Peering Into North Korea From The Russian Side

Some travellers head to North Korea to take in the Kim Il-Sung tour, but you can also get a taste of the Hermit Kingdom from the north of the border, in Russia's Far East.
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Some travellers head to North Korea to take in the Kim Il-Sung tour, but you can also get a taste of the Hermit Kingdom from the north of the border, in Russia's Far East.
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This is an archive piece first published in 2012

Vladivostok is a frenzy of construction. Everywhere you walk, the streets are being churned up by clattering pneumatic drills, roads glisten and stink with fresh tarmac, old facades are being re-plastered, and new buildings are rising up on the seafront to the rhythmic clang of pile drivers. Over the past four years the Russian government has sunk $18.5 billion sprucing up the Pacific port city - thousands of miles from the capital - in preparation for next month's APEC summit.

Most of the dirty work is being done by guest workers - many from Central Asia, and a significant number from nearby North Korea. On my first morning inVladivostok, after a shaky nine-hour flight from Moscow, I walked past a scaffolding-covered tsarist-era building and could hear workers yelling at each other in Korean.

I had read that there were around 3,000 North Koreans working at such sites throughout the city, and I couldn’t help being excited by the chance of meeting someone from the world’s most reclusive state. So I stopped and tried to strike up a conversation with one of them taking a break on the street. It was surprisingly easy; he answered my questions politely and in good Russian. He was from Pyongyang, with two kids back at home, and had been working in Vladivostokfor five years. But that was about as far as I could push the conversation - his colleague was watching closely, and I didn't want to cause any trouble.

As you might expect, the North Korean government keeps very close tabs on its workers in Russia. They pull in around $500 a month – but don’t get to keep much of their earnings, and can be sent home at a moment's notice for the mere crime of watching South Korean DVDs. The din and chaos of Vladivostok, with its rampant consumerism and unusual clash of East and West, must be quite a culture shock for North Koreans. For the many Chinese visitors it's more of a price shock - hotel rates are astronomical, and you don't get much for your money. I had to settle for an ordinary little room with an intermittent hot water supply and a rock-hard mattress at an eye-watering $130 a night.

Russians take full advantage of this price disparity - hundreds flock across the border to Suifenhe every morning for day-trips, stocking up on cheap food and clothes. If they want a taste of the distant West, they can go to a little tea house called Five O’Clock, which Russian schoolbooks reliably inform me is the time that all English people drink tea. There’s nothing discernibly English on the menu, but the interior is a quaint Russian tourist snapshot of an imagined England. The UK is of course on the other side of the planet, and actually travelling there would be a visa nightmare for locals.

North Korea, however, is much closer at hand, and perhaps not surprisingly, the city has its very own Pyongyang restaurant. It’s actually one of a chain that the regime operates throughout Asia. Defectors say the restaurants are vehicles for laundering proceeds from the North Korean government’s illicit activities abroad. That may or may not be true. All I can say for certain is this: the Pyongyang restaurant inVladivostokis the best Korean restaurant I’ve ever been to.

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Before coming here I popped into city's Hyundai hotel (built by South Koreans as the name suggests) to check out the food on offer there and use the free wi-fi – the restaurant was empty, and at $30 for a bowl of soup I didn’t feel like being the only customer. Here at the Pyongyang things were very different. It’s on the ground floor of an ordinary residential building outside the centre. Two stone soldiers stand watch outside. Inside, the walls are decorated with dreamy mountains, waterfalls, and sunlit glades with little white flowers, like illustrations from a children’s fairytale book.

A pretty waitress who called herself Alyona served me galbitang (beef soup), boricha (barley tea), sogogi bokkeum (fried beef with vegetables), and a bowl of kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage), along with several little plates of delicacies. I was sufficiently hungry and curious to have ordered half the menu, and when it was all laid out there in front of me didn't feel particularly confident that I could finish it off. But every dish was delicious – far better that I could have expected from the price tag. I later heard that the staff are threatened with evacuation if they fail to produce results. So perhaps that explains the high quality.

