Our final stop in Hoeryong, specifically related to the memory of Kim Jong-suk, was the banks of the Tumen River which, here, serves as the country’s northern border with China. Having completed our tour of the Kim Jong-suk city sites we boarded our bus for the short trip to the border.

Despite a fairly significant amount of travel over many years and countless border crossings I still have a sense of trepidation approaching and being around international land borders. Perhaps it’s just the ones I choose to visit! Given all the hype about North Korea my level of trepidation was still higher than normal here at Hoeryong even though this was now my fifth time at a land border inside North Korea, looking out onto forbidden lands. Of course there was nothing to fear.

Pulling into the small parking area at the river border our guide asked demanded that all phones be turned to flight mode. This, anywhere else in the world would have been seen as a most peculiar request, particularly as we were not even at the customs or immigration points but rather a few hundred metres down river.

Looking across the Tumen River to China. To the right, the bridge is the official border crossing.

Of course, we all knew the reason for the request. It is illegal to access the world wide internet or make international calls out of North Korea via any method other than using an officially issued North Korean international SIM Card or authorised telephone within a hotel. So, while we could take our mobile phones into North Korea we could not legally use an international SIM Card in it. This was generally not an issue as in 99.99% of the places we visited we were not able to pick up a signal anyway.

Along the country’s northern and southern land borders it is often possible to pick up a signal from Chinese/Russian and South Korean carriers respectively so overseas phones with appropriate cards/roaming can be used. A fairly strong signal existed here by the Tumen River. Indeed, some were able to pick up a fainter signal in the city itself.

Though illegal to utilise these external carriers latitude, by way of turning a blind eye while at the same time barking orders to desist, is generally given to tourists and the request to switch phones to flight mode was met by everyone, who could, frantically twittering and tweeting, whatsapping, sending text messages etc, etc . Whose friends don’t want to receive a text message from North Korea?

No one was brave enough to make a voice call in front of the guides who, as we walked by the river towards the Kim Jong-suk site we had been brought to see, heroically sustained their requests that phones be disabled. Our group members who were still texting, etc explained to the guides that they were having difficulty finding the correct buttons to enable flight mode!

I will come back to mobile phones later as many locals in the Hoeryang area do (illegally) have and use Chinese phones and SIM cards.

While we were all much more interested in looking across the river border and in trying to find military posts, gun turrets, land mines and all the other accoutrements allegedly along the border to prevent defections our attention was requested by our guides for the more important business at hand – learning more about Mother Kim Jong-suk.

Looking across the Tumen River into China

Accordingly, obliging as I am, I diverted my attention to look at a large mosaic mural. The mural depicted Mother Kim Jong-suk, then aged five (many non North Korean sources would contend that she was three), stoically fortifying herself to join her waiting mother and other family members in the small boat (the Mangyang ferry) that would take them across the river into China.

Kim Jong-suk about to leave for China in 1922

Her official biographer tells us that –

“Aboard the ferry, Kim Jong Suk gazed in tears at her dear hometown as it faded into the distance.”

and that years later, in recollecting the sad event, she said –

“I never lost the memory of my hometown after I left it. At every moment of joy or sorrow, fighting under the General’s command, I thought of my hometown Hoeryong. When on a march or in battle, I felt a little easier, but whenever I looked up at the moon shining on the camp in the forest, the trees, grass and pebbles of Hoeryong swam before my eyes.”

A sad and forlorn five year old Kim Jong-suk preparing to leave her hometown for China

So even at the tender age of five she, like her family, was, even on leaving, missing her homeland but felt compelled to leave in search of a better life than she had in Hoeryong, under the tyranny of Japanese rule. This was in 1922 and, as explained in my main review on Kim Jong-suk, leaving home marked the beginning of her illustrious, though short, career as a guerilla fighter and anti-Japanese resistance heroine who on many occasions saved the life of General Kim Il-sung (the future Eternal Leader of North Korea) in his struggle to rid Korea of Japanese colonists. In addition to all her resistance activity she found time to marry Kim Il-sung and give birth to, and rear, his son and successor, Kim Jong-il (together with a couple of siblings).

