At the heart of China's legal (and illegal) trade with North Korea

The North Korea you aren't meant to see
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Story highlights

  • Dandong is a thriving Chinese border town within throwing distance of North Korea
  • Much trade -- legal and illegal -- is done between the two countries
  • One smuggler talks to CNN about the business he does with N. Korean soldiers
  • But he claims Dandong is crawling with North Korean spies
The sun is rising over the Yalu River and North Korea.
Revolutionary music pumped through loudspeakers wafts over to China. Back across the river, work groups can be seen stirring for a day's toil in the fields. Over here in China, a tourist tout is trying to sell us North Korean currency. "Good price!" he shouts.
This is daily life in Dandong, China -- a thriving border town within throwing distance of the Hermit Kingdom. Tourists often do just that when they go right up to the fence that separates the two countries and leave cigarettes, old watches and other goodies for the North Korean border guards.
Signs all along the border warn against throwing goods over the fence, as if it's some kind of zoo. And, in a way, that's what it has become.
Chinese tourists now flock to Dandong -- which lies along China's western border with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea -- to ogle at their unfortunate neighbors. Some pay a few RMB to borrow binoculars to peer across the river, while the more adventurous take speedboats and pleasure cruises out on the river, which acts a natural barrier between the two neighbors. "Go inside North Korea!" a sign for one local boat company proclaims.
Perhaps the Chinese come to marvel at how far they have come. With decades of breakneck growth, Communist China has become a testament to capitalism and urban living. North Korea, which also describes itself as a socialist state, is still sealed and secretive -- almost.
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Lifeline
Dandong is the lifeline, say critics, of the autocratic regime led by Kim Jong Un. Whole neighborhoods in the back streets of the city are lined with trading shops quietly run by North Korean officials.
China is North Korea's largest trading partner by a long way, and despite Beijing's official displeasure with the DPRK's pursuit of nuclear weapons, this trade continues to grow. China has rebuffed any attempts to strengthen economic sanctions further against Pyongyang.
Up to 70% of all China trade with North Korea runs through Dandong, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, and it takes the form of both legal trade and illegal smuggling.
We meet "Chen," a smuggler who makes a midnight run across the Yalu several times a month to trade with North Korean soldiers.
"In China we don't lack food, we don't lack things," he says. "People can eat and have clothes on their backs, but not over there, even the North Korean soldiers have nothing."
Despite North Korean propaganda that paints a picture of their military as an elite fighting force, Chen says the soldiers are desperate for basic food such as bread and rice. They don't have money so they barter with scrap metals, old pots and even ginseng. But Chen says he can never trade with ordinary North Koreans, the soldiers wouldn't allow it.
North Korean spies
We can't use Chen's real name, he claims that Dandong is crawling with North Korean spies. "Don't say anything sensitive around the North Korean waitresses," he whispers to us. "They speak Korean and English."
And you can find them all across Dandong in North Korean themed restaurants, karaoke bars, and musical review shows.
We head to one of the more famous ones along the river. If refugees are caught trying to escape from North Korea, they are shot, but in restaurants like this gaudy two-story tourist trap, North Koreans are allowed to work in China on special three-year permits.
They are often the children of mid-level Korean Workers' Party loyalists and their movements and earnings are tightly controlled.
And as the four-piece all-female North Korean band plays to the Chinese tourists drinking North Korean beer, I think how perfectly it sums up this city: extremely bizarre and perhaps a little tragic.