Alyona (not her real name of course) told me she was from the North Korean capital, studying Russian, and had been in the country for six months. I tried to tell her that this place was much better than the Hyundai restaurant. She gave me a blank look. ‘You know, that big South Korean hotel in the city centre?’ No reaction. I got out my digital camera and showed her a picture of it that I’d taken that morning. She took a look, gave a little laugh, said she didn't know the place, and walked away. And after that a different waitress started serving me. Oh dear I thought, I've touched on a forbidden subject – perhaps any mention of the evil capitalist South is banned here? But then looking around, that didn't seem to be the case. The TV on the wall was made by Samsung. The DVD player was an LG. The lager in the fridge had Hite labels.

From time to time a door would open, and I would get a glimpse into another room where a lively party was going on. That was the room for North Koreans. Now and then a bespectacled man in a pink shirt would come out and shout into his mobile phone. I was still working through that pile of kimchi when the karaoke started. I felt privileged – apart from the North Koreans in the other room I was the only customer, and the waitresses were doing their famous floor show. There were no microphones at hand (and no need for them in a fairly small room), so Alyona sang into a TV remote instead. The two of them swayed and smiled sweetly as they sang in what sounded to me like professionally trained voices. I could picture them as angelic children performing for Kim Jong-il at one of those state galas. I recognized the tune – a popular 1980s Soviet hit called Million Roses.

The man with the cellphone paid no attention to them, ended his call, and went back into the side room. A third waitress glided in behind him with plates piled high. The song ended. A bedraggled Russian with one eye who had just walked in applauded wildly.

Later on, Alyona came back to my table. Oh good I thought, she’s forgiven me for the Hyundai gaffe. She wanted to ask me something, but seemed to be struggling to find the words. Then she pointed at my camera. I was confused. Did she want my camera? Well, I thought, it’s my cheap spare, and it’s slightly broken, so you can have it I suppose – I don’t imagine these things are easy to come by over the border. But then I realised that she wanted to see the pictures of the Hyundai hotel. Unfortunately I only had a view of the facade. Another waitress glided over and also seemed curious to know what the place in the picture was. They examined it and conferred.

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At the time of writing,North Korea has just asked the United Nations for food aid, after devastating floods that claimed many lives and left tens of thousands of people homeless. So I feel the need to point out that my little taste of the Hermit Kingdomwas not particularly representative of the realities in that country. Even for a pampered Westerner, that meal was a sumptuous feast – so I can only assume that for an ordinary North Korean it would be the stuff of dreams. No more real than that fairytale landscape on the wall. Nevertheless, getting a closer glimpse of that mysterious country became something of an obsession for me while I was in Vladivostok.

The border was tantalizingly close, and a local friend had very kindly offered to drive me down there. I wasn't expecting to see much – perhaps some razor wire and a misty mountain in the distance. Nevertheless, I was very keen to go. We decided to set out early in the morning to avoid the traffic. During the day Vladivostok's city centre is essentially one big car park. Endless rows of imported Japanese cars (all right-hand drive) clog up both sides of the roads, leaving scant space for the moving traffic, which forms a dense mass of shining metal creeping up and down the steep hills.

We took the new highway towards the airport, built for the APEC summit guests. Residents are very pleased to have it – although the construction seems to have been a little rushed. For a $930 million road it was surprisingly uneven and bumpy. In fact, soon after my visit the entire thing had to be closed, when part of the supporting structure collapsed following heavy rains. The grey Soviet “Khrushovka” apartment blocks lining the highway were in the process of being given a makeover for the summit, with rickety old balconies replaced by shiny white boxes, and crumbling façades repainted, or cased in plastic.

Nice as the city's facelift may be, it's clearly skin-deep. Two gigantic cable-stayed bridges have been built at a phenomenal cost, and now dominate the skyline - but they lead to a largely uninhabited island (Russky Island, the summit venue). Meanwhile, major infrastructural problems in the city itself remain unaddressed. Vladivostok was closed to outsiders until the end of the Soviet period and was essentially one big fortress. That might explain some of the anomalies – things you wouldn’t expect to find in a modern city. For example, there’s a massive fuel depot on Prospekt Ostryakova, in a densely populated area. Perhaps not the best place to hang out during a lightning storm. City authorities have been promising to relocate it for decades, but there it still is. And then there’s the coal-fired TES-2 thermal plant belching black smoke over housing blocks in the city’s southwest.