Near-by the mural is the small boat Kim Jong-suk and her family is alleged to have used to cross the border. I will leave it to my reader to make up his or her own mind as to whether or not the boat is the original. I will also leave it to my reader to contemplate how easy it was for Kim Jong-suk to cross this narrow river almost 100 years ago compared to how hard it is for ordinary North Koreans to cross it today.

The boat used by Kim Jong-suk to cross the Tumen River to China in 1922

Our guides briefly mentioned the current border, in passing, as a guide might if you were crossing the border from France into Germany – a sharp contrast to the commentary we received in the vicinity of the southern border with South Korea. The absence of any overt military presence along either side of this border was also in sharp contrast to the military presence on both sides of the southern border.

Looking across the Tumen river to China with not a soldier, gun, tank, rocket launcher or nuclear missile in sight!

Of course this border is an accepted and peaceful border with a friendly neighbour, unlike the southern one which was imposed on the country post WWII and has been stubbornly maintained ever since, notwithstanding the desire of both Koreas to re-unite.

I mentioned above that we saw no evidence of an overt military presence on either side of the border. That said, this part of the border, though probably a little further away from the city and the official crossing close to where we were standing, is highly favoured by defectors trying to flee the country, especially in winter when the river freezes over. For this reason there is in fact a very strong, mainly covert, military presence along the border, with the North also placing a very high level of reliance on Chinese authorities picking up defectors and returning them to an uncertain fate in North Korea. As I understand it, the pagoda structure visible on the Chinese side of the border is a viewing platform for tourists. The Chinese seem to have a liking for looking at North Korea as there are a number of ‘North Korea viewing areas’ along the border, including one at the end of the old bridge crossing the Yalu river at Dandong, which I saw when I visited Sinuiju and Dandong in 2014.

Hilltop pagoda designed to let Chinese and other tourists view North Korea

Looking more closely at the pagoda, I could clearly make out the presence of cameras and other less identifiable equipment in the vicinity of the pagoda. I suspect the cameras are not there to keep an eye on Chinese or other tourists who come for a peak into the reclusive country that is North Korea!

Is this pagoda more than a viewing platform for Chinese and other tourists?

While China exercises a zero tolerance of North Koreans defecting crossing the border (they are, without exception, returned to North Korea) some external reports suggest there may be a little more wiggle room afforded by North Korean officials. It would, of course, still be far from a walk in the park for would-be defectors to make it to the border and then to cross the river but bribery is said to work wonders if you know the right people on the North Korean side.

The interesting, and less well known, thing about this area is that people do regularly, and have done so for many years, travel to and forth across this border with impunity – but not just anyone and certainly not defectors.

Generally, areas along the Chinese border have long benefited from trade with China and Hoeryong is no exception in this regard. By the 1970s a majority of North Korean families in this area had relatives or other contacts across the border in China. Mother Kim Jong-suk may have been an early migrant (albeit not permanent) but she certainly was not the only one, or the last. Also there are a number of Chinese families (hwagyo), with Chinese nationality, living in Hoeryong that maintain links with China. Given these links, as this remote part of China across the border moved out of poverty in the 1980s so to did Hoeryong.

Real change began in 1982, when both governments signed an agreement allowing their citizens to cross the border and stay for short visits with family members. Ostensibly this relaxation of travel rules was to formally allow family reunions which were taking place, unchecked, anyway but trade also developed and residents on both sides of the border benefited. Before long there was a large market selling Chinese-made goods in front of the Hoeryong railway station, soon christened the “Hong Kong Market.” Smuggling and its associated bribery soon became big business though there has been and remains a significant level of legal cross border trade as well.

The official border crossing between Hoeryong and China – only open set hours.

The benefit from trade links with China was especially noticeable when Hoeryong was, to a large degree, unaffected by the downturn in the North Korean economy following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resultant decline in funding from that source and again when it escaped the worst impacts of the devastating famine which hit the country in the mid to late 1990s and which disproportionately hit other areas of the north-east of the country, only a short distance from Hoeryong.

