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Part 1: Soldiers head for the frontier
By Alan Fung

Recently, reports have been surfacing about extraordinary movements along the border between China and North Korea. On September 14, Hong Kong's Sing Tao Daily carried a report that up to 150,000 People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops had been deployed on the border, replacing local armed police. On September 15 Kong Quan, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, released a statement that the PLA troops were taking on responsibility for defense of the border as a normal adjustment that was part of China's efforts to unify border control. At the same time, Ta Kung Pao newspaper, the mainland's mouthpiece in Hong Kong, carried a series of reports that there was no large-scale deployment along the border. Its journalists had paid visits to various towns along border and found no illicit crossings of the border. Everything, it reported, seemed to be normal along the border. What is really happening along the Sino-North Korean border? Asia Times Online has dispatched correspondents to the scene to dig out the truth, and this is the first of a series of their reports.

HONG KONG - Six army trucks each carrying about 40 PLA soldiers roared along National Highway 302 from Yanji to Tumen around 4pm on September 20, passing just within this correspondent's sight. They were the first crop of troops to take over the frontier defense from the armed police.

Later the same day I arrived at Yanji, capital of Yanbian Chosun Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin province, on my way to Tumen, a border city about 80 kilometers and 50 minutes' drive along Highway 302 from Yanji.

Amid the stopover in Yanji, nothing seemed unusual or tense. But almost everybody I spoke to gave me the same kind-hearted suggestion that I not venture out at night.

Near the Tumen checkpoint, a scrubby panhandler came my way, mooching money with a strong North Korean accent, which differs greatly from South Korean and Chinese Korean. Upon my questioning, he admitted his identity as a North Korean, but soon turned tail in a panicky hurry when I tried inviting him to a meal.

"He's one of the illegal migrants from North Korea begging from the tourists in the region. They won't go back home until they have 200 or 300 yuan in their pocket," said Dongyuan, my driver, partly dispelling my bewilderment.

But how does one tell a North Korean illegal from a legitimate Chinese Korean? It's quite simple, said Dongyuan, himself a Chinese Korean: "There is no Chinese Korean who cannot speak Putonghua, while there may be some who cannot speak Korean." Putonghua, or "the general language", is what Chinese call the People's Republic's official language, know to the outside world as Mandarin.

Approaching the border post, I was told by a young armed policeman that it would cost 20 yuan (US$2.40) to take a closer look at North Korea from the borderline in the middle of the bridge connecting China and the Hermit Kingdom. Paying the charge, I and my driver followed the policeman to the borderline, where we chatted with him.

"Since the PLA have allegedly taken over the border-patrol duties, why can I still see you [the People's Armed Police] here?" I asked.

"You are right, but only partially. They will come, but it takes time for the deployment," the young officer answered.

"So far as you know, how many soldiers will be sent here?" I asked.

"Maybe more than 100,000, I'm not clear about the exact number," he said, confirming the news of China's military buildup on the border.

"Why so many solders?"

"A war will break out between the US and the other side [of the border], won't it?" No sooner had he finished his words than he realized that his remarks had been improper. "Recently public order has worsened, with more of them [North Koreans] smuggling here. So soldiers are sent to bring everything to order," the policeman said, trying to correct himself.

No one seemed to worry about North Koreans crossing the border to beg. "They are so poor. As long as they do not rob or hurt people, we just let them be," said the young officer. Mercy, it seems, overrides duty in this case.

We should make it clear that the People's Armed Police will not withdraw after the arrival of the PLA. Instead they will be stationed a little farther from the border. So the deployment is in fact an increase in the number of troops along the border, and not a "normal adjustment", as China's Foreign Ministry puts it.

While I was having lunch with Dongyuan in Tumen, his brother Dongshun came and joined us. He happened to be a soldier, and offered his opinion on the matter of troop deployment.

"Actually it is nothing big to put some 100,000 soldiers along the 1,400-kilometer-long border. It is none of our business whether the US will wage a war against North Korea. We are merely frustrated by the possible influx of refugees caused by the war. What should we do then? Shall we fight with North Korea against the US as we did in the 1950-53 Korean War?"

At lunchtime, I decided to take some pictures of the Tumen Detention House, but in vain. I was stopped by two armed police who suddenly appeared on the site and threatened to confiscate my film. With Dongshun's explanation that I was only a tourist who had traveled a long way to visit here, they finally allowed me to keep the film but warned me not to shoot any more.

It was at that point that I realized that although it was okay to take pictures of scenery, the authorities were wary of unauthorized photography. It appeared that the atmosphere here was not as calm as the Chinese authorities describe.

After lunch, we headed for Huichun and Fangchuang. On a muddy section of the road to Fangchuang, we saw several dozen PLA in camouflage uniforms doing reconnaissance and survey on the road, apparently in preparation for widening the road.

At about 4pm, I left Fangchuang for Tumen and saw 40-50 PLA troops practicing shooting near the entrance of the Quanhe checkpoint; on Highway 302 I witnessed PLA troops replacing local armed police for defense duty, as described by the armed policeman at the Tumen checkpoint.

According to a report in Ta Kung Pao on September 19, the author of that report once witnessed up to four sightseeing coaches entering the scenic area in the triangular border region in Fangchuang within half an hour.

In fact, the road from Quanhe to Fangchuang was quite narrow and had no shoulder, hardly enough for even a mid-size bus. In addition, the parking area at Fangchuang Observation Post was extremely limited, and four coaches in half an hour would certainly have been beyond its capacity. The Ta Kung Pao further stressed that there were more than 50 people on each coach, but the post has not enough room to host some 200 people at the same time: the area devoted to sightseeing at the post is less than 20 square meters. However, the report did not specify that the people on these coaches were tourists. Obviously, other possibilities existed.

The observation post, standing at the conjuncture of the borders between China, Russia and North Korea, was one of the few locations on Sino-North Korea border where the two countries are separated by wire netting. Surprisingly, there appeared to be no sign of any garrison. There is a PLA camp stationed several kilometers away from the three-country border.

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Sep 30, 2003

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