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 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.
OLDER VS YOUNGER GENERATION
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)
His mother’s aunt, Quan Chunfu, was clearly more worried.
She said: “What concerns me the most is war. I have been reading the newspaper a lot and I wish that (the situation) can be peacefully resolved with the United States, because I have family over there (in North Korea).”
Like many residents in Changbai town, Mdm Quan used to trade across the river, exchanging clothes with the North Koreans for seafood like sea cucumber and pollacks. She stopped when border security was significantly tightened in 2002, and she lost touch with her relatives in Hyesan.
In an emotional voice, she said, “I just want to ask them if they are well. I hope to help them if they need any help. I know they have a hard time living in North Korea.
“I wish I could send some money over but I do not know if they are still alive. I haven’t got any news from them.”
All she can do now is gaze across the river at Hyesan. But Mdm Quan said that they have stopped going to the riverbank, after North Korean soldiers started pelting them with rocks.
She said: “I don’t know why they were throwing stones. We used to try and bring them some food out of sympathy when we took walks to the riverside, but we stopped.
We used to see North Korean kids with dirty faces, picking up garbage on the ground to eat, and occasionally they would cross the river to come here. But now, they have barricaded the whole area and no one can cross over.
According to some reports, Hyesan is one of the major origins of North Korean defectors who eventually reach South Korea.
On our last evening in Changbai, we headed up to Tashan Park perched on a hill overlooking the area.
As the sun set, we saw lights coming on in Changbai and cars moving through the streets.
But Hyesan was mostly dark, except for a public square which contains a monument.
It felt like I was looking at two worlds all at once – just metres apart divided by the Yalu River, but which might as well be separate planets.
Watch more here about what life is like for residents in Changbai town, in the full episode of This Side Of The Border.