Sailing for North Korea: A voyage to the town where no one knows the Beatles

The Chinese have always made the crossing: historically for trade, more recently for tourism. In May 2013, the North Korean city of Sinuiju opened up to westerners for the first time.

North Koreans stand onboard a ship in the Yalu River in Sinuiji
North Koreans stand onboard a ship in the Yalu River in the North Korean town of Sinuiji, opposite the Chinese border, in 2006. Photo: Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images.

The Friendship Bridge reaches across the Yalu River from Dandong in China to Sinuiju in North Korea. It’s an unremarkable construction, worthy of note only because the Chinese have festooned their end with multicoloured neon lights and lasers in a soaring display of civic one-upmanship. At night, from the North Korean side of the river, it’s like looking at Las Vegas. Peering in from China, it’s a bridge into the black.

The Chinese have always made the crossing: historically for trade, more recently for tourism. Friends tell me Sinuiju reminds them of an old China: before Deng Xiaoping’s reforms cleared the hutongs to make way for branches of Gucci. In May 2013, the city opened up to westerners for the first time.

It was an interesting time to visit. The very public purging in December of Chang Song-thaek, the uncle of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, was still headline news, as was the unlikely alliance between the “Dear Leader” and the retired US basketball player Dennis Rodman.

Meanwhile, there were signs that Kim’s promises to raise North Korean living standards might be paying off. At the border, a line of brand new Hyundai taxis bound for Pyongyang suggested a growing middle class. North Korea is now manufacturing a tablet computer for its domestic market, the Android-powered Samjiyon, which comes with Angry Birds pre-installed.

My guide, Ms Lee, meets me on the North Korean side of the Friendship Bridge. She found work at the state-owned KITC tourism company after learning English at university in Pyongyang. She chaperones me quickly through border control, a scruffy one-room building, stamping her feet to keep warm. Outside, it is beginning to snow.

At first glance, Sinuiju looks like Pyongyang’s unkempt little brother. It’s more industrial and less grand, with Soviet-style housing blocks daubed in various shades of pastel, but it shares the capital’s wide boulevards and large public spaces. We stop at a giant bronze statue of a youthful Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the current leader, where formality dictates that I place flowers before the Eternal Leader and bow, while young boys in old clothes clear the snowfall.

Then we head to the city’s Revolutionary Museum, where our breath forms clouds in the corridors and dim bulbs flicker into life as we move from room to room. At Sinuiju Folk Park, which Ms Lee tells me was built entirely by women, we kick ice from our boots as, in the distance, thousands of people stream home from a mass rally. Coats pulled tight, leaning into the wind, they look like matchstick figures departing an L S Lowry painting.

Questions can be problematic. For journalists, who occasionally sneak into the DPRK on guided tours and who are obliged to ask questions the guides cannot answer, this is especially true. But keep away from the difficult subjects and you’re more likely to build some trust and learn more.

Lunch, which takes place in a private, windowless room in a restaurant next to the Yalu, is delicious: kimchi accompanied by spiced squid, sliced duck, chips and – most unexpectedly – fat chunks of Swiss roll dipped in mayonnaise. The waitresses take turns to sing romantic and patriotic songs, a mixture of backing music and howling feedback streaming from the karaoke machine. We dance and they ask me to sing. There’s no western music on offer, so I try “Yesterday” by the Beatles. Unaccompanied, my amplified voice echoing uncomfortably round the room, it’s obvious they’ve never heard of it, or them.

The highlight is a visit to Ponbu Kindergarten, home to the city’s most extravagantly talented six-year-olds. Two boys in sequined shirts and bow ties perform a complicated duet for drums and xylophone. In the playroom, two more take potshots at tiny American helicopters on a miniature diorama with toy guns while a third, dressed in small military greatcoat, pushes model tanks and fighter jets around a table. The visit finishes with a live show, tiny girls with fixed gymnast smiles juggling, unicycling and hula-hooping. Later, in China, my contact shakes his head when I tell the story: only North Korean children can do that.

As we wait for my bus at the border, Ms Lee complains about the cold and offers me her hands, which I rub. It feels like a touching end to a fascinating, bewildering day.

As North Korea’s slow embrace of western tourism grinds along, these brief glimpses of life beyond the hermit kingdom clichés are becoming a little less unusual. We say goodbye and I cross the bridge out of North Korea and back into the neon. I’m going to send Ms Lee some gloves.