The one impact from the 1990s economic downturn and the famine that Hoeryong did notice however was the beginning, in earnest, of the defections along this part of the border, to which I have referred earlier.

Notwithstanding defections, in addition to a trade in goods, labour was, and most likely still is, traded with local people from Hoeryong moving back and forth across the border for work with limited restriction – defection was/is not on their mind, particularly if they were to consider the impact on family members back home should they not return. As such, defectors crossing the border here are rarely from Hoeryong. Apparently, authorities on both sides of the border can relatively easily segregate genuine local business people and family members from those crossing with the intent of defecting.

One of the items imported (illegally) into Hoeryong has been, not surprisingly, the humble mobile phone with Chinese SIM cards. Phones were initially, and still are, used to facilitate trade in goods and services but unfortunately, or fortunately depending on ones perspective, the facilitation of defections soon became one of the services. Regular crackdowns on Chinese phones are carried out, the most recent being a few days prior to my writing this review (mid July 2019), though it is externally reported that most of these crackdowns are aimed at extracting bribes (substantial) from wrongdoers as opposed to removing the offending phones from the country.

All up (and yes I have drifted away from Kim Jong-suk and indeed what I personally saw and heard in North Korea – thus writing based on general observations and views of others outside of North Korea) it sounds like the rules in this part of the country are more malleable than elsewhere and with a few backhanders much is possible. The downside of this, for the Pyongyang authorities, is that people here, having tasted forbidden fruit and found it to their liking, want more of it and are prepared to set aside some compliance requirements to get it. Some have noted that loyalty to Pyongyang appears to be dwindling and open dissent, which would not occur anywhere else, appears here from time to time. Observers have also intimated that since taking office Kim Jong-un has not yet visited Hoeryong, the birthplace of his grandmother, and a number of other parts of the north-east of the country – in particular the Special Economic Zone at Rason – a linchpin in the country’s economy. Concern for the Leader’s security is muted as a possible reason for his lack of travel in this part of the country.

If these observations are correct then presumably there may come a point when Pyongyang says ‘enough is enough’.

There being no security or any other threat to tourists we enjoyed our short wander around this part of the border but couldn’t linger too long as we had one more stop before returning to our hotel for dinner.

My next North Korea (2018) – Hoeryong review– HERE

Start reading at the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Hoeryong reviews – HERE

9 thoughts on “Mother Kim Jong-suk – Starting a Trend in Cross Border Travel to China?

  1. Very informative and interesting writeup, Albert. This does remind me of the capture of journalist, Laura Ling, and her colleague who were imprisoned by the North Koreans for illegal entry into the country. “They acknowledge they briefly crossed into North Korea from China while reporting about North Korean women who were forced into the sex trade or arranged marriages when they defected to China” (Oregonlive.com). At first glance it appears the North Koreans rely on China for border security here — an economical alternative and one that certainly would free up manpower for less savory assignments in other parts of the country. However, even if you see no apparent security on the North Korean border here or elsewhere, I would be skeptical that none actually exists here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for that Sylvia – Journalists are occasionally caught along this border and penalties for them can be very severe as it is a major offence for journalists to entry the country unescorted. Sadly lots of North Korea women who cross into China get caught up in the sex trade or arranged marriages. You are totally correct in that while security is not overt at certain points you can sure it is there. Thank you for sharing your insights and for reading Sylvia.


  2. Really interesting – I had no idea that this sort of unofficial cross-border trade was happening and would have assumed that the border would have been heavily guarded.


  3. Reading your excellent appraisal of life on the border, I couldn’t help but wonder if any Chinese people thought it would be a good idea to defect to North Korea. Highly unlikely I would imagine these days, but it could have been different in previous times I suppose. Any thoughts on this Albert?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good thought Malc .. Up until the early 1980s North Korea was much more advanced/ prosperous than across the border in China – certainly in this remote part of China. Until that point I imagine some Chinese would have come across for gain – I mentioned that some still live in Hoeryong (retaining Chinese nationality). Post the early 90s it is highly unlikely any Chinese would want to live there though many would engage in trade and temporarily cross the border for this reason.

      Liked by 1 person

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