A trip to Dandong: the Chinese tourist destination on the border with North Korea

Welcoming. All photos: James O'Malley.

You hear a lot of people complain of having the neighbours from hell, but there are few who put up with more than the people of Dandong, China. The city lies in the shadow of North Korea, meaning its inhabitants live with the slightly too real threat of nuclear war constantly looming and the knowledge of that an incomparable scale of human rights abuses are being committed right across the border.

But there is one upside to living next to a basket case: it makes for a surprisingly popular tourist attraction. And a few weeks ago, while on holiday in China, I decided to pay the city a visit. Because is it really a holiday if you’re not going to visit a geopolitical oddity?

The city is home to 2.45 million people and sits just across the Yalu River from the North Korean city of Sinuiju. According to the internet, the city is also inexplicably twinned with Doncaster. Annoyingly for storytelling purposes, it is incredibly easy to travel to; despite being sat on the border of an international pariah, you can catch one of China’s excellent bullet trains there in just 90 minutes from Shenyang, a metropolis of 8 million people that you’ve probably never heard of, or you can simply take the overnight train from Beijing.


I didn’t entirely know what to expect from Dandong, and to be honest, I was pretty nervous. I’d spent the prior two weeks in Beijing and Shanghai doing all the usual tourist things like visiting the Forbidden City and Thames Town, so I felt pretty acclimatised to China by this point. But surely Dandong would up the weirdness-ante a few extra echelons? Would it be swarming with soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, on alert in case in the troublesome regime to the south collapses and sends millions of refugees over the border? Would I immediately be accosted by the Chinese secret police, wanting to know what I – a westerner and a journalist to boot – was doing sniffing around this intrinsically sensitive place?

As it turns out, the most striking thing about Dandong was the way in which it was relentlessly… normal. Far from sensing the geopolitical precipice I was on, it felt like every other Chinese city I’d visited: complete with luxury shopping malls and KFC outlets identical to the ones found everywhere else in the world. And as far as I could tell from my brief visit, life functions pretty much the same in China as it does anywhere else.

The river – and thus the border – is only a short walk from Dandong’s enormous station. As you approach its banks, you can immediately see the famous Sino-Korean friendship bridge connecting the two countries, as well as a rather depressing tableau of concrete buildings on the other side. The view is a vivid reminder of the differing fortunes of the two countries, which remain nominal allies:

 

On the Chinese side are tall blocks of flats, cars and other signs of modernity. And on the other side lies a half-complete concrete block, a factory belching out plumes of black smoke and a small resort-style area, containing what my partner accurately described as the world’s saddest-looking Ferris wheel.

Parallel to the river on the Chinese side is a rather pleasant promenade full of tourists taking photos and street merchants selling souvenirs. Think Great Yarmouth, but slightly nicer. It’s almost enough to make you forget where you’re standing – until you see that some of the available gifts include surprisingly realistic toy guns and grenades, as well as North Korean banknotes and snacks.

You could even pay to get your photo taken in traditional North Korean clothing, although I decided doing so would have been a nightmare in terms of tone (is it poor etiquette to smile while sort of celebrating an evil regime?), let alone any worries about “cultural appropriation”.

Slightly to the west of the Friendship Bridge are the remains of the original Yalu River Bridge. The Chinese half remains, but the Korean side was blown up by the Americans in the Korean War. As a result, what’s left has become a significant tourist attraction. After paying an entrance fee, you can actually go up and walk along the bridge, passing a big statue of what I’m guessing is Mao leading his troops into battle.


Forgive the fact that I’m standing in the photo - I didn’t expect to be writing this up!

This is the closest you can get to North Korea without actually visiting North Korea. It’s marked with a stone saying… something… about the border, and you can expect your phone to switch to Pyongyang time and start tagging photos as though you were over the border.

And frankly, as someone who is probably an intermediate-level tourist it was pretty damn surreal simply being there. I was just meters from a country that is so vilified, so closed off, so brutal. From my comfortable western perspective, it felt like being at the end of the Earth, and it was sobering to think that the figures I could see in the distance on the other side are permanently trapped in their challenging conditions, while at the same time I was only a short walk away from the best that capitalism has to offer. Simply because of the side of the river that we happened to be on.

It was at this point that my watch buzzed with a push alert that I had setup because I hate myself. President Trump had just tweeted. But mercifully this time it wasn’t the one that finally caused the bombs to start flying in North Korea.

James O’Malley is a freelance journalist and tweets as @Psythor.

 
 
 
 

What’s killing northerners?

The Angel of the North. Image: Getty.

