THE VINE MAY 29, 2010
One of the odder things I've heard in China is that a good number of people see North Korea as a prime tourism destination. I didn't really believe it until reading Jon Cannon's piece in the London Review of Books about Dandong, a city that straddles the border between the two countries:
A lot of Chinese tourists visit Dandong simply ‘because it’s there’. It is the only major city in China actually situated on one of the country’s external borders, and the view into another country is an attraction in itself. But there’s a further reason for coming: for most Chinese tourists, a glimpse of North Korea is the closest they can get to a visit to their own past. In the summer, tourists take boat trips almost to the other bank. They sip Cokes and gawp at the men in old-fashioned nylon suits, their red Kim Il Sung badges flashing in the sunlight, the schoolchildren in white shirts and red neckerchiefs, walking by in formation. Or they drive out of town to an entirely reconstructed stretch of ‘Great Wall’ which starts suddenly by a ticket booth on the road, and stops equally suddenly five hundred metres later, on a knoll overlooking the border: the river, fields, a small North Korean village, a pithead and two strange concrete towers with little grey spires. All suitably exotic and oppressive.
My Chinese friends in Dandong talk with mixed feelings about this interest in North Korea: a mixture of superiority and nostalgia. They’re delighted when I tell them how poor and downtrodden everyone looks in the country, and are eager to explain how miserable life was under such a system. Yet many of the same people are loyal Party members who remember the unity, the idealism and the security of the old days with great fondness. A night’s karaoke in Dandong will mingle 1950s revolutionary songs with modern pop: CDs of both sell equally well to the over-thirties.
Well, there you go. Also, to bring this back to environmental themes, apparently the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea has inadvertently become one of the world's most important wildlife preserves—home to dozens of endangered species like the red-crowned crane and the Asiatic black bear (and maybe even a Siberian tiger or three). The outer parts of the preserve, however, are now being threatened by urban sprawl from the south, and some conservationists are pushing to turn the whole thing into an official park of sorts. (Presumably stripping out the mines in the area would be a key step.) So, who knows? Maybe North Korea can someday host wildlife safaris alongside the creepy Communism nostalgia tours.
(Flickr photo credit: looloo images)