KOREA: ON THE
Part 1: Soldiers head for the
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
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
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
"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
"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.
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
"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.
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
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
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.
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
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