Once out of the city, it was a four-hour picturesque drive along the coast, driving north, rounding the Amur Gulf, and then heading south. I enjoyed the quirky names of the places we passed – Porokhovaya Pad (gunpowder creek), Gvozdeva (nails), Barabanovka (drums), Barabash (no idea, but it sounds good). Signs along the roadside informed us that we were passing a protected forest, home to Amur leopards. We stopped at a former military encampment built by Japanese POWs in the 1940s, nestling in the wooded hills, and drew water from a ground pump.

Until the last stretch towards the village of Khasan, the southernmost tip of the Primorye region, the roads were surprisingly even, far better than in the regions surrounding Moscow. Outside the village was a battered sign, riddled with bullet holes, with a message in Russian and English informing us that “passes and documents” were required for entry. We both had our passports and registration documents on us, so decided to keep going. If we weren’t supposed to go beyond this point, we reasoned, there would be someone here stopping us.

By the roadside are hillocks with doors inside them – like hobbit houses

A farmer in a rusty tractor was passing out of Khasan – we asked how to get to the border, but he was too drunk to give a coherent reply. And in any case, we’d seen a convoy of North Koreans heading down this road, so we knew we must be on the right track.

Khasan is a sleepy, unassuming Russian village. On the way in, buildings lie abandoned and windowless. By the roadside are hillocks with doors inside them – like hobbit houses. I saw some like them in the Russian Arctic once, and never figured out what they were for. A rail line stretches alongside the river towards the North Korean border. We stopped by a garden fence and asked an old lady how to reach the border. She barked back angrily that we had no business going there, and would just get arrested. Not very helpful.

We drove towards the river, and got out of the car. It was a sunny afternoon with good visibility, and there was barely a soul to be seen. On the other side of the river was a huge, ornate pagoda perched on a hill, and further down a white watchtower among the trees. So that was North Korea– evidently that pagoda was designed as a symbol of strength and prosperity. I imagined there to be a uniformed soldier with a telescope observing my every move.

It was odd to think of the contrast between that country’s southern border – the most heavily fortified in the world – and this border, with no visible fortifications. Surely it wouldn’t be so hard for them to sneak across, through those forests, under the cover of night? Perhaps there wasn’t much to see, but it was oddly satisfying, the juxtaposition of a sleepy Russian village with ramshackle garages and laundry lines, and in the background this view to a mystical other world.

While I sat there inwardly panicking, my companion seemed entirely unconcerned

There seemed to be no danger, so we drove a little further on, between two pillars, round a bend, and found ourselves right at the border crossing – just a small white shack and a lifting gate surrounded by trees in full blossom. I certainly hadn't wanted to get this close, but the thing was so well hidden among the trees that it came as a total surprise. My only thought was to turn round and get the hell out of there, but a green Jeep had already closed in behind us, and guards were approaching the car.

My friend rolled down the driver’s window, and a young guard asked for our documents. After a quick inspection he informed us that we were in a restricted border zone without permits – and that there had been a sign five kilometres back clearly stating this. I started to picture the chain of events that was bound to follow. I’d be detained here for several days, heavily fined, fired from my job and  deported.

Fortunately that’s not what happened. While I sat there inwardly panicking, my companion seemed entirely unconcerned, and casually explained that I was a tourist and had wanted to see the southernmost point of Russia. He asked what this place was anyway – the Chinese border? The guard, impeccably polite throughout, told us that there were two options – number one, he could detain us and launch “administrative procedures” – or two, we could turn the car around and they’d slowly escort us out of the border zone.

And after some brief chit-chat with the guard it turned out that that pagoda on the hill that I’d been dreamily contemplating was not North Korean at all – it was on the Chinese side of the three-way border. North Korea was just to the left, where those misty mountains were. Perhaps it didn’t matter either way, my little bit of fence-peering tourism was all in the mind after all.