Infiltration: Spelunker’s Three Expeditions into North Korea from Dandong

By | April 02, 2012 | 19 Comments

DISCLAIMER: We here at SinoNK.com do not recommend nor do we engage in illegal cross-border travel between China and North Korea. For readers interested in traveling to North Korea (including Rason), we suggest Koryo Tours, a legally authorized and extremely efficient travel agency.  However, because we believe the border region to be an important area of study, and because Spelunker, while anonymous, has been credible over the years in his online analysis of events and description of locations on the border, we have decided to publish Spelunker’s chronicle of his independent forays into the DPRK via Dandong, China.  – Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

Infiltration: Spelunker’s Three Expeditions into North Korea from Dandong

by Spelunker

On March 17, 2009, a team of three American journalists from Current TV followed an ethnic Korean Chinese guide across the Tumen River from China into North Korean territory. Within seconds, they were being chased by North Korean sentries; producer Mitch Koss and the guide escaped capture but Laura Ling and Euna Lee were apprehended and became worldwide celebrities in captivity. 

There were multiple mistakes and twists of fate that brought them to this point, but the most basic reason was arranging in advance for a local guide for this caper instead of simply hiring a car and driver to take them downriver from the town of Tumen.  If they hadn’t employed the questionable guide, there is no question that President Clinton could have stayed home and the Current TV crew’s noble tasks of documenting North Korean sex trafficking in Yanji and Dandong could have been completed.

 It has been my experience that infiltrating North Korea requires professional preparation and independent execution in order not to get caught by North Korean sentries or Chinese authorities.  I am a professional Sino-North Korean border infiltrator, and in this previously unpublished document I will share with Sino-NK readers the secrets of successful missions leading up to what I call Operation Godwit in January 2005, which can finally be declassified from my private files. — Spelunker

The Liaoning border post marking the line between China and North Korea. This photo was taken from the dirt road which is adjacent to the actual border, looking west toward China’s Anmin village. The only thing separating China and North Korea here is a small ditch.

Between 2002 and 2005, I made a total of three expeditions to Dandong in Liaoning province for basic reconnaissance.  Of most interest are two plots of land on the north shore of the Yalu River which actually belong to North Korea; Yuchi Island north of Dandong (at Hushan) and Huangjinping (黄金坪岛/황금평도) south of Dandong (near Anmin).  Each time I was able to infiltrate across the border onto North Korean territory.

Huangjinping is the territory marked by the black box in the left hand corner. Dandong is to the north.

In 2002, I made the notorious “One Leap Across”   (一步跨) at Hushan near the reconstructed Great Wall.  Ascending the wall’s watchtower allows a panoramic view of Yuchi Island, which is separated from China by a small tributary.  This was important preparation for planning an infiltration, as I could observe sentry movements and thus identify isolated blind spots.  I then crossed the frozen stream at a small wooded area approximately 80 meters east of the tourist crossing point (identified by an inscripted rock) and spent nearly 15 minutes on fertilized North Korean soil, which I had sufficient time to urinate on.  A pair of angry North Korean sentries approached from the north but had no chance of catching me as I ran back across the border.

Of course this feat is easily duplicated and has been accomplished by many tourists (minus watering the shrubbery, mind you).  To my knowledge only one individual, an Italian journalist was caught at this particular border crossing and it was because he wandered way too far from the Chinese border.  One my the principle rules for infiltration in these parts is that I never allowed a North Korean to enter the periphery between me and China.

The Yuchi Island excursion was simply a practice run for my next two trips, which were infiltrations of Huangjinping Island south of Dandong.  At that time Huangjinping was far off the beaten path; indeed, many Chinese outside of Dandong are even unaware that this land actually belongs to North Korea.  As former Premier Zhu Rongji once said, “aside from Tibet, foreigners can travel freely anywhere they want in China…” so I took him for his word. With that in mind, in 2004 I headed for tiny Wen-An Tan island (文安滩),which is a sliver of Chinese territory just north of Huangjinping.

A dirt road along shoreline of Wen An Tan island, looking northeast toward Yalu River and beyond to North Korea.

The Bird Watcher |  To prepare for this mission, I did extensive research on Huangjinping and the surrounding area using Chinese maps and also interviewed several elderly members of the local peasant population.  There is a migratory bird nature reserve at the nearby Yalu River estuary, so I first chose to disguise myself as an ornithologist by packing a Chinese field guide to northeast China waterfowl. The bird-watching alibi would allow me to explain my camera and binoculars in case I encountered any suspicious Chinese authorities.  I took the city bus from Dandong to Wen-An village and trekked onto the island following a trail from the village.

