I traveled in Helong and Tumen along the upper reaches of the Tumen River to Chongshan, a small township, and Nanping. Afterwards, upon learning of my trip, my Korean-American colleague was quick to note it is the most sensitive area along the border; an area she has been dying to visit but never been allowed to in her five years here; and, where alone the siting of a foreigner prompts an immediate police report. It was my second time to have traveled along the border since May, when I glanced over a tall mountain onto a taller monument erected in honor of Kim Il-Sung, the father of North Korea; drove past the prison in China where defectors are detained before returning to a certain death; and, visited Hunchun and the bridge the two American reporters evidently trespassed according to all accounts except those published in the American press.

This time was more poignant, more personal. Chongshan lies directly adjacent to the Mao Mine in North Korea, Asia’s biggest open-air iron ore mine and among the largest in the world. The Mao Mine is toiled by the North Korean people and owned by the North Korean army, who sell ore to China. A Chinese military barrack plus some stops along the roadside served as our vantage points. Our arrival at the military barrack was greeted by an expanding brigade of armed soldiers dressed in a uniform lacking resemblance to what I am accustomed to seeing in other areas of China. They were surprised by our arrival – worrisome in the presence of heavy artillery (machine guns) – but grudgingly obliged our request in the aftermath of lengthy negotiation. A sharply spiked barricade is retracted, granting us entrance.

Across from the military barrack, a medium-sized city congregates along the river at the base of the mine, an urban centerpiece for North Korean standards I am told. We look out from a fairly dense forage of green onto a compact cluster of nameless, nondescript, one-story, small, gray stone houses. Larger, incongruous blue and white construction looms in the distance too far for the naked eye to decipher. The “city” appears dull and lifeless. The air is gray though with the arrival of summer, the landscape is fairly green. Through the haze, a single, glaring light pierces from the top of the cavernous iron reserve. It is the only light I can recall seeing in North Korea though power lines, if not electricity, are occasionally evident.

Most of the roads do not appear paved. There are no traffic lights or other accessories signaling urban living. The Chinese roads are not paved, but our drive is largely through uninhabited, forested area. Our excursion is cut short at the question of my nationality, even if our host in a drunken state – a vestige of lunch – still manages to smartly stammer German (not American). Our departing car is ushered out by a ferocious, snarling Tibetan mastiff. 

At the border crossing, we are separated by no more than 30 meters in physical space from our next door neighbors. There are viewing points along the river to stand and gaze idly onto North Korea for a snapshot of what the hermit kingdom might offer in terms of the quotidian. I did not bring my camera, mostly out of fear for irritating the wrong people – less the North Koreans than my South Korean boss, who I respect – but also partly given poor visibility and dreary weather conditions. North Korean customs officers dressed in starched, olive green military attire reminiscent of former Soviet Union or Nazi soldiers strictly monitor border activity. The stage appears set for an Orwellian worker’s paradise to unfold.

From my river perch, North Korean citizens riding in the back of an open lorry arrive at the crossing point, which likely only serves to funnel North Korea’s natural resources into China. In addition to minerals, North Korean forests have by and large been stripped and sold to China, resulting, I believe, in heavy flooding and other natural disasters there. Once densely forested land cleared for crop cultivation shows signs of regrowth after the failed conversion of the steep mountainside into a fertile agricultural plain in the 1990s.

The drive along the border with China is in stark contrast to the reports of the DMZ – the heavily militarized, vast expanse of land that would likely take at least 20 years to demine even if South Korea and North Korea should ever reunite politically. The peaceful, green and sparsely populated landscape belies why North Korea’s estimated 22 to 23 million citizens are not escaping en masse across the Tumen River. In the winter, the river freezes solid facilitating an even easier crossing barring artic temperatures. No razor sharp barbed wire fences, looming walls or other insurmountable barriers flank either side of the river to label the area a hotbed of political activity. It is incomparable with Berlin, Gaza, Mexico or any other area noted for intense controversy and bitter hostility. Even the occasional large, fading white Korean lettering flanking the hillside hailing General Kim Jong-il as the sun of the 21st century are hardly any more luminous or eye-catching than the characters branding Hollywood or Shangri-la and its symbolic Songzanlin Monastery in Yunnan. Despite ominous reports of nuclear weapons, rogue states, humanitarian crisis, chronic famine, public execution and other acute human suffering, there is no indication the area should warrant much of anyone’s attention, let alone some of the world’s most powerful.

Along the road, there are heavily armed vehicle inspection points, fairly common in China’s border regions but usually far less fortified. Outside Tibetan areas, such check points are generally an annoying formality hardly warranting an afterthought – at most a fair warning not to engage in socially disruptive behavior. When I passed one in February heading north along the border of Burma in a predominately Nu ethnic area, the guards fiddled with my passport for a bit before one arrested the opportunity to flaunt his faltering English.           

As with the buried landmines, guards are said to be lurking every 10 to 100 meters on the North Korean side. They are said to visit each home daily to monitor activity and to check attendance. An absence likely warrants a hefty bribe or death sentence depending on the family’s material resources and social status. On the Chinese side, there are mysterious reports of the recent death of an ordinary Chinese couple in their 50s. It takes some days, several attempts and two different people before I begin to grasp the story. Their life has been taken ruthlessly for a few material possessions – some rice, clothing, a low-grade TV and a worthless, old telephone. Two decisive clues depict the event as more than a random act of violence. With North Korea’s ban on cell phones, the missing landline is, sadly, not only bizarre but incriminating. Secondly, an autopsy reveals a sharp bayonet as the suspected weapon – the kind commonly used by the North Korean military.

