Jilin, one of the three northeast provinces of China, shares a large portion of its border with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The Yalu River winds between the 2 countries, separating them by only a hundred meters in places and during winter months, freezes over creating a land bridge connecting them. It is heavily guarded by North Korean soldiers, day and night, but is still a place for its citizens to bathe and wash their clothes. Many times, I have visited Korean autonomous towns and cities, China side of the river, to photograph and sample their culture.
In late October of 2015, I planned a photography trip to the Chinese city of Hunchun, a border city, not only to North Korea but also to Russia. I was told of a park, close to the city, where you could see China, North Korea and Russia, all meet at a single point. On the morning of the 27th, myself and two others, Perry Wilkinson and Sarah-Jane Hughes, set out by fast train from Changchun to Hunchun, arriving around 10:30am.
As we exited the train station, we explained to a taxi man where we intended to go and he offered us a deal for the day, that would take in many more sights for a reasonable price. We came to an agreement and the three of us took off in the taxi. We first had to stop at an office in the city, to obtain permits for entering the park. Here we handed over our passports, paid a small fee and waited a short while for the permits to be printed up. Once we had our permits, we drove out of the city and into the countryside.
We drove through an agricultural landscape, dotted with mountains, for over an hour, before reaching our first stop. The taxi pulled up outside the grounds of a large, government-looking building, that seemed very out of place for it's surroundings. We were not quite sure what the building was but the taxi driver insisted we took some photos. We left most of our belongings in the car and stepped out with our cameras. As we approached the entrance to the grounds, a Chinese guard asked if we had our passports, which we quickly showed and continued inside.
As we reached the building, we could see large, red, communist flags, depicting the yellow hammer and sickle, and came to the conclusion, that we had reached one of the border entries to Russia. Sure enough, as we entered the building, there were immigration desks, stamping through Chinese laborers into Russia. I noticed they were paying a fee before entry and I enquired to the man behind the counter, how much it was to go through. I was told 8 yuan, equivalent to 1 euro, and we discussed about crossing through, even if it was solely to say, we had visited another country on our trip. We decided to give it a shot and thought, the worse that could happen was, we didn't have a Russian visa and would be refused entry. We paid the 8 yuan at the counter, got our passports stamped out of China and exited the back of the building.
It all seemed very relaxed and when the three of us were through, we were ushered onto a small bus with Chinese construction workers and paid a fair to the driver. So far, so good and we headed off into the unknown.
The bus drove a little while, before reaching a river that we followed for about 5 minutes, before turning right onto a long, isolated bridge. Exactly halfway across, the bus came to a halt and I could hear the doors of the bus open and some undistinguishable talk from up front. I tried to peer over the heads of the other passengers and that's when I got a glimpse of a flag, flickering in the wind, to the right of the drivers' windscreen. It was the flag of North Korea.
Up until now, no flag had been seen at the border, only the communist flags at the immigration building. Two North Korean soldiers boarded the bus and began to pace the aisle. I told the others to keep their heads down and when satisfied with their inspection, the two soldiers stepped off and the bus continued. We were pretty shocked but at the same time, a little curious of this forbidden land and kept quiet and calm. I took one last photo, out the window of the bus as we approached the other side and then zipped my camera into my bag.
The bus stopped at the edge of a small town, that looked more like a construction site, with make shift buildings scattered amongst debris. Large sand and gravel piles seemed to create the walls to the town's entrance. The passengers began to disembark and we followed suit. We followed in a line behind the workers, already drawing stares from soldiers and civilians alike, up to a building that looked like an airplane hanger. The head of the line stopped at the door and we waited in queue, as each person had their temperature taken, one by one. As we approached, a temperature reading gun was pressed to our foreheads and we continued inside.
Inside, was a chaos of people shouting and frantically running around with papers in their hands. Desks, with North Korean officials, lined the back wall and people were fighting to obtain forms and stamps from them. We managed to get a form in Chinese and with the help from another bus passenger, were able to fill it out. It was similar to an arrival card and on completion, we got a red stamp from another official. We then queued up with our passports and documents, waiting to be stamped into the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Even though we knew, this was never going to work, we all had this strange, curious drive, to see how far we could take this.
Unlike the sophisticated immigration leaving China, we approached a wooden stand, with a uniformed man stamping the passports. He took our passports and began to question us in Korean. Another uniformed man was called to the stand, when it was clear that we couldn't understand what was being said. He had perfect English and proceeded to ask us for our visas and invitation letters into their country. We knew there was no going passed this point and we explained that we had made a mistake. In the mean time, another man of senior authority, took our passports and began to make a phone call, on an old, black, turn dial telephone. We told the man that we would return to China immediately and after a few moments, we had our passports back in hand.
