One reason I swim is the sense of freedom I feel in the water. This sensation of unboundedness, of unrestrained fluidity, is even more pronounced when at the water’s edge lies a fenced-in land of captivity. The Yalu River separates the hermit kingdom of North Korea from China, and it was in the Yalu that I swam, just upstream of the crane-sprouting Chinese city of Dandong, on a clear October morning.
As I spat into my goggles a few steps from the water, to my surprise, nine men and one woman walked down the embankment in their swimsuits, put on fins and high-tech hand paddles, and started to slide into the river. A few smiled at this stranger in trunks, and one of them, short and muscular, with a clutter of teeth and circular fire-cupping imprints across his back, signaled for me to get in the water next to him. He later told me his name was Yi Hong Feng.
Most of the swimmers gradually dispersed in the direction of the far shore, about 500 meters away. But Yi and I swam together, alternating between freestyle and breaststroke, occasionally testing each other’s speed. I felt light and fast, and probably could have quickly outdistanced him despite his paddles and fins (much of my youth was spent in competitive swimming), but this was not a race. And I didn’t know if the swimmers were going to pass the river’s midpoint, the official boundary, or veer back toward the Chinese shore.
Answer: We stroked all the way to the far bank and landed a bit downstream because of the current. Yi stood in the North Korean mud and warmed up in the sunlight. I needed the sun, too. You can imagine the water was cold, yes, but it was bearable because of our exertion, and to my surprise, it seemed clean — no litter, suds, turds or taste of diesel. We stood next to a four-meter-high fence of ragged netting held up by poles that looked like scavenged tree branches — North Korea’s protection against invading swimmers and escaping citizens.
The riverbank was a gradual rise of swamp grass; twenty meters from where we’d landed there was a small white shack — a North Korean guard station. There were no visible gun-toting Democratic People’s Republic of Korea soldiers here, as there had been the day before at the upstream trickle of a Yalu branch at Tiger Mountain. There, Chinese minders and the DPRK personnel threatened gunfire at anyone trying to take a picture of the soldiers. Here, no one. Silence.
Yi and I had been the first of the group to reach the far shore; others smiled at me as they arrived. Their skin glowed with the orange color of the early sun. I punched Yi’s shoulder and said “hun hao” (very good) to praise his strength. He made a similar gesture to acknowledge mine.
After we plodded through the mud for a while, I motioned to Yi for us to swim back to our starting point, now up-river. “Bu shi.” This meant no, and with a sweep of his hand he indicated that the current would be too strong, we’d have to aim for a downstream point. It was all part of his regular circuit, I supposed.
Here we are: Yi and I, planted in the shallows of arguably the least free country in the world, a fenced pen holding in millions through a combination of despotism, punishing violence, and enforced mind-control ideology.
Yi was free, free to do this whenever he wanted, although I guess he didn’t recognize the mockery he made, with every swim, of the hermit tyrant ruling the far shore. But Yi lives in China. The West would say he is not really free either, that he is a citizen of a country controlled by an illegitimate, information-suppressing party; a self-engendered corrupt network of pseudo-communists.
But on this morning, with Yi’s toothy smiles and exuberance, the simple freedom of swimming seemed the only concern of both of us.
As we swam back to the Chinese shore, Yi turned his head now and then to make sure I hadn’t been swept too far by the current. We sprinted the last 100 meters, perhaps racing, perhaps just trying to beat the current to our mark on the other side — a stretch of riverside stone steps where clothes were being washed by a group of women.
Yi and I shook hands on the steps. He seemed as energized as I was, with a robustness bordering on joy. “Xie xie,” I thanked him. He replied the same.
I walked about a kilometer up-river to where I’d left my clothes. I strolled slowly, to give myself more time to think about freedom.