China and North Korea share a border split by the rivers Yalu and Tumen. At night you can stand on one side and experience the complete darkness on the other side. The relationship between China and North Korea has always been a complicated one more so since Kim Jong-UN’s rise to power in 2012.
Mistrust has been brewing on both sides for a while even though 90% of North Korea’s trade is with China. In fact every day a large number of trucks and tourists cross the Sino-Korea Friendship Bridge that joins the modern Chinese city of Dandong with the North Korean Sinuiju. It has been estimated that up to 70% of the trade passes across this bridge. Some citizens believe that North Koreans act entitled to anything they can get from the Chinese.
A sign on the border warns tourists not to converse with people on the other side of the border, not to throw items over to North Korea and not to photograph the soldiers.
Many North Koreans work in the Dandong area and send cash directly to the North Korean government. The highest profile jobs are waitresses and performers at North Korean restaurants. They live and work in China for three years because they are promised to get better jobs when they return home.
Despite appearances, there’s evidence of the frayed relationship between the two countries. It can be seen clearly in the abandoned construction of a bridge that was to allow trade to be easier and faster. The bridge currently ends in a dirt field on the North Korean side and nobody knows for sure why such an expensive project was never completed.
Half of China’s ethnic Koreans live in an area along the border called Yanji. The river is narrower and shallower at this point. This is why it’s the preferred location for defectors trying to find better opportunities in China. If they are caught, the Chinese military sends them back and North Korea punishes their entire family.
It has been estimated that about 40,000 have fled North Korea through this area. They don’t risk crossing to the south. Instead, they travel all the way to the northeast where they can easily hide in the Chinese homes of ethnic Korean families because these families speak their language and understand their culture.