If you stand on China’s Yalu River Bridge and look across the river to North Korea, the first thing catching your eye is a multicolored Ferris wheel. It’s bigger than almost anything else on the skyline. From where I'm standing, it seems fake. Is it 3-D? Like a lot of things in North Korea, it looks like it hasn’t budged in years.
Last week, for three Chinese yuan, or 35 cents, I bought unlimited time with a pair of binoculars. I could gawk at the North Korea border as long as I wanted. Here's what I saw:
Gray, decaying waterfront buildings and three industrial smokestacks. In front of one building, which once might have been a hotel, there’s a cracked white fountain with a giant, plaster, leaping fish. It hasn’t seen water for a long time.
There was also a family picnicking in the shade of a striped umbrella Mother, father, child. But my view of them became obstructed because a stiff guard in a wrinkled, olive green uniform kept pacing back and forth, back and forth, in front of them.
Later the same day, as I looked across the river at dusk, I saw four or five crumbling, earth-colored residential buildings. They were disappearing in the darkness. In each apartment, I saw a single, bare light bulb; no curtains.
When I looked to my right, on the China side, an array of fluorescent and neon light made me dizzy. The Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, which actually connects the two countries, was glowing -- a frenzied, color-changing searchlight show.
The North Korean side was dark, save the occasional truck headlights coming toward the border.
That night when I went to bed, I couldn't stop thinking about that Ferris wheel. Why was it there? Like so many things along the waterfront, it seemed deliberate -- built right in the line of sight -- but it didn't fit. Does it ever run? What does the North Korean government want people to think when they see it? That people aren’t repressed? Life is good and happy? That North Koreans are free to have fun?
The next day, I head back to the shoreline for another look. There again, was the family of three, under the red, yellow, blue umbrella. There was the guard, standing in front of them. This time, there were three men in military fatigues, sitting in a row on the stoop, slouching and staring. And there was the Ferris wheel, still motionless. If I came back the next day, I wondered, would the family be back for their third picnic?
I wondered, what if that family's job was to arrive at the river every day and picnic in the shade of a Ferris wheel?
That's the thing, when you are an American on the shore of China, looking at the shore of North Korea. All you have is a couple of images seen through a pair of binoculars: a fountain with a fish out of water, and a Ferris wheel that never twirls.