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Lawrence Steele is the pseudonym for an NK News correspondent on the China-North Korea border.
CHANGBAI MOUNTAIN, China – Amid the constant bustle of tour groups, there is no mistaking this scenic mountain’s status as a major tourist draw.
Chinese and Korean-Chinese flock to this peak, spilt in two by the North Korea-China border, for its spectacular scenery and hot springs. To North Koreans on the other side of the national boundary, Mount Paektu, as they call it, is the revered, if fictional, birthplace of late leader Kim Jong Il.
What you won’t read in any tourism brochure is that the surrounding area is also a major crossing point for North Koreans. Some enter China to conduct illicit business before returning – others to flee their homeland for good.
North Korea’s Hyesan, a small city some 70km to the south, is one of the major origins of defectors who eventually reach South Korea. Two of the most well-known, Yeonmi Park and Hyeonseo Lee, hail from the city.
“Sometimes these people will not just cross at Hyesan; they might have traveled out of the city a little bit before they’ve crossed to the Chinese side, depending on border security or what their options are,” says Sokeel Park, a member of the non-profit Liberty in North Korea, which works with defectors.
Relative to other sections of the border, the geography lends itself to safe crossings.
“The river itself is much narrower and much easier to transport goods across than areas around Dandong/Sinuiju, for instance, or even other parts of the (more northernly situated) Tumen River, potentially,” says Park.
Hyesan’s proximity to a sizable Chinese urban center with a significant Korean-Chinese population – the town of Changbai lies just dozens of meters across a narrow point in the Yalu River – also makes it a hive of cross-border smuggling and trade.
“If you are from the interior of the country and you want stuff smuggled in, you maybe ask someone from Hyesan because you know that’s where stuff is smuggled in from. So it’s like a self-reinforcing loop,” Park says of how interaction between Chinese and North Koreans feeds off itself.
With such cross-border movement, however, comes heightened vigilance and security by authorities.
Of the potential for snuffing out North Korean infiltrations, Park says: “If I were the Chinese or North Korean authorities, I would crack down on that part of the border.”
On NK News’ visit to the mountain, two guides separately claim that a number of North Korean defectors were rounded up by the Chinese authorities over the summer.
“They get arrested every year,” says one of the guides.
We are also told that North Koreans usually cross in the summer, when they can more easily blend in among large numbers of Chinese students that descend upon the area.
With Chinese authorities rarely announcing such arrests, the claims are impossible to verify.
“I would characterize China’s local Public Security Bureaus as being sporadically transparent, occasionally vague, and most often silent with respect to cross-border activities and arrests, and the border military forces (bianfang) as being the least likely to disclose anything at all,” says Adam Cathcart, a scholar of Sino-North Korean relations at the University of Leeds.
If not necessarily the incident in question, a similar-sounding roundup was reported by Radio Free Asia in August. Without reference to the exact location, it said 11 defectors had been arrested and deported after crossing from Hyesan. North Koreans repatriated by Chinese authorities, who consider them economic migrants, are believed to be at risk of imprisonment at a labor camp or even execution.
While Beijing has long had a policy of repatriation, it has had greater reason to beef up security recently following a series of violent incidents in its territory involving North Korean soldiers. Mostly recently in September, South Korean media reported that a solider had shot and injured two Chinese, an incident that residents in Changbai confirmed to NK News as having occurred in their town.
In such an atmosphere, sensitivities about defectors are not far below the surface at the mountain resort.
While one male Chinese tourist berates our interpreter for assisting a foreigner in probing the issue, a cleaning lady later offers a possibly well-intentioned warning.
“Do not ask these kinds of questions in public,” she says. “It’s no good.”
All images: Lawrence Steele