CHANGBAI TOWN, CHINA: The soldier manning the checkpoint on the road leading to Changbai town in China’s northeastern Jilin province took my passport away. He wanted to know what I was doing in the region.

When I replied that I was just travelling with my friends, he went off to speak to someone on the phone, and I wondered: Would our shoot be aborted even before it began?

Fortunately, after an uncomfortable wait, the soldier returned my passport. I heaved a huge sigh of relief as we drove off.

Our destination lay along the Sino-North Korean border, mere metres (a literal stone’s throw) from North Korea’s Hyesan city across the Yalu River. This part of the border is sensitive – and these were highly sensitive times.

Changbai town in the foreground, and just across the river is Hyesan, North Korea.

Changbai is one of China’s closest regions to the North Korean nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. Tensions on the Korean peninsula have risen to their highest point in years after North Korea carried out several nuclear and missile tests in defiance of international pressure, including sanctions.

Even China, regarded as North Korea’s sole major ally, has been criticised by Pyongyang. In a rare instance, the latter’s state media warned that Chinese state media commentaries calling for tougher sanctions were undermining relations and worsening tensions.

So we could expect the situation on the Sino-North Korean border to be tense, Dr Cheng Xiaohe of the Renmin University of China told us: “But mainly reflected at the official level … the people will probably just carry on with their daily lives.”

And it did indeed seem to be the case.


We were headed to Changbai town to find out what its residents thought about Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, for a half-hour special, This Side Of the Border.

By Chinese standards, it’s a tiny border town. While not exactly bustling, people were out and about in the markets and public square, while youths held riverside picnics.

One of them was Jin Yongjun, a young ethnic Korean who was born and bred in Changbai town. His father works as a labourer in South Korea while his mother exports clothes to Hyesan, selling them through various partners.

She had declined to speak to us, and Yongjun, who prefers to be called Xiaojin, explained that she was worried. “The older generation is indeed feeling more anxious than us. You can find talk about a war brewing in North Korea and stuff like that on the Internet.” he said.

“They would be nervous because they have been here their whole lives. But we younger folks are more open in our thinking. We think that a war is in nobody’s interest, so we don’t think there’d be an issue,” added Xiaojin, 23, who seemed unfazed by having felt the earthquake-like tremors of Pyongyang’s nuclear tests carried out barely 100km away.

“We weren’t afraid, we thought it was quite novel,” he shrugged.

WATCH: Feeling the nuclear tremors (3:08)