Infiltration: Spelunker’s Three Expeditions into North Korea from Dandong
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
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 I am a professional Sino-North Korean border infiltrator, and in this previously unpublished document I will share with Sino-NK readers the secrets of successful missions leading up to what I call Operation Godwit in January 2005, which can finally be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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.