We walked out the door we had come in and the bus that had dropped us there, was starting to fill up with passengers going back to China. We walked straight for the bus but just as we got to it, Sarah-Jane had to use the bathroom and asked the driver to wait as she ran back inside. Myself and Perry were standing by the bus, when we heard shouting and saw three men approach us. A man, with an obvious higher ranking uniform and large hat, accompanied by two armed soldiers, began shouting at us in Korean. He then began repeating the word 'passport' over and over. This was a completely different reception than what we had been getting and we handed over our passports for inspection. He took them and immediately began to walk away. He wouldn't listen to our pleas, so we had to follow him back into the building where Sarah-Jane had just gone. We met Sarah-Jane at the door, she had her passport taken away from her and then, the three of us were locked into a room alone.
The sun was going down and we were all feeling the cold. Our coats had been left in the taxi, which we had first, just stepped out of to take a photo of a building, but here we were. The room had two, light brown, leather sofas, with a coffee table and ashtray between them. We sat and waited, realizing the consequences of our actions might be a lot more serious than we thought. The door opened and in walked the senior military official, with one soldier and the uniformed man we had spoken English with at the immigration stand. They began a long process of questioning. The senior official, furiously barking at us in Korean, while the the translator, softly relayed. 'Why did you try sneak into our country?' 'Why would an Irish man (Me), know a Canadian man (Perry)?' 'What are we going to do in North Korea?'
This went on for hours, with intervals of time on our own and time getting questions shouted at us. At one stage, they took my phone and went through my photos and found something that got them very angry. They began pointing at the screen of my phone and shouting that I had come from South Korea. I looked at it and realized they had found photos of YanJi, a Korean autonomous city in China, that I had visited a few weeks earlier. Most of the signs and buildings in YanJi are in Korean and they thought they were looking at pictures of Seoul. I had to explain all of this away but it was looking bad.
Then I remembered the permit we had gotten in Hunchun city earlier. I began to explain that we had entered the wrong building and got on a bus, we thought was going to the park. I showed the permit with all our passport numbers on it and took out our return train tickets, ensuring him that this was all one big mistake and we never intended on entering North Korea. Our return train tickets also had our passport numbers on them and with a departure time of 8:30pm the same day, there was no way we wanted to sneak into their country. The senior official left the room but this time the translator stayed to smoke a cigarette. He began to tell us of the countries he had visited, Germany, America, Switzerland, and how he loved to speak English. He then shook his head and explained, that we happened to arrive on a very bad day for North Korea. Perry asked what had happened but he just shook his head again and left the room. He seemed like a very nice and well educated man but we knew that his mind and will, were not his to control.
They all entered the room and we could see our three passports in the senior official's hand. They sat down and calmly began to speak. 'You have committed serious crimes against North Korea and now you must be punished for your actions. You are each to be fined 5,000 euro in order to be released.' We exclaimed that we didn't have that kind of money but a telephone was promptly placed on the table and they insisted we called our homes to have it wired. Perry angrily explained we can't get the money and Sarah-Jane started to cry uncontrollably. Nobody knew where we were, it was freezing cold and we were at the mercy of the North Korean army. The situation was getting very intense but I noticed the senior official looking over at Sarah-Jane. He spoke something in Korean and they all left again.
We didn't even speak when they had left. We all knew how dangerous the situation had become. The door opened and they all sat down again. The translator asked us to empty our wallets onto the table, Perry had left his in the taxi and Sarah-Jane's and mine only amounted to just over 300 Chinese yuan, about 40 euro. A far cry from the 5,000 demanded from each of us. The senior official wrote out a fine on a docket, amounting to the total amount we had in our wallets and asked us to sign it. I took the docket and we were told to follow him to a van waiting with soldiers inside. The place was pitch black, with the moon being the only visible light. We all got inside the van and we started back to China.
We were silent in the van, having not seen our passports since we left, and drove with the senior official and two armed soldiers, right up to the immigration building in China. When we got out, the North Korean official began shouting at the uniformed Chinese. The Chinese immediately saw the situation and were quick to tell the North Koreans they would take care of us and not to worry. They knew they had to get us back, as soon as they could. They all walked us to the main immigration counter, handed us our passports and then walked away. We got stamped back into China and we couldn't believe it. A feeling of freedom we had never felt, like escaping a near death experience, rushed through all of us. We knew the taxi wouldn't be there but we didn't care, we were back! We ran out the gate and luckily found a lone taxi waiting. As we got in, Sarah-Jane noticed that another taxi pulling up, dropping more workers to the border, was our original driver. We quickly jumped out and ran over to him. He was extremely angry at us for leaving him but he had all our belongings in the back and we offered double the pay we had agreed. We even made it back for the 8:30 train.
It was a harrowing experience and one, the three of us haven't talked about much after the trip. Having read a lot of articles since, I realize how lucky we were and how dangerous our situation was. It was definitely one of the more extreme photo trips I've held.