A narrow ribbon of river, and in many spots barbed wire, separates China from North Korea. But politically the two countries are further and further apart.
China is North Korea’s only ally. But as the North strains nerves by testing long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, even China has supported tougher sanctions.
I traveled from Yanji to Dandong, along China’s border with North Korea, to learn how tensions are affecting life there.
Residents and tourists seemed divided over whether to blame North Korea or the United States.
In Dandong, Chinese swimmers cross the river for exercise. On the North Korean side, they’re allowed to rest in the shallows but not climb onshore.
One of the swimmers said he was angry about the recent tests.
“It’s a threat to China, too. If a nuclear explosion shakes the Changbai Mountains and a volcano erupts, then we’re done for. The entire northeast would be wiped out.”
Sanctions have hobbled traders in Dandong that do business with North Korea, quieting their corner of this riverside town.
“I hate America,” one trader said. “Why don’t they let me do any business?”
Sanctions on seafood imports have also hurt business in Hunchun, near the Russian border.
“I don’t see how it helps,” a merchant said. “How can they live if we cut off everything?”
Li Hongjie, a retiree in Yanji, said that while China had prospered, the North had achieved little but building weapons.
“Now the whole world worries about what they’ll do next,” he said, “especially us here in the northeast.”
Tensions have not deterred Chinese tourists. Many visit a bridge that Chinese troops famously crossed during the Korean War.
River cruises are also popular.
“North Korea is much poorer than us, but they are spiritually pure,” I heard one father tell his young son.
From our tour boat, the divergence was clear: On one bank was the tattered austerity of North Korea, on the other the rising skyline of China.
Most residents did not seem worried about war. But there are jitters.
“In the end, North Korea won’t dare go too far,” a retiree in Dandong said.
“I worry about their nuclear tests,” he said. “If the radiation leaks into the Yalu River, our health will be at risk.”