Life on the North Korea Borderlands
While it is undeniable that North Korea is a more reclusive nation than most, its borders are far from impermeable. As the centrally-planned economy broke down in the 1990s, border guards grew easier to bribe, and the razor-wire fences fell into disrepair. We spoke to those who live there and cross back and forth. More
If there is one thing that everyone knows about North Korea, it is that it is a closed country. Trade is blocked by sanctions. Possession of foreign media is punishable by death. One does not leave North Korea, one escapes.
However, while it is undeniable that the DPRK is a more reclusive nation than most, its borders are far from impermeable. As the centrally-planned economy broke down in the 1990s, border guards grew easier to bribe, and the razor-wire fences fell into disrepair. With the collapse of the food distribution systems, an increasing number of North Koreans found their way across the icy Tumen river. While some were defectors searching for a better life in China, Laos or even South Korea, many more were traders and smugglers supplying a North Korean market hungry for foreign goods, or illicit migrant workers looking for jobs that would allow them to send money back to their families in the DPRK, or even people-trafickers paid to facilitate the border crossing.
While its agents may have been paid to look the other way, the state was far from ignorant of the growing flows of people and goods across the Northern border. Party officials regularly make the same trip, on a quest for hard currency or luxury goods to fuel Pyongyang's palace economy. Moreover, the authorities soon discovered a sector in which North Korea had a comparative advantage: the provision of cheap labour. Incredible though it may seem, over 50,000 North Koreans are working abroad – perfectly legally - largely in Russia and China. While the pay and conditions that they endure are often bad enough as to constitute abuse by any reasonable standards, these jobs are nevertheless coveted and competition for them within the DPRK is extremely high.
Nor is the flow all one way. China's ethnic Koreans and North Korea's ethnic Chinese have always had a foot in both camps, and many families have seen the porous border as a way of hedging their bets in times of political turmoil. With the growth of North Korea's special economic zones, the country has also seen a minor Chinese tourism boom, with regular tour buses crossing the Yalu bridge full of middle class Chinese travelers, whether nostalgic for their own recent past or eager to stock up on cheap alcohol and cigarettes.
Nevertheless, such is the unpredictability of the DPRK authorities and the weight of international sanctions that most of this activity takes place in a perpetual legal limbo. The North Korean borderlands are a liminal space, populated by inhabitants of a twilight world, clinging to survival in the face of a political environment that mirrors the harsh steppes themselves.
Wanting to bring this fascinating and largely unknown corner of the world to a wider audience, in 2015 NK News launched a Kickstarter campaign to send an undercover investigative reporter to the region. The response was better than we could have hoped for, and we exceeded our funding goals. This collection presents a selection of articles by our NK Borderlands reporters, as well as essays by Dr. Andrei Lankov, Je Son Lee and Peter Ward.
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