The Third Korea
Apr 6 2011
Most people get it now that Korea is split in two and that one of them is evil and the other one makes great flat screen TVs. You'll also probably be aware that they're separated by the most heavily fortified, militarised border in the world, making weekend city breaks to Pyongyang quite difficult. What less people know, however, is that there's another Korea, west of the famous two. This third Korea is where the worlds of North and South meet head-on in a weird capitalist/communist clusterfuck overseen by the Chinese. Ever wanted to visit Kim Jong Il's birthplace whilst drinking Starbucks, listening to K-Pop and not getting shot? West Korea's your place.
The little known 'Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region' in North-Eastern China has got everything a politically bipolar vagrant could want: Hip South Korean coffee houses, massive fashion department stores and clubs filled with top Korean DJs flown over from Seoul, sharing space with grey communist vistas, kitschy militarised theme parks, socialist statues, workers' uniforms and an air of economic stagnation. To get there from Beijing I had to take a miserable 24-hour train ride, propped up against a hard, upright wooden seat in a permanently floodlit carriage, packed in with people who kept chucking half-eaten sausage skins on the increasingly disgusting train carriage floor.
Yanbian's two million-strong population represent the largest ethnic Korean group outside of the Korean peninsula. This is the point at which businesspeople, government officials and crazy Christian evangelists from the North and South meet, talk and trade using the Chinese-governed territory as a more or less neutral ground.
Unfortunately, when you're dealing with North Korea, getting along is never going to be simple, and when bad Korea does one of its villainous underground nuclear missile tests it can cause unwelcome earthquakes in Yanbian's capital Yanji. They also enjoy kidnapping South Korean pastors from the West from time to time.
The centre of Yanji is all bright neon lights and amazingly good Korean food; it's actually pretty good fun and walking around the place at night covers up most of its more obvious daytime blemishes.
When the sun's up, though, it's all communist-style housing blocks, packed in rows of crumbling rural buildings and socialist statues of dancing women.
To offset the evidence of growth and prosperity inherited from South Korea, the North has invested in a creepy, semi-abandoned theme park designed to showcase their own special brand of hallucinogenic trauma that only a nation of prisoners could confuse with fun.
Here are the traditional communist heroes: Mammary Pig and Queer Deer.
There's a fun monorail that takes you on a ride through a world of weeping teddy bears hanging by their necks.
Then a man with no eyes greets you before you have a go on the big spinner...
...a nuclear missile-themed swing...
...and see a show featuring a naked girl wrapped in a snake.
I think this tank is used for training child soldiers for that righteous day they'll pop down the road and blow up the South Korean coffee shops.
Here is a nice statue of a satanic necromancer trying to insert a reptile into a wench.
Given the general air of humdrum despair, it's really no surprise Morrissey chose to come here to die.
Continued on page 2.