So near yet so far. That is how one journalist described his photograph of the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, taken from the Chinese border in Dandong (丹東), Liaoning ( 遼寧 ) province, opposite Sinuiju in North Korea.
As a Singaporean correspondent based in Beijing, he was lamenting the fact he could not enter North Korea via Sinuiju – instead he needed official approval to enter via the capital, Pyongyang.
But he might equally have been describing the sentiments of many Chinese towards their neighbour. So close geographically, but so different and far apart. While Chinese are fascinated by life across the Yalu River, many know precious little about their controversial neighbour – despite the much-touted ties between the two countries, supposedly sealed in blood during the 1950–1953 Korean War.
This much was evident on two recent trips this writer took to North Korea – the first a day trip to Sinuiju, and the second to Sinuiju and Dongrim, which has been open to tourists since 2014. Both cities are in Pyongan province.
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A Chinese travel brochure had much to encourage the venture: “Let us visit the world’s most insurmountable frontier! Let’s head to the world’s happiest and safest country, North Korea, to discover a China we were once familiar with,” it urged, with an enthusiasm that is being embraced by a growing number of inquisitive Chinese.
Despite a chill in relations between China and North Korea over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, tourism has boomed since Beijing approved North Korea as a destination for its citizens in June 2008.
Dozens of companies in China now specialise in tours to North Korea, including the Dandong Dongyun Travel Agency run by Song Jun. According to Song, about 300 Chinese tourists enter North Korea daily via Dandong – the biggest Chinese city along the 1,400km border. The number is capped at 500 a day.
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Countrywide estimates are harder to pin down – South Korean sources estimate 100,000 tourists visited the North in 2015, 90 per cent of whom were Chinese, while North Korea puts the figure at almost half a million and hopes to double that by 2017.
Either way, the number is still far lower than the amount of Chinese visiting South Korea (more than 3.5 million in the first six months of 2015), but the popularity of the Hermit Kingdom is startling nevertheless – and is growing as more cities open up.
Apart from Sinuiju and Dongrim, other cities open to Chinese tourists include Pyongyang, Nampo, Kaesong and Rason.
A four to five-day trip costs between 3,000 yuan and 5,000 yuan (HK$3,375 and HK$5,625) per person, depending on whether visitors travel by plane or rail. Day trips cost 700 to 800 yuan.
Since July, Chinese tourists have been allowed to enter without a passport if they are on a half-day tour – a move some see as motivated by Pyongyang’s need for foreign currency after a wave of international sanctions.
Tourists stay at the best foreigner-only hotels and shepherded by tour guides fluent in Mandarin and handpicked for their good looks.
In Pyongyang, they are taken to sites such as Mangyongdae, the birthplace of former and eternal president Kim Il-sung; Mansudae, home to the giant statues of deceased leaders Kim and his son Kim Jong-il; and the Juche Tower, which was built to mark the 70th birthday of Kim Il-sung. Juche means “national self-reliance”, North Korea’s official political ideology.
In Sinuiju, tourists visit art and history museums, and a factory that produces soap, toothpaste and cosmetic products – one Chinese traveller quipped the latter was on the itinerary because there were “simply not enough places of interest to justify a day-tour in Sinuiju”.
A dearth of obvious attractions is not the only hurdle potential visitors face – there are a plethora of rules of conduct to follow, with tourists receiving photocopied notes on dos and don’ts prior to arrival and guides giving last-minute briefings on the day of departure.
Items that must not be brought into the country include mobile phones, iPads, laptop computers, binoculars, MP3 players, video game consoles, thumb drives and North or South Korean currency. Likewise forbidden are printed materials, publications and newspapers, especially those related to or published by the two Koreas and the United States.
The only exception to the no mobile phone rule is for visits to Pyongyang, presumably because Chinese cellular signals cannot be picked up there anyway.
Only small digital and SLR cameras whose lenses do not exceed 200mm are allowed. Cameras with GPS functions are prohibited.
Photography of anything “backward, unpleasant or any personnel in military uniform” is strictly off limits and while photographs of statues of leaders are allowed, all their features from head to toe must clearly be visible.
Cameras that are allowed must be surrendered to bureaucrats who will delete objectionable images – in the worst cases cards are completely wiped, according to Chinese tour guide Wang Shitao.
