The ‘Hidden Kingdom of Kim Jong-un’, as North Korea is known among tour guides, has quickly become a very real and popular tourist attraction in China. Tour guide Yu Quanqing tells their passengers that ‘this is a must-see’, revealing the slightly bizarre fascination that many residents of China seem to have developed for North Korea.
After renting binoculars for the equivalent of £1.10 a pair, in order to see the North Koreans on the other side of the border better, the tourists are whisked away in a boat down the Yalu River, on the border between the two countries.
The recent drama between North Korea and the US and the tensions surrounding the nuclear tests seem to have done nothing to put off the hoards of tourists that frequently flock to the border. Yu believes that the tourists go to satisfy their curiosity, as they want to see for themselves how poor North Koreans are, admitting that ‘When we look at these North Koreans we feel a sense of superiority’.
Up the road from where the tourists pile onto the boat, there are signs reading ‘Cherish a good life. Abide by the border regulations.’ A second one reads ‘Please do not converse or exchange objects with people on the other side of the border.’ It seems that even these warnings do not put off the many tourists who embark on this trip.
Some typical sights that can be seen across the border include the North Korean washerwomen who can be seen scrubbing clothes in the river, the soldiers who walk along its banks, and the flag which flies over one river-side community.
One woman who had brought her family with her as a day trip stated that the reason she went on the trip was because ‘My daughter’s on her summer holidays and we wanted to see a bit of nature’, before going on to discuss the political differences between the two countries. Another woman, a student, stated that ‘They’re quite backwards. They’re not living in ideal conditions.’ It seems to be a theme that many of the people who go to look at North Korea go to reassure themselves about their own lives.
Although many of the guided trips tend to stay close to the Chinese border, for those who are not satisfied with gazing across the river, they can choose to take a boat that sits in the middle of the river, completely surrounded by purely North Korean territory for about an hour. For braver souls, you can choose to go on a one or four day trip to Sinuiju, North Korea’s third largest city. You are not allowed to take a mobile phone, and can only take an old film camera. Anyone is allowed, except Americans, Japanese and South Koreans.
China’s tourism authority has not published the total number of visitors from China to North Korea since 2012, when it is said that 237,000 people made the trip. But the state-run China News Service said that visitors from Dandong alone spiked to 580,000 in just the second half of 2016. Although that is only a fraction of the population of China, it appears that this niche tourist “attraction” isn’t going to be going out of business anytime soon.