Frontline: Dandong, China: On a clear day Chinese can see into their past

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A DESERTED amusement park and a few dead-looking factories are all that can be seen on the North Korean side of the Yalu river when looking through a telescope from the thriving Chinese city of Dandong. For a country that claims to be "paradise on earth", it's hardly impressive.

"They're really hungry over there. It's so poor," said a Chinese who has visited North Korea as a tourist.

The contrast with China could hardly be more dramatic. Dandong is booming, with shops selling mink coats for pounds 1,300 - about nine times the Chinese monthly salary - while fellow communist North Korea is racked by famine and many people are forced to eat grass and bark.

Although Chinese tourists can visit North Korea quite easily - a day trip costs about pounds 30 - the poorest country in East Asia is closed to Westerners, who have to make do with a trip in a speedboat to within a couple of hundred metres of the south bank of the Yalu or else a walk on the remains of a bridge that juts out towards the North Korean city of Shinuiju.

The bridge across the Yalu, which was partly destroyed by the US Air Force during the Korean War, has recently been turned into a tourist attraction as well as a monument to imperialist aggression.

Apart from the amusement park, factories and a small shipyard, there is not much to see from the bridge. The obvious poverty of North Korea makes Chinese people all the more proud of the economic progress their country has made in recent years.

"It's a bit like our country in the old days," said a Chinese tourism official who has visited North Korea on several occasions. He was referring to the poverty, regimentation and all-powerful personality cult of the late Great Leader Kim Il Sung and his son and successor, the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.

The similarity to the personality cult that surrounded Mao Tse-tung during the Cultural Revolution in China is striking, as is the poverty which is at least as much the result of the wilfully dogmatic policies of a single dictator as it is of failed harvests or international isolation.

Down by the river there are plenty of Korean restaurants, serving kimchi or cabbage pickled in red peppers and garlic and other spicy dishes, but Dandong is essentially a Chinese city with Koreans making up less than 5 per cent of the population. The main sign of North Korean influence in Dandong itself consists of dozens of stalls selling North Korean stamps, which include not just gaudy folders of issues depicting the omnipresent Kims, but issues marking the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1981 and her 21st birthday.

North Korea has had to be pragmatic in its efforts to earn foreign exchange, and philatelists are among its main targets.

The "hermit kingdom" on the south bank of the Yalu may be miserably poor, but most people in Dandong seem to be enjoying life too much to let that get them down. The city is full of packed shops and restaurants and has a booming night life. In the Tang Ren bar in the centre of town the elegant manageress drinks Mexican beer out of the bottle as she watches a Mariah Carey video, while the Australia Beef restaurant is full of customers enjoying not barbies or Foster's but delicious "Mongolian hotpot" - thinly sliced lamb (from New Zealand, according to the menu) boiled at the table with vegetables and noodles and dipped into a spicy soy sauce. Washed down with a large bottle of slightly fruity local beer (or Budweiser if you insist) a superb meal need cost you no more than pounds 2.50.

Food and drink are not the only sensual delights Dandong has to offer. Although there is no more surprising country than China, I was nevertheless astonished to find a new translation of Lady Chatterley's Lover in a Dandong bookshop, while the city's main department store sells everything from exercise bikes to Cadbury's chocolate - and it also has a sex counter.

On view are packets of condoms emblazoned with lurid pictures of pouting blondes. As I stopped to gawp, a severe- looking female sales assistant solemnly offered me a packet of a mysterious gel guaranteed to prolong my sexual pleasure.

I muttered some excuse, and hurried off to e-mail my wife about the day's adventures. Yes, Dandong is linked into cyberspace and you can go online at the government-operated Wang Yuan (Net Garden) for about pounds 1.40 an hour. Despite official paranoia about the Internet, I had no difficulty reading about a further crackdown against the Falun Gong religious sect. Dandong has truly joined the real world.