The news from North Korea continues to be disturbing, and I can’t get it out of my mind. North Korea is pretty close to Dalian, the Chinese city where I taught English for three summers. One hot weekend in 2004, I took a took a trip from Dalian to Dandong, a Chinese city on the Yalu River, directly across from North Korea.
Dandong has a beautiful park along the river, and like all the parks I saw in China, it was filled with people sitting and chatting, playing cards, roller skating, flying kites, and listening to a band playing traditional music.
It’s something of a tourist town for the Chinese. One of the main attractions is the Museum Commemorating the War to Resist American Aggression and Aid Korea, which is what the Chinese call the Korean War. I visited the Museum, which was quite interesting. I liked the big blow-ups of newspaper photographs and the old-fashioned full-size diorama displays. I didn’t like listening to the tour narration, which was all in Chinese. I don’t understand much Chinese, but I know the words for American, Korean and Chinese, and I know tone of voice, so I felt like I got the gist. Especially when everyone turned to look at me every time the word meiguoren, American, was mentioned. It was a little awkward, but I kept my China face on, the one that says “respectful observer” and it was OK.
There are two bridges in Dandong. The China-Korea Friendship Bridge carries pedestrian, road and railroad traffic between Dandong and the city of Siniju, North Korea. Nearby, the “Broken Bridge” extends only halfway across the river. It was damaged by bombs during the Korean War, and is now open as a memorial. You can walk out to the end, which has been secured by railings but still shows twisted pieces of metal. They sell refreshments and there are telescopes for viewing the North Korean coast.
But the most popular tourist activity in Dandong is taking a boat ride along the Yalu River to get a glimpse of life on the other side of the river. We took a ride on a boat that was much smaller and faster and went much closer to the coast than I expected. We saw a few fishermen, and a lot of old, broken-down looking wooden boats. But what we mostly saw were dozens of young kids, nearly all boys, running around, swimming and playing in the water. They sounded like kids at play anywhere in the world, and they clearly accustomed to having boatloads of gawking tourists observing them. Some ignored us and some waved to us. Here and there we saw thin young soldiers standing guard with rifles, looking only a couple of years older than the kids in the water.
That was five years ago. All those boys I watched playing in the river on that hot summer day — what are they doing now? Are they fishermen, or soldiers? Is one of them on board the Kang Nam right now, the North Korean cargo ship that may or may not be carrying weapons? Impossible to know, and maybe not useful to think about. But every time I read about North Korea or hear it mentioned on the news, I am trying to follow the story but it’s those kids in the water that I’m picturing.