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More than a River
In the biting wind, the team fights the cold as they stagger on. As they walk along the cold concrete giant that is the bridge, they are reminded of their situation by the unsmiling, ever present Chinese guard accompanying them. Beneath their feet, a large fence of barbed wire divides the frozen Tumen River. Other than their own voices, there is nothing around them, only silence.
As they approach the demarcation line dividing the two countries, their guard barks in broken Chinese, “Stop now, you can come no more.” The team gazes beyond the line, into the small town across the river. Compared to the towering mountains around it, the antiquated town looks out of place. Across the border, they can barely make out a picture of Kim Jong Il, whose beaming smile seems to “brighten” the small town. As the line divides China and North Korea, it also divides two completely different worlds. One of them a developed, diverse and powerful country, the other a homogenous, undeveloped country filled with poverty.
This spring break, a team of nine high school students from Seoul was able to spend an entire week in Yanji. A large Chinese city with a population of about 400,000 people, Yanji is located a mere 17 miles away from the North Korean border yet for all intents and purposes, could not be more different than its Northern neighbor. With three Americans, one Chinese, one English, and four Koreans, they were a diverse team, which allowed them to look at the city from a wide perspective of cultures.
“I wanted to go northward to China,” said one Korean student, “to not only aid people there, but to also to understand more about China as well North Korea.”
Despite being located in China, around half of the population in Yanji is part of the Joseon Jok tribe, that is, they are ethnic Korean people living in China. Most of the Joseon Jok people trace their roots back to the Korean diaspora in the early 20th century, after the occupation of Korea by Japan. To escape the horrors of occupied life, thousands of Koreans fled across the border to China, where they created the Joseok Jok tribe. Ironically, while many of the Joseon Jok originally came from North Korea, today they live in stark contrast to their poverty-stricken brothers.
Today, almost all of the Joseok Jok live in Yanji, as many of them face persecution outside of the city. As a result, in Yanji, learning Korea is almost as important as learning Chinese. Everything from billboard ads to dairy products comes in Korean and Chinese in Yanji, separating it from other Chinese cities.
“Yanji, in some aspects, reminds me a lot of Seoul. While in terms of wealth, things in Seoul seem a lot richer, yet the culture in Yanji is much closer to Seoul than I ever thought it was. Compared to other Chinese cities, things like food, clothing, even mannerisms are different in Yanji, due in large part to the Joseon Jok,” explained Eugene, a student raised in England.
However, as the students were able to learn later, there exists a small population of North Koreans in Yanji as well. At a small North Korean restaurant located on the outskirts of the city, the team was also able to encounter several North Koreans while in Yanji. A small group of dancers performed at this restaurant. To the tune of Korean folk songs, these dancers used several different traditional Korean styles, such as the Buchaechum (Traditional fan dance), as well as several unique North Korean styles as well.
To the team, this usage of Korean dancing techniques seemed to be an erotic ploy, designed to attract tourists. However, to their surprise, they learned that the female dancers were a group of North Koreans who had, after undergoing special “training,” been allowed to move and work in Yanji.
Behaviorally, they acted quite strangely. The group of dancers kept their distance from the team, whispering amongst themselves as if observing a rare, diverse group of species. After the show, each of them wore a small plastic pin, bearing a small portrait of the leader Kim Jong Il, as if to keep their great leader close to them at all times.
“It occurred to me that they might have never seen an American in real life before,” said one of the Americans on the trip.
Often referred to as the “Hermit Kingdom,” North Korea is one of the world’s most problematic countries today. In the 1950’s, in the aftermath of the Korean War, the country was taken over by Kim Il Sung who adapted a new way of government: Juche. This philosophy taught the supremacy of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, as well as a sense of self-reliance. North Korea effectively sealed itself from the outside world, putting an end to all foreign influence on the country. In this quarantined environment, the people were brainwashed, allowing the government to strengthen its grip on the people. Today, the country is infamous for the nation’s poverty and wealth disproportion.
The team was given a unique opportunity to get a “closer” look at North Korea. Driving the seventeen miles by bus, the team is dropped off in the parking lot adjacent to the massive bridge. From a small, cramped tollbooth they purchase tickets from a hostile looking solider. Walking across the bridge on the Tumen River, the river that divides the two countries, they gaze to the other side, the isolated and secluded North Korea. Next to the towering mountains that surround the bridge is a small, secluded North Korean town. If it had not been for the occasional bystander, one would think the dull, cold buildings built from grey concrete were the ruins of some deserted town. In the middle of the town stands a small town hall, with a large clock and a flag of the beaming Kim Jong Il flapping in the distance. This scene pales in stark contrast to the bustling city of Yanji, filled with shopping malls and modernized buildings.
These two places (Yanji and North Korea) carry many differences between them. Though both of them share a relatively similar ethnic population as well as similar forms of government, the paths that they have taken could not be anymore different. The city of Yanji has prospered since the Korean Armistice Agreement, while the North Koreans have toiled and remained stagnant. And to think these two countries are separated by just a river.