There is a stark disparity in wealth and health between people in the north and south of England, commonly referred to as England’s “north-south divide”. The causes of this inequality are complex; it’s influenced by the environment, jobs, migration and lifestyle factors – as well as the long-term political power imbalances, which have concentrated resources and investment in the south, especially in and around London.

Life expectancy is also lower in the north, mainly because the region is more deprived. But new analysis of national mortality data highlights a shockingly large mortality gap between young adults, aged 25 to 44, living in the north and south of England. This gap first emerged in the late 1990s, and seems to have been growing ever since.

In 1995, there were 2% more deaths among northerners aged 25 to 34 than southerners (in other words, 2% “excess mortality”). But by 2015, northerners in this age group were 29% more likely to die than their southern counterparts. Likewise, in the 35 to 44 age group, there was 3% difference in mortality between northerners and southerners in 1995. But by 2015, there were 49% more deaths among northerners than southerners in this age group.

Excess mortality in the north compared with south of England by age groups, from 1965 to 2015. Follow the lines to see that people born around 1980 are the ones most affected around 2015.

While mortality increased among northerners aged 25 to 34, and plateaued among 35 to 44-year-olds, southern mortality mainly declined across both age groups. Overall, between 2014 and 2016, northerners aged 25 to 44 were 41% more likely to die than southerners in the same age group. In real terms, this means that between 2014 and 2016, 1,881 more women and 3,530 more men aged between 25 and 44 years died in the north, than in the south.

What’s killing northerners?

To understand what’s driving this mortality gap among young adults, our team of researchers looked at the causes of death from 2014 to 2016, and sorted them into eight groups: accidents, alcohol related, cardiovascular related (heart conditions, diabetes, obesity and so on), suicide, drug related, breast cancer, other cancers and other causes.

Controlling for the age and sex of the population in the north and the south, we found that it was mostly the deaths of northern men contributing to the difference in mortality – and these deaths were caused mainly by cardiovascular conditions, alcohol and drug misuse. Accidents (for men) and cancer (for women) also played important roles.

From 2014 to 2016, northerners were 47% more likely to die for cardiovascular reasons, 109% for alcohol misuse and 60% for drug misuse, across both men and women aged 25 to 44 years old. Although the national rate of death from cardiovascular reasons has dropped since 1981, the longstanding gap between north and south remains.

Death and deprivation

The gap in life expectancy between north and south is usually put down to socioeconomic deprivation. We considered further data for 2016, to find out if this held true for deaths among young people. We found that, while two thirds of the gap were explained by the fact that people lived in deprived areas, the remaining one third could be caused by some unmeasured form of deprivation, or by differences in culture, infrastructure, migration or extreme weather.

Mortality for people aged 25 to 44 years in 2016, at small area geographical level for the whole of England.

Northern men faced a higher risk of dying young than northern women – partly because overall mortality rates are higher for men than for women, pretty much at every age, but also because men tend to be more susceptible to socioeconomic pressures. Although anachronistic, the expectation to have a job and be able to sustain a family weighs more on men. Accidents, alcohol misuse, drug misuse and suicide are all strongly associated with low socioeconomic status.

Suicide risk is twice as high among the most deprived men, compared to the most affluent. Suicide risk has also been associated with unemployment, and substantial increases in suicide have been observed during periods of recession – especially among men. Further evidence tells us that unskilled men between ages 25 and 39 are between ten and 20 times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes, compared to professionals.

Alcohol underpins the steep increase in liver cirrhosis deaths in Britain from the 1990s – which is when the north-south divide in mortality between people aged 25 to 44 also started to emerge. Previous research has shown that men in this age group, who live in the most deprived areas, are five times more likely to die from alcohol-related diseases than those in the most affluent areas. For women in deprived areas, the risk is four times greater.


It’s also widely known that mortality rates for cancer are higher in more deprived areas, and people have worse survival rates in places where smoking and alcohol abuse is more prevalent. Heroin and crack cocaine addiction and deaths from drug overdoses are also strongly associated with deprivation.

The greater number of deaths from accidents in the north should be considered in the context of transport infrastructure investment, which is heavily skewed towards the south – especially London, which enjoys the lowest mortality in the country. What’s more, if reliable and affordable public transport is not available, people will drive more and expose themselves to higher risk of an accident.

Deaths for young adults in the north of England have been increasing compared to those in the south since the late 1990s, creating new health divides between England’s regions. It seems that persistent social, economic and health inequalities are responsible for a growing trend of psychological distress, despair and risk taking among young northerners. Without major changes, the extreme concentration of power, wealth and opportunity in the south will continue to damage people’s health, and worsen the north-south divide.

The Conversation

Evangelos Kontopantelis, Professor in Data Science and Health Services Research, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.