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.
Show Hide image

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.

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.
 

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

Getty
Show Hide image

Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.