“Every day we send dozens of people across to Sinuiju for one- or four-day trips,“ says local travel agent Li Qiang, referring to North Korea’s third largest city that sits opposite Dandong. “Anyone can go — except Americans, Japanese and South Koreans.” Boat tours weave between North Korean islands that sit in the middle of the waterway. For about an hour, passengers are completely surrounded by North Korean territory.
“I’m really curious and wanted to see the mysterious North Korea,” says Luan Shicai, a 42-year-old hairdresser from provincial capital Shenyang, standing by a Chinese government sign that warns visitors against throwing food to the North Koreans. “After seeing their life, it makes me feel good about my life here.”
“More and more foreigners are coming here to see North Korea,” says the captain called Mr. Kang, explaining that he makes 10 trips a day in peak season. A single-engine longboat approaches driven by a man in black flat-cap, utility waistcoat and cloth trousers rolled up to his knees. He begins hawking an assortment of wares — eggs, North Korean cigarettes, plastic tubs of kimchi pickled cabbage, “tiger bone” liquor. But he’s not a chancing smuggler — he’s an employee of the North Korean government, running probably the world’s smallest duty-free shop.
“He can collect 2,000-3,000 yuan [$300-500] a day,” says Mr. Kang, as he guns the engine away. “But he gives all that to the government. He only gets paid 50 yuan [$7.5] per month. That’s an extremely good wage in North Korea.”