Dandong, on the China-North Korea border, is home North Korean workers and refugees
But there is also fear that Pyongyang's tentacles stretches across the border
One North Korean said there were spies all over the city
Dandong has a friendship bridge spanning the river border but it's in a state of disrepair
Editor’s Note: Stan Grant is an award-winning senior international correspondent for CNN International. Based in Beijing, he is responsible for the network’s coverage of China, its people and its neighbors
I’m so close I feel I could almost reach out and touch it. In the distance I see smoke stacks from shut down factories, grey stark buildings, and the odd old truck. Set against an austere, cold ice blue sky and bare trees, the few people visible can be seen walking slowly, speaking in small groups.
This is my glimpse of the ‘hermit kingdom’, the strange, secretive, forbidding North Korea. We’ve come to Dandong, a Chinese border town home to North Korean officials, workers and some terrified defectors.
Dandong is every inch a bustling, booming small city on the move, but it is almost as much Korean as Chinese. Even street signs and billboards are in Korean characters.
I have walked the pedestrian ‘friendship bridge’ out to the middle of the Yalu River. This stretch of water, maybe a kilometer – less than a mile – wide, is what separates China from its close ally. Suddenly the bridge stops; pylons mark the remaining distance.
Another two-minute walk and I’d be not just in another country but a different world. This is a world now in official mourning for the death of Kim Jong Il.
North Korean state media have broadcast images of a grief-stricken nation; people openly weeping. That’s the official image at least; an image about to be shattered by a random meeting with a North Korean man, living in terror.
We meet him by chance; our crew out filming in the freezing pre-dawn light. Intrigued, he wanders over.
It is what we have been waiting for, a chance to speak to a North Korean away from what could all so easily appear to be the choreographed tears of Pyongyang. What does he really think? What is life in his country like? What will become of it without the so-called ‘dear leader?’
But this fit, 70-year-old affable man, suddenly makes to escape from our questions. He can’t talk he says; he can’t even be seen with us.
“There are many North Korean Spies here.”
Everywhere, we ask?
“Exactly, many, many. There are hundreds of spies,” he says, walking quickly away.
We can’t identify him, he wouldn’t even give us his name. We will call him Mr. Lee.
He spends part of the year in Dandong, part of the year in North Korea. He says speaking out risks death.
“North Koreans don’t speak openly. If anyone knows I’m talking I would be sent to prison and there’s no mercy there. I would be shot dead,” he says.
But after our assurances, quietly, warily, he opens up a little more, painting a picture of a harsh life across the border, where people are starving, aid is scarce and the only factories operating are for making military weapons.
And right now he says he fears a desperate country with a potential power vacuum that could so easily lash out.
“Before Kim Jong Il died he was preparing the country for war and death and to hand power to Kim Jong Un.”
Other North Koreans here are in mourning. We’ve seen bus loads of women workers crying, too distraught to speak.
Flowers continue to be delivered to the North Korean consulate building. Korean businesses and restaurants, normally flourishing, have closed their doors.
Lee has shed no tears for Kim Jong Il. He has no hopes for the now much heralded ‘great successor’ Kim Jong Un.
This man knows too well what has happened under the Kim family rule. To him it is a regime obsessed with pumping money into its military while desperately poor people go hungry.
“Pig feed, that’s all we can eat”, he says. “Corn, we grind it into a porridge. No one can get full on that. There is no food, not even food from China. It’s been blocked for three years.”
Even if you have money there is nothing to buy, he says; any goods are traded for what little food remains.
Lee is not a defector or a refugee. His story is even more compelling because he is one of the ‘lucky ones’. He is well off by his countrymen’s standards, he has relatives on the Chinese side who run businesses.
This is a financial lifeline for his family back home. Lee is able to work here himself, on a limited visa, restricted only to Dandong. But he crosses the border every six months just to keep his family alive.
“I can’t not go back, I have to. I have a son and daughter. If I don’t go back they can’t survive,” he says.
Lee’s is one man’s story. A story of fear and horror under what by most accounts is one of the most repressive, paranoid regimes on Earth. It is a story borne out by human rights groups who report the deaths of millions during past famines, and of hundreds of thousands of dissidents locked up in brutal gulags.
As evening falls from the Chinese side of the border, Dandong becomes a city of light, North Korea fades into darkness. Only the occasional dim glow faintly illuminating a black sky. Some more poor people are straggling along the river front. We are separated by water, history and fate.
Lee, for a while, can stand on the lucky shore. But he shares the fear of his countrymen. He knows the reach of the North Korean regime.
He is spied on, he watches what he says and who he speaks to. For all his privilege, he is as much a prisoner of the ‘hermit kingdom’ as those whose lives are trapped in its borders.