Visitors must not walk anywhere unaccompanied by their guides, converse with or enter the homes of locals, or throw sweets at children.
The latter in particular has drawn howls of protest from North Koreans who say doing so is little different from throwing food at animals. As Wang put it: “In North Korea, if you know someone, you can give them food, cash or even throw yourselves at them. But to a complete stranger, please do not offer even a sweet or a cookie. And please do not throw!”
Tourists must not comment negatively on North Korean politics or the economy and especially not on “Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, both of whom are greatly beloved by the North Korean people”, said Wang.
When offering flowers at the statues of the leaders they should do so “in a dignified and respectful manner”. At no time should they mimic the gestures of leaders or take “selfies” at the statue sites.
Wang cautions tourists not to leave books or publications behind in North Korea. One visitor who left a book on Chinese culture was fined 2,000 yuan for “attempting to propagate Chinese culture” before he was allowed to leave.
Wang also reminds his countrymen not to be “forty-niners” – North Korean lingo for idiots – by bargaining in North Korean shops, as prices are fixed by the state.
So given all the rules and restrictions, why visit?
For Zhang Chunlan, 66, a retiree from Jiangxi (江西) province, it is nostalgia. “The country is very similar to China in the 1950s and 60s...I still remember those days with a tinge of fondness,” Zhang said.
Meanwhile, Yan Ling, 27, a final year law student in Kyoto, Japan, found the last bastion of Stalinism “mysterious” and hard to fathom, while Yang Yanqi, 61, a retiree from Beijing, was “curious to learn more” about a country that was “one of China’s closest neighbours”.
There are also more wayward visitors, some of whom try to venture off from the tour group. One told Wang he wanted to “find a job in North Korea”, while another wanted to go to Pyongyang and deliver a letter to the top leader, saying the “content of the letter is top secret, but will ensure I will be treated like royalty in North Korea for the rest of my life”.
Crackpots aside, questions frequently asked by Chinese include: Who owns land in North Korea? Are there private farms? Is there private property? If housing, education and health are provided free, who decides who gets what? What is your monthly salary? (North Korean tour guide Yang Su-ryoen said hers was the equivalent of 200 yuan.)
The list goes on: At what ages do men and women get married? Are men chauvinistic? Do soldiers carry arms? Why are there different lapel-pins bearing the likeness of your leaders? Can I buy them? No? Then can you sell yours to me? No? Why not? Can I migrate to North Korea or get citizenship if I invest 100,000 yuan? No? Why not?
You get the drift. And while the answers to these questions are not always truthful, consistent or even forthcoming, Chinese tour guide Liu Yang said tourists’ curiosity and any lack of understanding both stemmed from the tremendous strides taken by China in the past few decades.
“We may have a shared history and culture, and some of us are old enough to remember the personality cult of Mao Zedong ( 毛澤東 ), which is similar to current day North Korea. However, those days for us are long gone. It is jarring to many of us that there is still severe hunger and deprivation right next to our doorstep,” Liu said.
Liu said waitresses at the Dongrim hotel frequented by Chinese came from rural areas and were severely undernourished when they started work. Most were said to be at least 16 years old but looked much younger and had “never worn a bra or used a sanitary napkin before”.
She said some of the girls immersed their bodies in cold rivers and streams “to stop their menstruation” and that after working in the hotel where daily meals were provided many began to “develop feminine curves”. Liu said mobile phones were given only to people who required them for work, such as tour guides and drivers.
In fairness, if some Chinese are less than fully versed in North Korean matters, they can hardly be blamed, given this is the world’s most secretive state.
Shawn Ho, an associate research fellow with Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said any ignorance was due to the lack of authentic information coming out from North Korea.
Ho said interactions with Chinese tourists might lead to North Koreans “questioning certain aspects of their own society, way of life, and what they can possibly do to shape their own individual future”. However, he said the state still had “a very dominant presence in North Korean society” and therefore major changes were likely to result “only from a top-down approach by the state rather than a bottom-up approach from the people”.
Nevertheless, to watch Chinese tourists toasting everlasting zhongchao youyi (Sino-North Korean friendship), as they down their Taedonggang beers, is to hope that one day greater interaction can indeed be the key to bringing these two peoples – so close, yet so far apart – a little nearer together. ■