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Vantage point on forbidden state

March 30, 2009|Barbara Demick

TUMEN, CHINA — A stray dog skitters back and forth on the frozen Tumen River, oblivious to the fact that he is crossing an international border.

Gravel and weeds protrude through the thin layer of ice. From the fallow winter cornfields, the North Koreans are so close you can see the large parcels they carry on their backs for lack of motorized transport.

Right about here, in the southern outskirts of the Chinese city of Tumen, where the river wends through the curvature of the mountains and squeezes down into a frozen trickle, two young Americans walked into the hands of the North Korean military. About 6:30 a.m. on March 17, Laura Ling and Euna Lee took a video camera and ventured onto the ice to get some footage for San Francisco-based Current TV.

According to some accounts, they had nearly reached the opposite side when the North Korean border guards emerged and took them into custody.

The pair are being questioned at a North Korean guesthouse near Pyonyang. The Obama administration would have preferred to expend its political capital on something else -- for example, pressing North Korea not to proceed with its imminent test of a long-range missile-launched satellite. Current TV, owned in part by former Vice President Al Gore, is said to be intervening on behalf of the journalists.

"I told them it was dangerous and that they should not have gone so close to the river," said Chun Ki-won, a South Korean pastor who was helping the reporters and had spoken to them an hour before they disappeared.

How such a thing could happen is readily apparent from the lay of the land.

The Tumen, one of two rivers that make up the 850-mile China-North Korea border, is almost ideally designed for interlopers.

On their side of the border, North Korean soldiers stand watch, sheltered in concrete pillboxes spaced about half a mile apart. On the Chinese side, a military jeep runs every 20 minutes or so along the road parallel to the river. At some shallower stretches, there is a wire fence that was erected last year before the Beijing Olympics.

It looks like it would take little more than a pair of cheap wire cutters to get through.

During the early 1960s, people crossed from China into relatively prosperous North Korea to escape the famine resulting from Mao Tse-tung's disastrous Great Leap Forward. By the 1990s, the traffic had reversed. Northern defectors are still coming today, although they will be promptly sent home -- to face stiff sentences in labor camps -- if they're caught by the Chinese.

Tumen (population 138,000) thrives on its proximity to North Korea. Tourists go to a riverfront promenade for photos in front of the North Korean flag. They rent binoculars for 30 cents to peer at a bleak North Korean town and buy the little red badges of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il that Northerners are required to wear on their lapels; $25 for real ones, or so the shopkeeper claims, and $1.50 for fakes.

"I don't know why, but the Japanese love to buy this stuff," said Choi Sin-ok, who works in one of the shops, which also sees Chinese, Russian, South Korean, American and European tourists.

Smugglers bring counterfeit currency and drugs out of North Korea, returning with foreign DVDs and radios. Missionaries flock here to console and convert newly arrived North Korean defectors. Human traffickers bring out young women to match up with lonely Chinese bachelors.

Besides the preachers and proselytizers, prostitutes and pimps, aid workers and refugee advocates, smugglers and spies, you've got the journalists.

At some point, almost every reporter writing about North Korea comes to Tumen.

"Spent the day interviewing young N. Koreans who escaped their country. Too many sad stories," Ling wrote on Twitter a few days before she was held.

I've been traveling regularly to the border since 2003 to interview North Koreans.

Just how porous is the border? I learned on my first trip when visiting a riverfront park farther south on the Yalu.

Out from a thicket of weeds emerged a pair of North Korean border guards, their uniform pants rolled up to the knees, as they waded through the water, grinning broadly and eager to chat.

Did we have drinking water? Cookies? Cigarettes? What nice sunglasses I was wearing. How much did they cost? Would I give them away? How about my watch? Or even a watch battery.

We eyed somewhat anxiously the Kalashnikov assault rifles they had slung over their shoulders. A young South Korean women who was one of my traveling companions asked if they were real.

"Of course, it's real. You don't think we would carry toy guns," answered one of the North Koreans. Flirtatiously, he took it off his shoulder and extended the weapon for the young woman to hold.

After a few minutes of banter, we gave back the gun, along with a bottle of beer and a case of Choco Pies, a South Korean junk food that the Northerners accepted with delight. We all waved cheerful goodbyes, declining their invitation to visit the other side.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

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