Laura Ling, Euna Lee, and the Sino-North Korean Border

The London Times, in reporting prematurely this past March that the North Korean border guards had actually ventured into China to grab Ling and Lee, describes the border as such:

The border along the Tumen and Yalu rivers is a frequent crossing point for trade with North Korea and for refugees seeking to escape over the porous frontier. It is also a favourite spot for foreign journalists seeking to film a glimpse of the shuttered nation. Reporters standing on the Chinese side of the border are often jeered at by North Korean border guards, some brandishing rifles just steps away.

Generally speaking, one has to point a camera at a North Korean border guard in order to be menaced.  I spent several hours in their vicinity at various points of my journeys, and have never been threatened, perhaps because I never was seen taking pictures of them, or that we decided to ignore one another.  However, at the more isolated areas of the Tumen river, taking photos of these individuals could indeed be hazardous. 

[For selected original photos of the border region, see my WordPress Photoblog.]

In places like Hyesan where border guards are posted every 250 feet or so, one has the feeling that the guns are for keeping the people in, and perhaps for brandishing at the occasional journalist.  I talked with a few Chinese young people who had swum acros the Tumen river, were grabbed by North Korean police, and sent immediately back, terrified but intact.  However, one has to ask, as a Chinese friend did me: do you suppose their guns are actually loaded?  What is the psychology and training of the North Korean border guard?  How do their pre-deployment briefings differ from soliders being stationed on the DMZ?  One would think that questions like these might be basic to reporting on the Ling/Lee debacle. 

Donald Kirk’s article is worth revisiting for its still-open threads.  When do we hear commentary from Mitch Koss, the uncaptured CurrentTV cameraman?  And what role did the Korean-Chinese guide play in perhaps selling the journalists a false bill of goods that gave them whatever false sense of security about crossing the frozen Tumen river?  Answers to these questions might give a better sense of the local and international politics of the border region.  If Kirk’s (well-founded) suspicions are correct, then Ling and Lee simply become two of the more priviledged victims of female human traficking across the border, though in the reverse direction from that taken by North Korean women. 

Washington, D.C. lawyer, dissenter, Korean human rights activist, and fine writer Joshua Stanton sounds off in one of a series of consistently interesting posts on Ling and Lee.   

NK Economy Watch parses the Ling/Lee arrest and return, with a particularly intriguing, extensive, and difficult-to-verify comment by someone who claims to have “infiltrated” North Pyong’an province several times from the area near Dandong.

ChinaSmack interprets the praise-filled commentary of the Chinese BBS scene on Clinton’s mission to North Korea.   I have not yet been made aware of the BBS commentary on the Ling/Lee arrests dating from March, when Chinese bloggers could presumably have gotten defensive about North Korean troops violating Northeastern China’s prized “territorial integrity.”  It seems likely that any such suggestion would be nipped in the bud by the CCP, yet, given the attention paid to dispatches in Chinese about dangerous local effects in China of the North Korean tests, perhaps a glimmer of a possibility exists that Chinese netizens told North Korea to back off.

And, simply for entertainment value, my fellow Seattlite Robert Blevins cautions everyone to stay away from the Sino-North Korean frontier:

[His post] is an update – and perhaps a warning – for anyone foolish enough to venture too close to the North Korean border…The lesson is: Some stories are better researched through Google, rather than on-site.

 Up next: a summary/review of the book no one is talking about, but is the indespensible reference for matters involving the North Korean-Chinese border: Christine Morillot and Dorian Malcovic’s 2005 masterwork, Evadeés de Coreé du Nord: Témoinages [Refugees from North Korea: Testimonies] (Paris: Belfond, Press du Cite, 2005).   This book blows the existing literature out of the water.