China swimmers plunge into N.Korea frozen in past

Thu Sep 11, 2008 9:11pm EDT
 
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By Chris Buckley

DANDONG, China (Reuters) - For the avid river swimmers of this Chinese border city, North Korea is 10 minutes' brisk freestyle away and yet a world apart.

Each day in the warmer months in Dandong, hundreds of Chinese swimmers plunge into the narrow Yalu river dividing their country from the North and dozens kick 500 meters to the opposite side for a rest and a glimpse of the poor, withdrawn communist state.

"I go to North Korea every day without ever needing a visa," said Cui Wenbin, a 55-year-old office worker, drying off after his latest visit.

The swimmers despair at what they see of their neighbor, said Lin Senping, a brawny, tanned man in his 50s, who added he "swam to North Korea" most afternoons.

"Sometimes the guards aren't friendly," he said. "They'll aim their guns at you if you start climbing onto the river bank. But it's nothing to be scared of. Just don't go on shore ... North Korea needs China too much to risk an incident."

Dandong's "Yalu River Swimming Association", and much else in this gaudy trade city, reflect many Chinese people's mix of fatalism and disdain concerning North Korea. They see it as stuck in a suffocating communism that their own one-party state escaped.

Swimmers basking on the shore near Dandong's bridge across the river snorted contempt or indifference when asked about reports that North Korea's supreme leader, Kim Jong-il, is suffering from a serious illness.

"You say Kim Jong-il could be ill?" said Lin. "I'd say he could be mentally ill, for sure."   Continued...

 
<p>A swimmer from the "Yalu River Swimming Association" washes himself after his swim in the Yalu River opposite the North Korean town of Sinuiju, in the Chinese border city of Dandong September 12, 2008. Each day, in warm months, hundreds of Chinese swimmers plunge into the narrow Yalu river which divides their country from North Korea, with dozens kicking the 500 metres to the opposite side for a rest and a glimpse of the poor, withdrawn communist state. Dandong's "Yalu River Swimming Association" and other things in this gaudy trading city reflect many Chinese people's mix of fatalism and disdain concerning North Korea. They see it as stuck in a suffocating communism their own country escaped. REUTERS/David Gray</p>