Across the river, but a world away

North Korean soldier gestures as she is being photographed, on the bank of the Yalu River near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border town of Dandong
A North Korean soldier gestures as she is being photographed on the bank of the Yalu River. Nir Elias / Reuters file
/ Source: NBC News

DANDONG, China — I now know that North Korea is almost as much of a mystery to the Chinese as it is to America — even if it’s as close as the other side of a river. The measure is the number of Chinese tourists pressing onto the same tour boat we recently boarded on the banks of the Chinese city of Dandong.

As we cast off moderately overloaded, the captain angled his boat just across the Yalu River on a well-practiced run along the bank of North Korea. Since North Korea’s nuclear weapons test, business is up.

Tourists lifted binoculars and cameras as the boat glided along this strange, sad and many would say scary country — as if seeing the people and the land would provide some explanation for the behavior of its leader Kim Jong Il.

But we were curious too. Our photographer, with a smaller-sized video camera, was already rolling on what would be the first of three boat rides we would take: the first with the tourists, the others on a private charter skirting and flirting as close to the shore as we could get and still be just out of range of rocks the North Korean soldiers are fond of throwing at camera crews.

I was thinking to myself about what would happen if the motor stalled and we drifted onto their shore. It didn’t happen, but we did see a lot. It was not pretty.

You try to observe things objectively, but the preconceptions bully. The place looks desperate. Locals were at the shore washing their hair and clothes in the cold river. Rusted ships and boats littered the shore. There were some construction workers building houses that looked like they will never be occupied. And then, amid the male soldiers walking along as if they had no purpose or destination, there were two conspicuously attractive female soldiers near the elevated bow of one abandoned ship smiling and waving at the Chinese tour boats cruising by.

We knew it was not random because we saw them a few times.

Not totally isolated
In the West, we rely on occasional press visits, refugee accounts and visitor reports to detail the life of North Koreans who seem totally isolated.

One entrepreneur looking to capitalize on that perception approached us dockside and offered to smuggle us in to see “military installations” for a fee. We asked around and confirmed it was a local scam. The truth is North Korea is isolated but not totally.
At Dandong’s commercial corridor there are some North Koreans with enough money to travel across the so called “Friendship Bridge” which connects the two countries and shops for Chinese goods. Why go back if you’re a North Korean? Kim’s government has that figured out. As many as three generations of one’s family members can be jailed for defecting.

That’s a fact not lost on the young women who work at a restaurant across from our hotel that is partially owned by the North Korean government.

Intended as cultural outreach, the restaurant is more of a curiosity. The young North Korea women who work there wait and bus tables in between singing, dancing and playing instruments in a one-hour North Korean musical review. Video cameras are not allowed, but thanks to some local friends at the table with us who must have made us appear like tourists, we are able to document it.

Two North Korean waitresses and performers tell us at closing time the women are allowed to stay a maximum of three years in this Chinese border town, but they must adhere to strict rules including not dating Chinese men. We didn’t ask what the policy was for dating Americans. All said they would return to their North Korean families: all three generations.

China in the dark, too
Despite the physical proximity of North Korea and its people, China has no lock on reading Kim Jong Il. When he ordered the nuclear test, he made China look bad, lose face. The world was counting on China, North Korea’s most active and influential trading partner to diplomatically back Kim down.

To be sure, China has muscle. In a heartbeat, it could shut down the trucks of supplies still rolling across the Friendship Bridge, North Korea’s lifeline. But, a daily convoy scarcely slowed since sanctions were implemented.

China knows it could single handedly topple Kim’s government but it doesn’t want to. And the reason has little to do with North Korea being some sort of communist comrade.

In the 1990’s during North Korea’s famine, as many as 300,000 refugees flooded China. In a country of 1.3 billion people with a one-child policy but where the population still increases 12 million yearly, that doesn’t fit into the plan. And even worse, a refugee exodus could happen again if Kim was run off. And in addition, how comfortable would China be with a reunified and democratic Korea at its border?

And so now, China must be relieved that North Korea agreed to return to disarmament negotiations Tuesday - especially after having done a diplomatic dance to make the return to talks happen.

China has had a lot on its plate: trying to protect its own interests, calm an unpredictable nuclear neighbor and back key sanctions that are important to its vital trading partner — the United States — including more thorough inspections of North Korean outbound cargo. I listened to a high-ranking U.S. diplomatic official just last week as he explained what America’s real fears are: “We don’t worry about Kim blowing things up, we worry about proliferation, his selling and exporting every weapon part, including nuclear, that he can.”

What next? Only Kim Jong Il knows
On the streets of Dandong, our crew sees an illegal money changer make a cash swap out of his bag, a frequent sight here, giving the appearance that life appears unchanged here along the border.

DANDONG, LIAONING - OCTOBER 18: Chinese trucks heading towards North Korea line up on the China-North Korea Friendship Bridge over the Yalu River as they wait for inspection by Chinese paramilitary officers on October 18, 2006 in the Chinese border city of Dandong, Liaoning Province of China. Customs officials inspect trucks at the North Korean border as Beijing complied with U.N. sanctions imposed as punishment for Pyongyang's nuclear test. But China's U.N. ambassador indicated inspectors will not board ships to search for equipment or material that can be used to make nuclear, chemical and biological weapons or ballistic missiles. (Photo by Cancan Chu/Getty Images)Cancan Chu / Getty Images AsiaPac

Was the nuclear test just another North Korean cry for attention? Will the diplomatic effort now in the offing yield any results this time?

Or do the satellite images now showing renewed activity around North Korea’s test site portend a second nuclear weapons test as the world puts down its guard ?

The Chinese like American officials are certain of one thing: Only Kim Jong Il  knows.