A road trip along North Korea's border with China

From Reuters - April 12, 2018

(Reuters) - Through binoculars mounted atop a tall building, I followed two women slowly making their wayfrom the other side,across the bridge. The rusted device was a military type, and what I saw made them look as if they were targeted. It was very cold and I struggled to place my lens on the binoculars to take a picture.

I was on the border between China and North Korea with my usual reporting partner on such stories, Sue-Lin Wong, on a week-long road trip. What we sawfrom dirt-poor daily lives to clandestine economic activity on the Korean sideincluded scenes not yet witnessed in foreign media.

On the same rooftop as us, two tourists were holding hands as they watched the women. They pulled out a selfie stick and took a picture with the border in the background. Soon after, they gave up sightseeing. But Sue-Lin and I stayed until my fingers were totally frozen from taking pictures. Then we went down, too.

It was going to be dark soon, and the only light across the bridge was from the portraits of North Korean leaders. On the Chinese side, under the tower, very relaxed border guards were having fun filming themselves with a video camera. We should have followed the women but I didnt know what direction they went in. Instead, we went searching for the best Korean barbecue in town.

Im not a stranger to borders - Ive spent good part of my life and most of my career between countries, between war and peace, between us and them.

Whether its the desert between Iran and Afghanistan, the gates of a diplomatic compound in the former Soviet Union, or the frontline of a besieged city in the bloody Balkan wars, they all have one thing in common - they look very different depending on what side you are looking from.

The borders of North Korea are an extreme examplenowhere in the world is there such a difference between what life looks like on opposite sides of the river or the fences that separate the two countries. I know - Ive seen the frontier from both sides.

For reporters, the border with China is the most interesting - the land border with South Korea is so heavily fortified and impenetrable that all you can do is cast a long glance over the Demilitarized Zone or hope for a desperate soldier to make his escape. The sea border between the two Koreas is lots of military vessels and the occasional artillery duel between the two sides, which are technically still at war. The border with Russia is the shortest, and remains bit of a mystery. Its high on my wish list of places to visit.

But the 1,420 km (880 mile) long border with China is a real challenge.

Just like many reporters, Ive visited places on it before, and got a few pictures here and there. But this time we did what I had always wanted - we drove from its south to its north end. In eight days we drove through mile after mile of nothing, guarded by no-one.

Nothing guarded by nobody is actually a wonderful story, especially if you are in the mood to really look.

There are familiar hotspots that offer an important, if simplified, picture of relations between the two neighbors. Closely scrutinized or heavily fortified sections at each end - around the towns of Dandong and Tumen - are what we usually see in media reports, their monotony made a little more cheerful by Chinese tourists.

In between is mostly darkness on the North Korean side and long, cold sections of emptiness on the Chinese side. Counted in hours of driving without seeing a soul, it is only interrupted by a shiny little border town or an occasional, mostly stalled project between two countries. A half-finished river dam, an economic zone that employs only ghosts, a bridge to nowhere...


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