Such killings are recurrent. More remarkably, they are an indicator of how food distribution is going in the North Korean army. When supplies are low the toll is high and vice versa. Given reports of cannibalism and, if my memory does not fail me, of my North Korean classmates at the Beijing Language and Culture University in 1998 – 99 revealing that all North Korean children learn to shoot a gun by age four, it is not so difficult to believe. Combined with this year’s disastrous winter it appears a case of the obvious.

There is close collaboration between Chinese and North Korean police and an infiltration of undercover agents in the area who carefully monitor activity. Beyond American journalists, hapless Chinese and, perhaps, proselytizing Christians mostly of South Korean origin, they principally target desperate North Koreans, particularly, women sold into marriage or who marry willingly and leave children in China. It is an entirely different game from Tibet, where the police are fairly novice and quite conspicuous in their vocation.  

Beyond natural resources and nuclear weapons, North Korea exports (secretly) women to China. Locally, North Korean women are reportedly worth about two to three thousand CNY at most, depending on age and child bearing potential. The children they leave behind in their quest for freedom, because they have been deported and/or killed, because of poor health or entrenched poverty, or because they are vulnerable and powerless, are part of a generation that numbers an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 across Northeast China. For children born to North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers who willingly report the mother as deceased or missing, the child can process and receive a village hukou (Chinese ID indicating proof of residence) thereby making him / her eligible for state-subsidized support and citizenship, including access to compulsory education and health care. Hukou purchases are generally facilitated through a local broker with some political connections such as the village head. For children whose families do not wish to banish the mother’s existence from the family, the child must remain hidden from society with no access to support or services.

With the mother gone, most children remain oblivious of their origins for their own safety and the safety of their family. Even for the mother, the cost of her identity is too high. Upon returning to China to visit their families, two North Korean refugee women with recently acquired South Korean citizenship paid with their life at the hands of North Korean hit men. With an estimated 20 million single men in China by 2020, the market for North Korean women, the population they spawn and willingly or forcedly give up out of extreme fear, vulnerability and danger, as well as the clandestine activities of North Korean spies are all likely to increase.

Across the river, North Korean peasants appear again seated in an elevated back carriage attached to an over-sized tractor–like contraption I’ve never seen with two gigantic wheels in the front and two smaller wheels behind. I’m told it is a 1960s Soviet model out of use in China since the 1980s. Passing vehicles are nearly all Chinese. North Korea does not manufacture cars I’m told, only nuclear weapons. The outflow is sufficient to ensure the survival of the nation’s ruling class. Clothes, daily necessities and nearly everything else are imported from China. The inflow is sufficient to ensure the survival of the nation’s peasants who toil for the ruling elite. On the basis of food availability, life is considered quite agreeable here, directly adjacent to a prospering China. The situation is said to deteriorate proportionate to the distance from the border and reach an extreme south of North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang.

Most people look down-trodden, pushing wheel barrows, toting a cow, riding a bicycle or treading the dirt road leading from the customs area back to their homes in the mountains and along the river. An occasional roaming dog appears wild, but not gaunt. My attention is riveted to the cow, which appears quite healthy. Against the mist, its golden coat has luster and no bones are obviously protruding. Likewise, the bicycles have a metallic gleam and appear appealingly larger than I would have imagined. My eye is trained for large bicycles mostly because the standard variety sold in China are too small for me.

The people are less conspicuous than their provisions. They wear what looks like dark, peasant clothing and carry large hoes and shovels seemingly more suitable for a museum display covering the centuries-long development of agriculture than for plying the land or other hard physical labor. The size of the tools surprises me. In fact, all the dimensions and proportions are misleading. The tractor is enormous, its attachment elevated, the cow more noticeable than the farmer, who appears just above head level with his charge, and the bicycles polished and sizeable if not old-fashioned. In hindsight, I should have been more observant of the people. Statistically, chronic malnutrition has stunted the growth of North Korea’s entire population to the point of where they are reportedly several inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts.

Walking alongside the bend of a ramshackle lot, both North Korean men and women wash clothes on the opposite bank of the river. Volcanic rock from when the Long White Mountain (Changbai Shan), the legendary birthplace of the Korean and Manchu people, dots the river and the lot. The Long White Mountain is an active volcano that erupted about 300 years ago. It is due to erupt every 300 years or so, though no one seems particularly concerned. The mountain’s volcanic crater is home to the Heavenly Lake (Tianchi), which is infamously shrouded in a dense fog throughout the warm summer months. Luck is said to be on the side of those who catch a glimpse of the Heavenly Lake through the clouds. Jiang Zemin, China’s distinctive former leader, is reportedly a frequent caller yet to get lucky. The lake was clearly visible when I visited in late May, albeit frozen solid with thick piles of snow twice my height lining the walkway. I counted my luck anyway.

The Heavenly Lake feeds into the Tumen River. The houses lining the opposite bank of the Tumen River rival the Long White Mountain’s pockmarked volcanic remains lining the riverbed, at least in perforation if not age. Four and five story concrete block buildings are punctured with open holes bereft of formal window panes. People looking out from inside might be expected to wave, but reports from those who’ve visited there indicate such curiosity is akin to a punishable crime. I would have liked to wave but refrained.

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