contact the Chinese boatmen going by in order to obtain goods or other incentives from foreigners. But what we would see was something completely out of the blue.
Whilst sailing along the Yalu river, our boat was called over by a group of three North Korean soldiers, of whom looked impoverished with somewhat tattered uniforms. One of them was armed with a rifle. They were of course not hostile, and were capable of communicating well with the Chinese boatman. They seemed very much use to it and friendly enough. However, they had a request, an unusual one at that. In the waters between us and them, there was a duck. They wanted us, in the boat, to chase the duck to the shore, in order for them to attack it with rocks and kill it so they could eat it.
Interestingly enough, the boatman complied. He began harassing the duck with the boat in attempt to force it towards the shore, whereas the North Koreans threw rocks at it simultaneously. It is worth noting that despite being armed, they did not fire at it, lack of ammunition or authorization? This went on for some time, we went round and round in circles. However, their aim wasn’t great and they failed to hit the duck. Luckily for itself, it escaped.
At a first glance this story may seem amusing, it is tempting to laugh at it. Yet at the same time for me, it is sad. It spoke louder than words about life in the provinces of the DPRK. The soldiers were hungry, as well as meat being a luxury item which is hard to come by in many areas of the country. For them to do this during the time of their supposed duty was eyeopening. It was very much reminiscent of a fact that not only are there organisational and resource problems within the country’s armed forces, but also many soldiers are too preoccupied with their own survival to be adequate servicemen.
Outside of Pyongyang, life is tough. We were lucky to witness such a thing firsthand, as it flew in the face of the secrecy the country otherwise approaches its affairs with. A ride along the Yalu River allows us to touch the surface of rural North Korean life. A humbling experience.