In 2004 there was only one Chinese sentry stationed on Wen-An Tan and he seemed new to the job.  (This was later confirmed to me by a local farmer who revealed that there were no sentry posts on Huangjinping prior to 2003.)  The sentry’s post is located on the southwest corner of the island and he had a jeep.  My objective was the tiny settlement of Xinxili (新西里), a small cluster of buildings on the northeast corner of Huangjinping which is visible on satellite maps.

This photo was taken just before I crossed the small tributary from southern Wen An Tan in the foreground to the northeast embankment of Huangjinping in the background. The buildings are on North Korean territory and are part of Xinxili settlement. There is a sign on the left of the tallest tree.

I was proceeding south along the shore of the Yalu River when the sentry drove out to see me.  The sentry initially looked as if he intended to tell the foreign barbarian to get off the island, but upon hearing me explain in Chinese that I was a serious birdwatcher, his facial expression changed considerably.  Instead of making me reverse direction and go back to the village, he instead offered a ride in his jeep to take me closer to my untold destination, where he claimed to have seen some sort of waterfowl earlier in the morning.  After dropping me off less than a hundred meters from North Korea, he bid me farewell and drove back to his post on the opposite end away from view.

Even in the cold month of December, the mud at the marshy stream that separates Wen-An Tan and Huangjinping hinders a speedy retreat.  I put cheap Chinese nylon bags over my shoes and crossed, but decided not to scale the embankment on the North Korean side.  Therefore I limited my infiltration to the immediate shore area near the Yalu River.  A warning sign on the North Korean side is written in Korean and Chinese, so I guess they weren’t expecting any native English speaking invaders.  I could hear the distant din of voices coming from the buildings over the embankment, so I determined that there was probably a small population living there; these were not empty abandoned structures.  Finally I was spotted by a North Korean man atop the embankment about 150 meters west, but not before I had already returned safely to the Chinese side.   He tried to motion me to come back and meet him, which I wouldn’t dare, but I was more concerned about him possibly getting the Chinese sentry’s attention.  I did not stick around to see if there would be any communication between them, and promptly exited stage right.

The PLA Soldier | I surmised that the best way to infiltrate Huangjinping was not from the north but from the uninhabited west; so in January 2005 I returned for Operation Godwit, named after one of the migratory birds that frequent the Yalu River estuary region.  The mission was to infiltrate Huangjinping from the western border of North Korea and Liaoning province, and to establish contact with a North Korean sentry post.  This time I disguised myself as a Chinese soldier, wearing an iconic “八一大衣 [August 1]” green Chinese Army coat, Lei Feng hat, and cheap Chinese sunglasses.

I decorated the coat with Chinese and North Korean military medals and insignia that I had bought at the Dandong antiques market.  I also had a bag of South Korean provisions (biscuits, candy, and fruit juices) purchased in Hong Kong,baseball cards from America (including Chan Ho Park), and a frisbee.

In 2005, the China-North Korea border at Huangjinping was seldom patrolled, especially during winter.  While the North Korean army sent its best and brightest soldiers to the DMZ, sentries sent to the northern border of China were exactly the opposite.  Most couldn’t speak a word of Chinese and were extremely lackadaisical with their duties.  There was no fence at this time, so anybody could simply jump across the stream separating North Korea and China.  Meanwhile, the Chinese border sentries were also lax; a review of their patrols showed remarkable irregularity.  They often went over four or five hours without driving along the border, according to my estimates.

This photo was taken on Chinese soil just before crossing over from the western border of Huangjinping. The embankment in the foreground marks the line just beyond the actual border between Liaoning province, China and North Korea. There was no fence in 2005. The North Korean sentry post building in this photo can be seen as a small square on satellite photos. I walked more than halfway toward this building; my deepest and most daring penetration of North Korean territory by far. I was not able to take photos once I stepped onto North Korean territory, as I was carrying a bag of goodies in one gloved hand and a frisbee in the other.

Dressed as a Chinese soldier, it was easy for me to approach Huangjinping from the northwest.  The green army coats are popular with rural civilians as well, so I did not arouse much suspicion from a distance as I walked to the border area.  The Chinese sentries had just driven by, so I had at least a two-hour window to execute my deepest penetration of North Korean territory.  Unlike Hushan’s “one leap across” site, Huangjinping is not touted by the Chinese as a tourist destination, so North Korean sentries aren’t dug in waiting for prey.  It also meant I wasn’t jostling with Italian journalists.

