The Perils of Reporting on North Korean Workers in China

On the last day of the wondrous month of May, Brice Pedroletti, the Le Monde correspondent in China, was in the city of Tumen, along the northernmost point of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  With him was travelling a photographer from Singapore; their task was to travel down the isolated stretch of the Tumen River (which is the border between China and the DPRK) in search of details about the recent rash of border incidents — incursions by North Korean soldier-defectors that have been happening with some regularity of late, and generally ending violently.

Pedroletti and his team did some of the standard stuff in Tumen, noting some of the standard tropes. These generally include the observations that Namyang looks totally abandoned; there are few trains coming over the border; North Korean border guards look menacing; the land looks dessicated and spent on the North Korean side; Tumen is lively and bustling even for a small city, etc.

For a different perspective on the same site, our Sino-NK team took a trip last year around the same time to the same places, and came up with something we hope could be described as substantial.

At any rate, the French reporter and Singaporean photographer then drove out to the industrial quarter and ran across a couple dozen North Korean women, at work cleaning up some piles of organic debris outside of a small factory. The photographer quickly lifted her camera and shot a couple of pics of them working. According to Pedroletti, the women then moved in ‘en bloc’, swarming the car, trying to tear the camera out of photographer’s hands. She resisted, shouting (in Mandarin, which the North Koreans clearly did not understand) that she could delete the images. During this struggle the North Korean women managed to rip a tendon in the photographer’s thumb. 

At this point, the story gets yet more interesting, because the journalists speak to Chinese police about the case. The police ultimately decide that they can’t do anything about it owing to the ‘sensitivity’ of having North Korean workers in the country. As one policeman tells the foreign journalists, ‘these are North Koreans — they have a totally different system.’  There are about another eight paragraphs of discussion of the Chinese response to the incident in the Le Monde post, which individuals with more fluency and time than myself could lavish more analysis which could be shared in the comment section of this blog. 

I suppose the caution is one that everyone is familiar with already: shoot pictures at your own peril, regardless of which side of the Tumen you are on, and these are some of the problems that emerge for the Chinese PSBs/border security types when they decide to allow insular North Korean workers and curious foreign journalists simultaneous access to the sacred terrain of Jilin province.

Image by Sim Chi Yin, for Le Monde, 31 may 2015.

Correction: The original version of this post misidentified the photographer Sim Chi Yin as male. (As her biography indicates, Sim Chi Yin is a woman, as well as a graduate of the London School of Economics with specialization in history and international relations.) 

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