We’re outside of Tumen, an aptly-named town on the Tumen River, in a little slice of China squeezed between Russia and North Korea. The people here, largely of Korean ethnicity, go about their day speaking, reading, and eating Korean. Speaking to them in Mandarin, it sometimes sounds like Chinese is a second language for them, too. They’re glad to be citizens of China – a stone’s throw across the river here is North Korea, a country that really nobody on earth wants to be part of.
The ethnic Koreans here talk of North Koreans who come across illegally, some to escape political persecution, but most of them just to try to seek a better life. One of our cab drivers, pointing at a building on a hill outside town, says the ones that are caught are brought there. “It’s a prison for illegal Koreans,” he explains. A special rail line connects the facility directly back to the North Korean side.
Our cab driver is eager to show us around. “I’ll take you to one spot, you can wave to the North Korean soldier in the guard tower across the river,” he offers. We decide to check it out. Where he stops the car, though, there are two PLA soldiers. Watching me with my camera, they explain that we can look, but no yelling, waving, or picture-taking is allowed. We watch the North Korean guard for a few moments. He’s standing in a concrete watch tower, and only his upper half is visible. ; It doesn’t take long for us to be just as bored as he probably is. “Do you guys ever try to communicate with them?” I ask. “Sometimes we try,” one of the soldiers says. “But we don’t speak their language, and they don’t speak ours. And they never respond.”
We get back in the cab to leave. “Get your camera ready,” the driver instructs. “There’s another break in the trees up ahead.” He starts the car and we move slowly away from the two soldiers. “Okay… NOW! Take a picture!” I throw up my camera, snap a few. Then he guns the engine. ; Our tires squeal a bit and spit gravel as we peel out. He watches his rearview mirror intently. In the side mirror next to me, I glimpse the PLA soldiers behind us. They look like they weren’t paying any attention. But our driver isn’t taking any chances. After we round a curve, he finally exhales. “Did you get a picture?” He asks. “I did.”
I hit the camera’s preview button. The screen shows nothing but blur, but I don’t tell this to our driver. He seems genuinely thrilled that he was able to get me a photo opportunity. “Hey, I know another place we can get a shot,” he says. “Want to go?”
I shrug. “Sure.”