There was nobody between me and the sentry post, so I cautiously made my way across the farm field toward the east.  A single unarmed sentry emerged from the small building, just a tiny square on the satellite map.  I raised my right hand, my left hand still holding the gift bag of goodies.  The sentry took a few steps toward me and stopped; we were just over 60 meters apart.  I then held up the frisbee for a moment before flinging it in his direction, but my gloved toss was too low and it landed in front of his feet.  This action appeared to startle him, and he didn’t pick it up despite my frantic throwing motion.  I could tell he had no idea how to play frisbee, so I set the bag down on the field, turned and walked west toward the border.   Food was at the top of the bag, so that got his attention.  By the time he reached the bag I was close enough to the border so I turned and watched him push the bag over with his foot and examine the items that fell out (including South Korean versions of Pringles and “Chips Ahoy” cookies).

From the safety of the embankment marking the border between Liaoning province and North Korea, I waved to him and hoped he’d wave back.  He did.  Mission accomplished.  I walked to the nearby Chinese village of Anmin and hitched a ride back to downtown Dandong.

Assessing the Environment |  Looking back today on these events, it’s important to warn readers that this mission could not be duplicated.  Over the last several years fences have gone up in the area around Huangjinping and sentry patrols have significantly increased.  Despite being a professional infiltrator, I would strongly hesitate to accept a similar mission in this area or elsewhere along the Yalu and Tumen rivers.   The 2009 incident involving the Current TV crew effectively compelled China to tighten security in the Tumen River area, and that vigilance is becoming more evident in the hinterlands surrounding Dandong.  In the good old days foreigners encountered in this border area would be regarded as curious tourists first and suspected of being journalists or missionaries second.  Currently it’s the exact opposite, according to what I’m being told by reliable local Chinese sources.

Tourism has now reached this area, as Dandong travel agents now tout Huangjinping as part of a one day tour of local attractions.  Tourists are brought to Wen-An Island in the morning after the Korean War Museum to gaze at Huangjinping and get a clear look at the North Korean folk’s houses (民房) and farmland (农田) while “getting a feel for the particularly tense atmosphere of the border” (感受边境既恬静又紧张的特殊气氛) before returning to Dandong for shopping and lunch.

By publishing my anecdotes, it’s understood that I may be putting authentic ornithologists in perilous suspicion when seeking local assistance in Liaoning province, so please allow me to take this opportunity to sincerely apologize to all serious foreign birdwatchers in China:  I’m sorry.

Huangjinping, colored red.

19 Comments

  1. Sounds like some sort of pervented hobby.

    If Spelunker could easily infiltrate back and forth between China and North Korea, imagine much better-trained agents and military personnel (from whatever country) could do that at ease.

    Scary picture.

  2. so what was the point of these forays? and whats the point of publishing them here? sounds like you went in for very brief time and could see and do next to nothing. well done.

  3. also, has the editor of this site ever been to north korea?

  4. Not familiar with North Korea myself – that’s why this post helps me to imagine what the Sino-Korean border is like. It looks illustrative to me as a reader, and I don’t remember having read anything like this elsewhere. Should there be a reason not to publish Spelunker’s story, James?

  5. I think if North Korea had become more accessible (or had been perceived to be more accessible) to the average westerner “infiltrations” like what Spelunker has pulled would have lost the “wow factor” and their purpose.

    Seriously, is setting one’s foot on North Korean soil THAT exciting?

  6. Thank you all very much for your comments and questions!

    *Juchechosunmanse: A perverted hobby? Maybe the 一步跨 crossing at Hushan could be called a bit perverted. Many tourists went there just for the novelty of stepping onto North Korean territory as it was easy to leap back and forth quickly without getting caught. It’s not so simple there now. If your hobby involves adding to the long list of countries you’ve set foot on then this might sound like one way of doing it back then in order to add North Korea. I do have military training, by the way, but I’m not a Navy SEAL.

    *james_c83: The point of the first foray onto Wen An Tan island and Huangjinping’s northeast corner was to perform basic reconnaissance and determine if the buildings seen in satellite photographs were inhabited. The follow-up infilitration was to assess the feasibility of sending agents to Huangjinping via Langtou airport. Would it be possible to establish a relationship with a North Korean border sentry there? Could materials be smuggled out (and in!) … Could humans be smuggled out (and in!). Obviously with the barbed wire fences going up the possibility of using this location was suspended.

    At first glance these initial incursions might seem frivolous to some. I was the first foreigner to infiltrate Huangjinping since the North Koreans acquired the land from China in 1964. How many places on this planet are similarly forbidden yet without a fence? The “wow factor” for this back in 2004-2005 was extremely exciting. Nobody else dared to do what I did or was aware that such a place of international intrigue even existed. My ensuing contributions to intelligence gathering in that area were indeed valued by “better trained agents”.

