[Viewpoint] A hike of dreams

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[Viewpoint] A hike of dreams

I had a small dream. I wanted to walk to the ends of Korea. First, I went to the southernmost corner of Korea and strolled through the Ttangkkeut Village in Haenam, South Jeolla. Then I wanted to personally visit the northern end of the Korean Peninsula, from the Yalu River in the West Sea to the Tumen River in the East Sea. Realistically, it was impossible to enter North Korea, so I was determined to travel on foot along the Chinese border.

At last, a chance to realize my dream, albeit partially, came to me. A JoongAng Ilbo team of reporters was visiting the Chinese-North Korean border, so I joined the group. I was primarily concerned with the Hwanggeumpyeong and Najin areas. In June, Pyongyang and Beijing agreed to develop the Hwanggumpyong Special Economic Zone, the delta between Dandong in China and Sinuiju in North Korea. China also announced that it would take part in the development of Najin’s port. I wanted to be witness to the progress after 100 days of development.

The mouth of the Tumen River is where Russia, China and North Korea meet. Fangchuan is the vantage point to view all three countries at once, with the Tumen River Station in North Korea and the Hassan Station in Russia under your nose and the East Sea in the distance. The Tumen River Bridge connects to the Trans-Siberian Railway, used by Kim Jong-il on his last visit to Russia. The region is still frequented by North Korean lumbermen.

It is only 12 kilometers to the ocean, but China has no access to the East Sea. Once the path to the ocean opens up, China will be able to transport resources from the northeast region to Shanghai and gain military access to the East Sea. That is why China needs the Najin port. The Quanhe Customhouse in Hunchun, China, is a gateway to Najin, and construction on a 50-kilometer road to Najin was in progress. China is in charge of the project. From the Chinese side of the customshouse, some 20 trucks loaded with construction materials and supplies were waiting for clearance.

In contrast, the North Korean customshouse was lazy looking and decorated with a sign with red letters commanding: “Defend the revolutionary leadership under the Great Comrade Kim Jong-il with our lives!” We also visited nearby towns connected to North Korea via road and railway, such as Tumen, but there was little traffic. The bridges are old and the roads unpaved. The border was completely silent, and commerce was very limited. With no goods to sell and no money to import things, North Korea is isolated.

I then boarded a night flight to Shenyang to see the Hwanggumpyong area. The flight on a shiny, new aircraft was fully booked. The network of highways connecting Hunchun at the end of Tumen River and Dandong at the end of Yalu River was amazing. Dandong and Sinuiju are twin cities on either bank of the Yalu. In only two decades, Dandong has been transformed into a modern city while not much has changed in Sinuiju since the Japanese colonial era.

Hwanggumpyong, or the field of gold, was originally named Hwangchopyong, or the field of yellow reeds. It is near the Dandong Special Economic Zone, separated by a wired fence. Shiny skyscrapers and luxury high-rises can be found on the Chinese side, while North Koreans are still cutting reeds in ragged clothes on their side. This is the reality in North Korea.

I had complex thoughts. What must the North Koreans think as they witness the development of China? How is North Korea holding up? Don’t they desire change?

The North Korea-China border is longer than the distance from Sinuiju to Busan. China does not want a hostile relationship with a neighbor who shares such an extensive border. China will continue to provide military and economic assistance to make sure it does not collapse. After all, China is not a variable but a constant in the search for Korea’s reunification.

North Korea’s Najin port development has to be small in scale, and Hwanggumpyong is still a field of reeds. North Korea still seems afraid of opening. Maybe it is afraid of being absorbed into China economically. Then, what will be the role for the South?

We need to continue to make efforts to bring North Korea into our economic system.

The Korean Peninsula is connected to Russia and China, and without their cooperation, resolution of the nuclear threat and stability on the peninsula will be impossible. Seoul should work on northward diplomacy while solidifying the Korea-U.S. alliance. We need realistic perspective for peace and reunification.

Yet, we are still walking on thin ice. Just as I arrived in Seoul, the reporters were detained by Chinese border guards while covering the upper reaches of Tumen River. While they were released quickly, the border area is still not a place for Koreans to freely operate. China is not an open society like Korea, and I realized that it is still too early to realize my hiking dream.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Moon Chang-keuk
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