Unequal, Uneasy: Life on the China-Korea Border Along the Yalu River, China and North Korea maintain an uneasy coexistence. Relations between the two countries are at an all-time low, and China may be coming to the unpleasant realization that it could one day find itself in its neighbor's nuclear crosshairs.
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Unequal, Uneasy: Life on the China-Korea Border

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Unequal, Uneasy: Life on the China-Korea Border

Unequal, Uneasy: Life on the China-Korea Border

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il met with a senior Chinese envoy today in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. The envoy brought a verbal message from Chinese president Hu Jintao. The U.S. is hoping that China will use its leverage with the North to keep it from conducting any more nuclear tests. China provides most of the North's fuel and food aid, and much of it goes over a bridge on the Yalu River, which is the border between the two nations. NPR's Anthony Kuhn went there, and he filed this report.

(Soundbite of running water)

ANTHONY KUHN: On the west side of the river is the Chinese city of Dandong. On the east side is the North Korean city of Sinuiju. The contrast between the two is like night and day. At high tide on the Yalu you can almost get within arm's reach of North Korea. Chinese tour boats take you past Sinuiju's decaying factories, whose smokestacks, locals say, haven't let out a puff of smoke in years

You pass by a hotel with a rusting ship beached right in front of it and no guests in sight. With binoculars, you can make out the sullen and bored expressions of the People's Army's soldiers standing guard or the shipbuilders doing their wash in the river.

North Korea banned Chinese tour groups from the country on August 15th. One young tour guide who would only give her surname, Liu, said she found taking Chinese tour groups Pyongyang a restrictive and depressing experience.

LIU (Chinese Tour Guide): (Through translator) They watch your every move and every word. Every tour group gets two Korean guides. One explains about North Korea, the other is a national security agent.

KUHN: Smartly dressed in a red sweat suit, Liu says the contrast between the two sides of the river makes her proud to be a Chinese citizen. She sniffs at the North Koreans' attitude.

LIU: (Through translator) They think that Chinese are degenerate revisionists. They hold themselves up as the last bastion of pure socialism.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: On a sunny afternoon on the Chinese side of the river, retired factory worker Liu Weibao is taking in a music performance in a riverside park. He points to luxury condominiums and hotels that are springing up nearby.

Mr. LIU WEIBAO (Resident, Dandong, China): (Through translator) This side of the Yalu is beautiful. At night there are lights everywhere. Over there in North Korea, it's pitch black at night. On that side, you don't even see any streetlights.

KUHN: Then, Liu points to trucks rolling over the bridge from North Korea. He says they come carrying raw materials and go back loaded with consumer goods. Last year, more than half of the $840 million in trade between the two countries went through Dandong, according to official statistics.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: A Korean War museum up the street pays tribute to the millions of Chinese troops who fought in Korea half a century ago. Experts say that China wants to maintain the fiction of communist solidarity so it can't admit that it's already exerting pressure on North Korea to drop its nuclear programs. But Shi Yinhong, an international-relations expert at People's University in Beijing, says that if North Korea keeps testing nuclear weapons, the veil of friendship could soon be shattered.

Mr. SHI YINHONG (International Relations Expert, People's University, Beijing): (Through translator) Chinese are asking, just who would a hostile North Korea armed with nuclear weapons threaten? In past, we thought it would be someone else: America, Japan or South Korea. Now, more and more, people are imagining that in future it could very possibly threaten China most of all.

KUHN: Back on the riverfront, a computer consultant, who asked to be identified just by his English name, Ben, gazes across the border. He says he was alarmed by North Korea's recent nuclear test.

BEN (Computer Consultant, China): (Through translator) If America has 300 atomic bombs, it's not frightening. If Japan has 30 atomic bombs and China has 30, it's not frightening. But if North Korea has three nuclear weapons, that's scary.

KUHN: Ben is too young to have memories of the time when China and North Korea weren't so different. But even as a young boy, he says, he remembers feeling that China had hope. As hard as he looks, that's something he can't make out across the river.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Dandong, China.

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