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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their country from the North and dozens kick 500 meters to the opposite side for a rest and a glimpse of the poor, withdrawn communist state.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."
Beijing has been among the powers coaxing Pyongyang to forsake nuclear weapons ambitions.
China's border with the North also has tensions -- North Korean refugees use the frozen rivers of winter to flee to their neighbor and perhaps beyond. A full-blown crisis in Pyongyang could make that stream a deluge.
But for now, many of the Chinese living next to the North and daily witnessing its economic feebleness exuded disdain rather than fear for Kim's rule.
"It's a terror state," said retiree Yang Jiangwen as he dried after a swim. "They're poor over there. When you get up close you see everything is so worn and broken. Sad little country."
Most of the swimmers are men old enough to remember their own country's fitful journey from Mao Zedong's zealous communism to Deng Xiaoping's market reforms. One said Kim's possible demise would matter only if it brought similar change.
"Now they say he's not so sick," said one swimmer, who gave only his surname, Zhang. "Sick. Not sick. So what? We know not to care who is in power if their system doesn't change."
Editing by Ken Wills and Alex Richardson