The Cold Frontier

Photographs by Damir Sagolj | Text by Sue-Lin Wong

INTO THE DARKNESS: View over the water from the Chinese side of the Dandong bridges.


The Cold Frontier

Photographs by Damir Sagolj | Text by Sue-Lin Wong

“Take a trip down memory lane, see what China was like in the 1970s,” said a boat ticket vendor. In the Chinese city of Dandong, North Korea is pervasive.


Trip organisers loaded tourists into vans and took us to a jetty where we waited for enough customers to make the boat journey worthwhile. The group I was with was impatient. One young couple left before the ride began. Some children got excited when they spotted a “North Korean dog” across the river. 

The rest of us filled the time browsing through souvenirs which the tour operators displayed in a flimsy tent, the smell of plastic wafting on the air.

Knick-knacks that vendors said were from across the river included North Korean banknotes and ‘tiger bone tonic,’ plus toy guns labelled Made in China. “Don’t take photos,” snapped a souvenir seller as a young Chinese tourist zoomed in with his iPhone on bottles of ginseng-infused alcohol.

Skinny ones upriver

This man was one of many who use the riverbank binoculars to look into North Korea.

Another visitor we met was called Li Shuang, from nearby Shenyang city. She wore a dental mask and an army camouflage jacket, was travelling with her husband and son, and told me how pretty it was upriver, especially in the summer months.

“The North Koreans here are fatter,” she said. “The ones upriver were so skinny.” 

Organic farming

As the tour boat started up, the guide told people to get their cameras ready for our first sight of a North Korean person farming. Tourists rushed from the left side of the boat to the right side of the boat and back to the left.

“North Korea doesn’t have fertilizers or pesticides so their food is very natural and organic,” the guide said.

North Korea has long been short of fertiliser. In 2014, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un urged farmers to use human faeces, along with animal waste and organic compost, to fertilise their fields.

The fun of the fair

The ferris wheel on the North Korean side has been around for about 20 years and operates during national holidays, said Huang Liming, who hires out binoculars to see the other side for 5 yuan (less than $1) a go.

“Sometimes the North Koreans look at us too, but they only use small pairs of binoculars. They’re not allowed to use big telescopes like the ones we have.”

There’s a water park and water slide too, he said. They are newer.

Money and war

This is a popular shot, taken in Tumen at the other end of the border near where China, North Korea and Russia meet.

The North Koreans may find the Chinese irritating, staring at them all day, said Dandong souvenir seller Yang Shilong: “But they are easy to cheer up, all you have to do is give them something to eat.”

Like most Chinese people we met, he used a derogatory nickname for North Korea’s leader.

“Kim Fatty the Third is just trying to protect his country. Actually China has the same mentality. If we didn’t have nuclear weapons, it would be easy for the U.S. and Russia to bully us.”

Nothing to see

“To be horribly blunt, riding these boats is like a trip to the zoo,” said Chinese boat passenger Mr Lu, who uses a stick to help him walk. “They’re probably thinking, ‘oh look, those Chinese idiots are back again to stare at us – do they really just see us as savages?’”

And Lai Fuqing, a university student from nearby Dalian, was underwhelmed.

“There’s not much to do in Dandong, just some history,” he said. “They don’t have enough to eat, everything of theirs has been sanctioned – coal, seafood, everything. But they’re not going to show us starving people, soldiers wanting to defect, things like that.”

Money worries

One Chinese tour guide who takes tourists into North Korea grumbled that North Koreans “want us to pay for everything.”

He was not the only one who complained about the risk of being ripped off by the neighbours, but he told a story to prove his point. On a recent trip to Kaesong in North Korea, he said a Chinese tourist got sick at dinner. The next day, the tour company rushed him to hospital in Pyongyang. The doctors there said the tourist needed an operation costing 10,000 yuan ($1,600) and a week in hospital.

Instead, the tour guide rushed him back to Dandong.

“The hospital took one look at him and … told him to go across the street to the pharmacy and buy some over the counter medicine.”

Love and marriage

For this happy Chinese couple, North Korea was not the main attraction.

“We don’t want North Korea in our pictures, we want the boat,”  Zhou Lidong told us as he shot the wedding photos.

In China there is a saying that ‘it takes 10 years of effort to meet a special person in the same boat on the river, and it takes 100 years of effort to share a pillow with that person.’

“Marriage is like being on a boat,” Zhou said.

In the Chinese saying, ‘sharing a pillow’ is a euphemism for sex.

The real thing

For those in the know, locals say souvenirs are not the only things for sale.

One of the border stories we heard goes like this: Open an account with a bank in Dandong which works outside the official system to handle transactions between China and North Korea; deposit 400,000 yuan in North Korea; and you get a free North Korean wife.

You can visit, but she has to stay in North Korea.

The Cold Frontier

Photographs by Damir Sagolj, text by Sue-Lin Wong

Additional reporting by Seung-woo Yeom, Hyonhee Shin and Heekyong Yang in Seoul; Beijing bureau staff

Graphics: Dawn Cai, Jin Wu

Photo editing: Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson

Design: Troy Dunkley, Catherine Tai

Edited by Sara Ledwith