19-Oct-2008 -- Since I went through all the trouble and money to obtain a Russian visa, it seemed only natural to make another attempt at getting the North Korean point via the Dong Chun ferry connecting Vladivostok, Russia and Sokcho, South Korea. I had been in Siberia researching my Lake Baikal to India tour for Earth Cubed (www.earthcubed.com).
The only problem was the research at Baikal took a long time, and it was time for me to go back to work for my geophysical company, Western Geco. I had arranged a flight with them leaving from Seoul, Korea. But there was still a small time window to attempt the North Korean point.
Back when I attempted this point in February 2006 from Sokcho, South Korea, a Russian captain and I looked at a route map, and determined that the Dong Chun ferry passes very close, if not on top of 39N 129E. He said he thought it wouldn’t be a problem to go out of the way to pass directly over it. The only problem then was that I didn’t have a Russian visa, and it was (and still is) a complicated process to get one. It kept me tantalized for two and a half years.
Flash forward to October, 2008. It was apparent it could be done, but that it would take some discussion and negotiating. I made phone calls from Lake Baikal across Siberia to the Dong Chun ferry office on the Pacific coast (Sea of Japan) at Vladivostok. I explained the confluence hunt as a geographical survey where we wanted to make some measurements for research. I wanted to see if the ferry could pass over the point.
“You need to speak to the captain. But the captain will only be here one day before departure,” the unexpectedly cooperative Dong Chun receptionist told me.
My time whittled away down to the very minimum. I decided that all I could do was to fly to Vladivostok two days before the ferry departure to give me time to talk to the captain.
It’s a shame I didn’t have much time to enjoy Vladivostok, but meeting Natie was the greatest consolation. Because hotels were so unacceptably expensive across Russia, I decided to have a go at Couch Surfing, and I slept on the couch of a girl named Natie.
On the day I flew to Vladivostok, there was a new Dong Chun receptionist who was not as forthcoming as the last one. I had been trying to figure out where I could meet the captain.
“You cannot meet with the captain, you need to meet with the director first,” she said.
Natie suggested it might be a mistake to meet with the director, and instead to try to meet the captain.
She and I ran across downtown Vladivostok, including running through a celebration of the 70th anniversary of Primorskiy Krai, the state that Vladivostok is in. We were trying to get to the Dong Chun as it came in.
It wasn’t quite clear where the captain would be, or how to meet with him. We chased down a Russian man in a ‘captain-looking’ uniform who disembarked off the ship right away. He walked fast and nervously turned around to look at us, obviously startled by two people running after him and yelling. “I’m not the captain!”, he cried, as if we were about to capture him.
Natie worked wonders, and came back to me from the receptionist with the captain’s cell phone number. Though I had made up a related story, she had simply told them that I was friends with the captain and wanted to contact him. I had been ready to use my Russian, but it turned out he was Korean, did not speak Russian, and barely spoke English. His name was Captain Lee.
He told us to call him back, but I was bright with optimism. We climbed up a nearby hill to the monument to Vladimir Arsenyev, one of the most famous explorers of the Russian Far East. Would it be auspicious?
It was here that I had my conversation with Captain Lee about the confluence point. Because of his poor English, at first I thought we had an agreement to get to the point.
Those hopes were quickly dashed. “Three, nine point zero, zero – yes…and one two nine point three zero. One, two, nine point zero, zero – no!”
He had been a bit abrasive and suspicious all along. “Americans are no good. They only think about themselves”. And as nice as I tried to be, he had little respect for the confluence project.
“One, two, nine point zero, zero is in North Korea waters. This is a restricted area!”
That was it – no chance. There was no hope in convincing him.
I gave up and decided to stay in Vladivostok and hang out with Natie. The only thing to do was to change Western Geco’s plane ticket to leave from Vladivostok – a proposition that could ruffle feathers, but would likely not be a problem. Not so.
After phone conversations with Western Geco’s travel agency through the middle of the night, and into the next morning, there was no agreement. Flights from Russia were just too expensive. I would have to take the ferry anyway – in order to get to Seoul from where my plane would be leaving.
I was so disappointed to say goodbye to Natie because we had great plans in the making, and we were taking a liking to each other. I boarded the Dong Chun for my trip to Korea.
After dinner on board, I contacted the captain. He came down to the steward’s control room to meet me. He was about 60 with a height barely up to my shoulder.
“How many times are you going to contact me?” he asked rhetorically. We sat down inside to get away from a drunk Russian passenger.
He said I had approached this all the wrong way. He said my company should have contacted his in some official way. He ranted for a few minutes. It was not often clear what he was saying, but he often said “North Korea” and “security problem,” suggesting that ‘I’ was the ‘security problem’. He said, “for security reasons”, he refused to tell me what time we would approach 29N139E.
“Your company should give my company some money,” he said.
“We’re just a low-budget operation,” I replied. After I said that, he softened a lot.
He really felt the need to talk about politics. “America should shoot North Korea!”, explaining that although a full attack and invasion of North Korea might result in 30-40% of the population dying, that it would be “worth it.” All other policies were “stupid,” he claimed.
He thought Obama would be a disaster, because he’s out of touch with Korea. But he also bashed Bush. He scolded the US for taking over Mexico in the Alamo and the Mexican Session. I tried to stay friendly and concessionary, saying that I also didn’t like Bush, America’s policy IS self-serving, and that it was mostly wrong to take over Mexico. “But that was 150 years ago,” I reminded him.
I had already been willing to join him in his much desired conversation (and bashing) in politics and even conceded to him. I knew that he knew he had to make the next move – to take me up to the bridge. Maybe he had trapped himself into this. He lit up a cigarette nervously. He walked out of the room and told me to follow.
The bridge was dimly lit by the light of dusk. There was a quiet but massive, young Korean guy at the wheel.
Captain Lee showed me his charts, including the route of the Dong Chun. Surprisingly the ship didn’t really go anywhere near 39N129E. It was 20 nautical miles (37 km)off. Why had there been a difference between the route map I saw in 2006 and this one? I could only get a general idea of the dimly-lit and faded map.
I showed him a list of other North Korean points - but I didn’t refer to them as ‘North Korean points’.
He showed me how the ship would not come near any of the points except 40N 130E, from which it was only 2 miles (3.7 km) off. I became excited about the possibilities of 40N 130E.
I gave him a proposition. “Don’t get angry with what I’m about to ask you, okay? Can you steer the ship out of its way by 2 miles?”
He just looked at me. I think he was considering it. But then he gave me the universal forefinger and thumb symbol for money. “Two-hundred,” I said, meaning 'dollars'. I wasn’t really intending on paying it, but wanted to see his response. He backtracked on the idea, and looked at me with shifty eyes. Maybe he was nervous of the point’s closeness to North Korea, as if I knew something he didn’t.
I put some effort into documenting a distance to 40N 130E, (from which we were only 5.5 km (3.4 miles)) but I later realized that he had confused me, unintentionally, into thinking it was one of the points on my list. According to the DCP, the point is not included in North Korea, so we’ll leave it at that - unless the DCP decides to reverse its decision. We managed to get about 20 miles from 39N129E.
As the sun came up over a new day, and the Dong Chun pulled into South Korea, I thought about how I would continue my quest for a North Korean point. Though it seems unlikely the Dong Chun, if any vessel, will be tempted into going anywhere near the North Korean points, all is not lost. I have some new ideas brewing in my head.