    My reason for publishing this story now is because it was only recently declassified. I want to demonstrate that infiltrating the China-North Korea border is a task for experienced professionals only. Amateurs are strongly advised not to attempt any illegal crossings because you could get caught or even shot. Sneaking across the North Korea border right under the nose of the Chinese is now unthinkable, but it sure was a lot of fun back then if you knew what you were doing! I’m afraid the good old days of infiltration across the Yalu and Tumen rivers are gone.

  7. James,

    That’s a good, fair, question: I was turned down in 2006, found I am unable to go via Koryo Tours, was turned down for a visa at the DPRK Beijing embassy last year, and haven’t tried to get a visa since then. However, was just in Yanji 2-3 weeks ago and did some haggling with a Chinese tour group that is hustling to get me into Rason at some point in the near future, which I regard as a bit of a necessity (both the haggling and the trip, that is). In the meantime, there will always be forays to Dandong, Yanbian, Ji’an, Tonghua, Mount Paektu, Hunchun, not to mention the various cluster of Korean villages in old “Puk Kando” (including spaces in eastern Heilongjiang) that are in some historical regard (but hardly politically) an extension of North Hamgyong. And various trips to the ROK. I also have aspirations to do some performing and teaching in the DPRK and am presently in Berlin working on that. So I’m doing my best with it, being where I am with my career, time, and resources; I appreciate your asking and the opportunity for transparency.

    Apart from my own efforts, several of the writers for the site have been to the DPRK (I believe a few such trips and connections are noted on our “Staff” page for your reference).

  8. It’s not the standing that’s so exciting, it’s the urination, I think. Only to be slightly glib.

    On the absolutely serious side, I think the story has merit given what happened in 2009. Security is much, much tighter and this kind of “stunt” (foray, whatever you wish to term it) is no longer possible, which from my point of view has some historical value, not to mention Spelunker writes with real brio, which is a rarity in our somewhat buttoned-up age of safely bureaucratic prose generation.

  9. Mike Kim, in his book “Escaping North Korea,” describes (in somewhat wooden style) how his group was infiltrating people in with Bibles in the early 2000s. Not sure if that can be verified, but it can be believed. I am not up to date on all my Voice of the Martyrs readings, but that might be a place to start.

  10. Spelunker to me here is in the finest traditions of the derive, that most fantastic gift from the situationist movement. To engage in derive in the context of such radical physical, mental and ideological constrainment as practiced both at and within the borders between/through and in the PRC and the DPRK is a frankly radical act, mentally deconstructing as it does through willful non-compliance, the normally carefully guarded and constructed boundaries between those two nations, the urination though is the cream on the cake, a derive and an act of pissoire. Maybe we need to laugh harder at that which we are afraid of.

  11. Hear, hear!

    “The Situationist International and the Theory of the Derive” http://fog.ccsf.edu/~dcox/EMU/S.I.html

    Oh, to be a “drifter!” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%C3%A9rive

  12. Adam,

    On what ground did they deny your visa, out of curiosity? Did they provide you with a reason? I thought they welcomed everyone today, as long as you bring cash.

    I suppose you also received the OK from the State Department prior to applying?

  13. Spelunker,

    Are you saying you pretty much acted as a scout for some organization which employs “agents” and is in the business of gathering and analyzing intelligence? Were you a spy?

  14. Did you know “James Bond” was an American ornithologist? Author Ian Fleming actually borrowed the birdwatcher’s name for use in the famous 007 spy novels, which became the movies we all love to watch. I’m not saying I was a spy, but all good bird watchers know that if it looks like a duck…

  15. Thanks Spelunker. Wow. Does the US have plans to invade China and North Korea, or this is part of their OPLAN 5029 planning?

    🙂

  16. I’m sure not even a Sarah Palin presidency would ever consider a US invasion of China’s sovereign territory. Such a plot might sell a lot of comic books in China though.

  17. haha Spelunker, sure! I am sure at least one of them will be featuring a heoric 带路党 who led the invading US forces to Zhongnanhai and helped bring China to its knees.

    Let’s keep our fingers crossed that oil is not found in North Korea and the Supreme Leader won’t threaten to annihilate Israel. 🙂

  18. well said!

  19. What the U.S. is really doing on the plesniuna is hard to tell. Perhaps the U.S. looks upon the Korean Peninsula and sees one of the divided sides as a potential friendly place for the U.S. and the other side as a potential antagonistic place and part of the intentions of the U.S. is to eventually balance things out. You see, if the anit-U.S. movement in the South grows, the U.S. can increase its friendly approach to the North. For its part, the North can say let us unify the plesniuna and once that is done, we’re all yours with we (the North) at the top of the peneninsula’s politics, which is far from unified in the south right now.