We hear dramatic stories of refugee escapes from North Korea, yet it’s one of the least fearsome natural borders one can imagine.
Dandong, China – It’s the middle of the day, and a local woman, Mei, swings open the rusty gate at the bank of the Yalu River and sits at the edge of the water washing her basket of clothes. The barbed wire fence that runs through the gate shudders a little, while nearby, two soldiers lean on their automatic rifles, continuing their conversation under the shade of a pergola. On the opposite river bank, only four metres away, innocuous shrubbery conceals another small barbed wire fence. That is North Korea.
The Chinese military guards are only on duty from 9am to 5pm: outside of this, in the shadow of the ancient fortress of the Great Wall of China, the only confrontation a defector is likely to face is a tourist worker seeking to clip their entry ticket.
We hear dramatic stories of refugee escapes from North Korea, yet it’s one of the least fearsome natural borders one can imagine. Foot patrols of North Korean guards go past every few hours, but it’s got nothing on the fortification of the infamous ‘demilitarised zone’ border with South Korea. As Mei’s suds gently drift away and around a bend, one can see how at the right tide, even the stunted North Koreans are able to wade across. She tells us that in winter, the Yalu often freezes completely, meaning it can be crossed by foot.
Books such as George W. Bush’s favourite Aquariums of Pyongyang detail cinematic stories of escape. But while these stories sell hundreds of thousands of copies around the world, their extraordinary tales cannot be verified. The reality of defection to China is, more often, far more tragic than romantic. North Korean refugees in China are in many – or most – cases trapped in a network of human slavery, usually as dishwashers, drug runners, or prostitutes. Dandong locals, most of whom will not speak about the North Korean political or refugee situation for fear of being suspected of being involved in people smuggling by the Chinese police, laugh at the myth that their town is crawling with North Korean refugees. “They don’t have permits,” one local tells me, “they may come in here, but it’s too dangerous to stay. They leave straight away.”
That crossing the border is so easy in the physical sense helps to illustrate life inside the North. The most difficult part of escape is leaving their own town, for civilians are not even allowed to travel inside North Korea without permission. But the biggest barrier defectors face is psychological: there is fear, of course, but in the most total of all totalitarian states - where devotion to the motherland and its ruling Kims is indoctrinated from birth the reason d’etre of its citizens - the dominant is psychology is more Oedipal Complex than Stockholm Syndrome.
American Professor B.R. Myers’ 2010 book on the ideology of the North Korean state The Cleanest Race runs contrary to the usual narrative of the country, showing how the ideology of the regime is a xenophobic race theory, not Juche communism. “Even today, with a rival state thriving next door, the regime is able to maintain public stability without a ubiquitous police presence or fortified northern border... half of these economic migrants – for that is what most of them are – voluntarily return to their homeland.”
A Western North Korea expert and frequent visitor to the country, who cannot be named, says: “you only hear defectors talk about leaving for ‘freedom’ and ‘freedom of speech’ after they have been through the South Korean repatriation program. People defect to get money or food.”
While the Chinese government craves the stability of the Kim regime for fear of a refugee crisis on its border – and equally, the American military conducting nation building so close to its border – Dandong has become a hub for curious Chinese tourists.
Li, an urbane young man from Chongqing, shows little empathy. “It’s crazy, but not as crazy as what we went through 50 years ago. I don't understand why it’s not developing.” His only interaction with North Koreans will be eating Pyongyang cold noodles at one of the many restaurants staffed by pretty North Korean waitresses employed with the assent of both governments.
Just as Dandong highlights the absurdity of the North Korean crisis, it also highlights the possible. American journalist Barbara Demick, who has documented the stories of defectors in her book Nothing to Envy, believes that globalisation will help bring about the downfall of the regime. Trade with China continues to liberalise, and technology such as laptops, USB sticks, and DVD players are slowly bringing in glimpses of the outside world.
At night, the neon lights sparkle along the Dandong promenade, almost as though they’re taunting the citizens of Sinuiju, whose side of the Yalu sits in absolute darkness. In the daylight, as the noise traffic and construction compete for primacy, across the bridge a solitary ferris wheel looks like a morose, lonely animal in a third-world zoo. As Li notes, the Chinese model of moving from a planned economy to a market economy, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, is begging to be followed. But an air of inevitability does not alter the present, and thousands of refugees continue to risk their lives each year for one that may not be any better.
Back on the bank of the Yalu River, escaping the heat with the Chinese guards, they tell of how their North Korean counterparts have picked up a little Chinese.
“Sometimes they ask us to send them over Cokes,” one says, showing how he lobs the cans underarm to the guards on the opposite bank.
Wrangling with dichotomies of despair and hope, sometimes you have to laugh.
Elle Hardy is a freelance writer.