To be honest, I’ve never really had that much of an interest in the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. I mean, why would I, when there were already so many issues grabbing my attention? Besides, the issue of the Korean Peninsula has been ongoing for decades. New headlines and issues are being churned out every day, so why would the issue of the reunification of the Korean Peninsula be any more different or special?
I would say this indifference continued until the end of December 2015 when I had the opportunity to go to Yanbian, China, or more specifically to Yanji, the capital of Yanbian. Yanbian is an Autonomous Prefecture in northeastern Jilin Province, People’s Republic of China, and is part of the China-North Korea border, an international border separating China and North Korea. Due to the sharing of a common border between China and North Korea, it is said that many North Koreans cross over into China despite having the Yalu River, Paektu Mountain and the Tumen River dividing the two countries.
If you see the map above, you can see how the Yalu River and the Tumen River forms the China-North Korea border.
Most North Korean defectors prefer crossing the Tumen River into China to the Yalu River, because the Tumen River is relatively more shallow and narrow, unlike the latter which is more deep and broad. In addition, the Tumen freezes over in winter allowing North Korean defectors to cross over without having to swim.
While the Tumen River also connects North Korea into Russia, North Korean refugees still prefer to cross into China because China’s stretch of the river has less patrol, making it less risky. Moreover, the sizeable ethnic Korean community that is present in Yanbian allows these North Korean refugees to receive support, or at least face less obstacles in terms of language and communication.
I was able to see the Tumen River first-hand after a short hike up at the 두만강조각공원(Sorry there isn’t an English translation but it literally somewhat translates into Tumen River Park)
After a manageable 1km hike up in our bulky winter wear, we finally got a bird’s eye view of the Tumen River.
As I stared in awe at the view that was in front of me, whatever feelings of disinterest I had initially started to dissipate. I found myself becoming more curious of what lay beyond the frozen Tumen, the country dubbed as the ‘hermit kingdom’. There have been many varying opinions of what and how it is like, and while some of these opinions may be valid, I wanted to understand for myself and form my own view of North Korea; is it just like how the media sources portrays it, or is it a country that is misunderstood? My feeling of awe slowly changed into that of sadness as I realised that access into this country was very limited, and the view that I had in front of me was perhaps the closest view South Koreans could have of North Korea. It is truly sad to think that many families still remain separated due to warring ideologies.
In the picture above, there is a bridge that connects North Korea to China, suggesting that North Korea is not as ‘reclusive’ as we think. Though there is a good-sized number of North Koreans wanting to leave North Korea, the reality is that, it is virtually impossible for the majority of North Koreans to defect through legal means. And because the monetary cost to defect from the hermit kingdom is far too steep for the average North Korean, the majority of North Koreans end up resorting to illegal means to escape North Korea.
Even though it has been several months since my visit to the Tumen River, I cannot erase what I saw and felt. The timely appointment as one of the the International Student Reporters for the Ministry of Unification has given me the privilege and access to exploring the issue of unification more in depth. It is my hope that through this role, I can gain greater clarity on the issue, and use this platform to share with others whatever I have learnt and experienced.