A turn in the north

Some highlights from my trip last week to the border with North Korea. First, the airports in that region of China were something else. Viagra seems to be the hottest item on sale in the departure lounge kiosques, judging from the siren calls of the young woman who cry out the Chinese approximation of the drug’s name (“do you want to be happy?” “it will make you feel good…”). I hadn’t seen this anywhere else in China, and was told by a Chinese friend, by way of explanation, sex is big in Dongbei (the northeast). They are also flogging some kind of Spanish Fly for women that the counter girls refuse, out of a wonderful sense of “puderie”, to personally attest to. There’s a funny picture of an embarrassed clerk, a bit blurry, sorry, as she rushes to hide the product when I whipped out the camera.
Enough of that. Highlight two. Riding along the border near Yanji, near the far east of the DPRK, each time the country would wheel into view, my driver would turn and say to me: “look, that’s North Korea. You can tell because there are no trees.” He wasn’t joking. The mountainous countryside as seen from the border is totally denuded. I’ve seen it from another approach, too, flying to Pyongyang a few years ago from Tokyo, over an endless scroll of barren hills.
If you look carefully at some of the border shots viewers will note the lone picture of Kim Il Sung, the eternal, if late, founding father figure. The corresponding photo of Kim Jong Il, which once hung alongside it has been removed, as has been reported in some newspapers in recent months. You can see this in the Yanji border post shots, as well as in a shot of a little DPRK train station, which I could see from across the Tumen River a few miles down the road from the border post. Click to read more
They don’t make for wonderful pictures, but the plaques recounting the official Chinese version of the Korean War make for interesting reading. The light was low, so you might have to squint. (See the characteristically sharp essay by Ian Buruma about the Korean War in Snippets.)
A word about China, Inc. I should probably post the review of the NYT, which pretty much covered the bases on this book. (Have a look yourselves.) I thought the book was vigorously written for its genre, and energetically reported. A couple of people have asked what to make of a book by someone with no real background in the subject. Valid question. Having said that, Fishman gives us a very savvy read of the situation, and one full of challenging questions — especially on tech questions — if few answers.

One thought on “A turn in the north”

  1. I’ve had friends comment on the same thing -that when you glimpse over the border, notably at the DMZ, North Korea is marked by the absence of trees. It’s a good indication of how strange and unknowable a place it is – I’ve tried to read up on North Korea (one interesting book was “North Korea through the looking glass”) but there is always something missing – the voice of North Koreans. The best that can be done, it seems, is a patchwork of deciphering official propaganda and talking to defectors and those who have visited strictly under state control. I suppose we will have to wait until people are allowed to do the kind of reporting that you do – getting out and talking to people – before we can have a full picture of what has gone on within those borders all of these years…

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