Updated: Aug 28, 2019
On the morning of the 25th of July 2019, I found myself onboard a train crossing a river I had been aspiring to cross for the previous 8 years. The river was the Amnok (Yalu) river which marks the border between the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The city of Dandong, which sits on the Chinese side of the border, starkly contrasts with the much smaller border city of Sinuiju which serves as the entry point for most of the DPRK’s international trade and tourism. With the exception of a few small border crossings, the Sino-Korean friendship bridge serves as the primary land crossing between the two countries and is connected to the capital, Pyongyang, by the P'yŏngŭi line of the Korean State Railway.
As the train pulled into Sinuiju station, all our documents were checked and we were able to take a brief stroll around the station. There was a small snack cart on the platform where I had a chance to practice my Korean and buy a couple of bottles of Taedonggang beer, one of the most popular beer brands in the country, which comes in an elegant green bottle. Clearly my Korean could do with some polishing since a few sniggers from the girls selling the snacks suggested I hadn’t quite nailed it.
The train soon pulled out of Sinuiju and began the 6-hour journey southwards. The train left the city and immediately we were surrounded with farmland – this part of the country is relatively flat (in stark contrast to the rest of the landscape in the DPRK) and so is devoted almost entirely to agriculture.
Beyond the picturesque fields was the faint silhouette of an enormous suspension bridge. Constructed during General Kim Jong Il’s tenure, the bridge was a sign of growing international trade with China and the rest of the world; however, the diplomatic situation changed with the ascension of the Marshall Kim Jong Un in 2012 and the growing tensions in the region resulted in the bridge never being connected to the Korean road network. In recent years however, the government has signalled its intentions to develop Sinuiju into a centre of economic activity and so the new bridge may soon return to prominence.
Travelling through North Pyongan province, I got my first glimpse of North Korea, a country which has been at the forefront of my mind for the last 8 years. The first significant moment of the trip came a few moments after leaving Sinuiju. The train passed a tall obelisk-style monument, behind which, the portraits of the President and the General sat in pride of place. These portraits are by no means a rare sight in the DPRK, adorning every public building and many outdoor spaces, although seeing them in person for the first time made it feel all the more real.
As we trundled through the countryside, the apparent ‘normality’ made an impression on me. I remember standing on the southern side of the DMZ at Odusan last year watching locals through binoculars and coming to the realisation that no matter the country or the situation, people are people wherever you go. Bicycles are the preferred method of transport in this part of the country, especially since recent sanctions restrict imports of petrol and other oil based products making cars and trucks much more expensive to run. Scenes of children waving and locals cycling to and from work helps foreigners relate, in a very small way, with the people on the other side of the window (who are often just as interested in us as we are in them).
Eventually, the train pulled into Pyongyang Train Station, one of the many landmarks I have become all too familiar with over the last few years which only added to the excitement of finally being there. As we left the station and walked into the station square, we were greeted with an enormous screen broadcasting Korean Central Television to local passers-by and a large statue of a flame atop one of the buildings opposite the railway station representing Juche, the state philosophy. This was flanked with the phrase “The Heart of Korea”. Finally, I was in North Korea.