Fishing boats and tourists meet at heart of North Korean nuclear crisis
Poor North Koreans on the Chinese border contrast with leadership’s powerful image
Two North Korean men smile on the Yalu river opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images
Crouched in a crudely welded steel fishing boat, the North Koreans are pulling in crabs from the Yalu river that divides their country from China. They are smiling, but guarded, as the Chinese driver of our river taxi asks them about the day’s catch.
Their skin is dark; they are thin and seem a good half a metre shorter than their equivalent in South Korea. They are clearly very poor. We are on two boats between China and North Korea, at the centre of a geopolitical storm as the world tries desperately to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, and US president Donald Trump pressures China to rein in its ideological allies.
Meanwhile, the United Nations issues sanctions, and both Pyongyang and Washington crank up the fiery rhetoric.
“I hope I can catch 10 kilos of shellfish today. I’ve caught about three so far,” says one fisherman, holding up three fingers. His colleague is hunkered down at the back of the skiff having lunch from a white polystyrene lunchbox: rice and a fried egg, plus a half-litre bottle of liquor.
“We can exchange shellfish for alcohol,” he says to the Chinese boat driver, who translates from Korean. The pilot asks him what he prefers, and he says “baijiu”, the famously potent Chinese liquor, made from sorghum or rice, and the two men laugh. The Koreans like to drink.
Our boat nudges the North Korean boat, and a fisherwoman looks curiously at the Chinese speedboat, a shiny multi-seater with a Japanese engine.
It is these men and women reeling in their modest catch and eating their packed lunches who will bear the brunt of any escalation of this conflict, as intensified sanctions will be felt among the poorest first.
Our driver takes us to a boat where a man is silently selling North Korean produce – preserved goose eggs in glass jars, cartons of cigarettes, liquor, all for a few cents each.
His main customers are the scores of Chinese tourists in motorboats on this section of river, who take pictures of the fishing boats and shout patronising comments at the sailors: “So backward” and “So cute.”
Sometimes the North Koreans get irate when Chinese boatmen approach them, as if to taunt them with their mobile phones, their US sportswear and man-bags, and they throw stones to ward them off. Tourists bring bags of biscuits and food that they throw at the locals. But mostly they are happy for the contact.
For their part, most Chinese in Dandong remain unworried by the series of nuclear tests, culminating in a sixth atomic explosion this month that the North Koreans are claiming was a hydrogen bomb.
“I feel okay about it. Ordinary people care little about what’s going on in North Korea. My family and I are not really worried, and our society is stable so far. There are many North Korea waitresses working in the restaurant along the riverfront here. No problem,” said one young woman surnamed Qu.
China and North Korea are both communist countries, who fought together during the Korean War (1950-1953), but while Beijing has embraced economic reform and become more outward-looking, Pyongyang has remained isolated and shunned efforts to free the economy.
Although North Korea’s economy grew nearly 4 per cent last year, its fastest pace in 17 years, the fact that 93 per cent of its economy is based on trade with China means this growth rate is unlikely to be maintained in the face of tougher sanctions.
Along the Yalu, we pass soldiers washing their clothes, while others wade into the river to fish for their dinner. This underfunded, old-fashioned, conventional military could never offer the same leverage with the international community as the nuclear arsenal it has strategically grown.
Many of the country’s 1.2-million-strong military are malnourished, although it is difficult to separate South Korean intelligence reports from reality at times.
Citing sources in North Hamgyong province last month, the Daily NK website reported that North Korea’s military has been trying to acquire food as preparation for a conflict.
“Young soldiers tired of relentless hunger are frequently deserting the army to steal food. Even military officers are encouraging the practice,” the website said.
“The military officers are instructing their soldiers, exhausted after training, to eat corn in the fields because war is imminent. They are even threatening their soldiers, saying, ‘If you become malnourished despite permission to eat the corn, you will face difficulties.’”
Kim Jong-un’s wealth
At the other end of North Korea’s food chain, leader Kim Jong-un is reported to have between €2.5 billion and €4.2 billion squirrelled away in bank accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere, according to Cho Bong-hyun of the Industrial Bank of Korea in Seoul.
The “revolutionary fund” is held under false names, he wrote in Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, and has been used by Kim and his family for years.
Further up the river here in Dandong, a North Korean ferry is waiting until all the farmworkers have boarded before crossing from a sandbar on which crops are growing to return to the mainland. The women are wearing bright hats that look like battered versions of what Queen Elizabeth II might wear.
The ferry waits until everyone has boarded, when a soldier pushes his AK47 around to his back, and loads his bicycle carefully on to the boat. Then the vessel waits again. No one moves.
At this point, it’s hard to know what country we are in. We are surrounded on both sides by North Korean territory. This is a porous border, a far cry from the heavily armoured, 4km-wide Demilitarised Zone that divides North and South Korea. But things can turn nasty here fast. In 2011, border guards shot five North Korean refugees trying to escape across the frozen river.
Another 500m in, the driver veers in towards the shore where a North Korean soldier sits on his haunches.
“Do you want to go over and talk to him? It’s safe, don’t worry,” says the driver.
The soldier gestures with his rifle that we should move on. Mindful that foreign journalists have been kidnapped by North Korean border guards, I ask the driver to keep moving. He shrugs and guns the engine, and we head back to China.