22-Feb-2006 -- I’m always trying to find challenging confluence points, and have recently been looking for points that might rival our ascent last June to the world’s hi ghest confluence. North Korea? Hmm…that could rate highly in the scheme of challenging confluence points. Unlike Europeans, Canadians and almost all other nationals, Americans such as myself are not even allowed into North Korea on one these highly controlled and supervised-to-the-nth-degree tours. To get to a confluence point I would have to somehow sneak into North Korea. This was already sounding like it was right down my alley as many of my friends would attest. But this wouldn’t only be challenging, it would be risky.
Throughout 2005, I did a lot of internet research as to what was involved in sneaking into North Korea. There were some personal accounts, some stories of people who spent months in bleak, miserable prisons, and tales of those who never returned, and that the US government, for political reasons, chose to ignore. Add these stories to the list of those where people were abducted from Japanese beaches and South Korean ships. Many of these people may be living out the rest of their lives in prison, or they may have been killed. I don’t know about much of you other adventurers out there, but I really like living, and wouldn’t be much up for North Korean prison life, so I was not about to add my name to the list of misadventures and misplaced.
Another Imaginative Traveller tour leader, Mark Mekki, and I spent a lot of time investigating what would be involved in sneaking across the Chinese border to a point that is only 4 kilometers into North Korea, 42N 129E. We examined maps, air photos and information about this entire region. I had figured out where the lookout towers were, and knew second-hand information about the nature and mindset of the border guards.
In the end, however, we determined that, although it was only 4 kilometers into the country, it was too risky. Part of this was not only risk to ourselves, but to ordinary North Koreans that might be implicated by the police for not stopping or reporting us. Also, if we were abducted, it could be a major political irritant, jeopardizing the delicate diplomacy to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapon program. We just decided to carry on with our lives, and our plans for an exciting adventure ended up on a back shelf, never to be seen again.
But I just couldn’t give up my intrigue for the idea of getting into North Korea. After a lot of surfing the internet I found a little known Acrobat document that explained that North Korea gave special permission for some South Korean ships to enter their waters. Hmm…
On February 19th I arrived in the South Korean port of Sokcho, perhaps the most prominent fishing town near the North Korean border on the Sea of Japan coast. I was already on my way from China to Japan, so I just decided to make a stop in South Korea on my way. It was more-or-less my first trip to South Korea, so the idea materialized into a plan to make a sightseeing trip with a confluence adventure in the middle that would also take me to explore the northeast coast of South Korea.
My objective was to get on a fishing boat that would take me the 90 or so kilometers from Sokcho to 39N 129E. 39N 129E was located about 68 kilometers off the North Korean coast, but well within the North Korean water boundary which stretches out 50 nautical miles (92.6 km) from the coast. The project claims there is a view of the coast. I wasn’t really optimistic about seeing much of the coast from there, but it seemed like one of the only North Korean points I could possibly get in order to attain the psychologically significant goal of getting ‘the first’. As unexciting as water points can be, this point IS in North Korea!
I walked around the harbor. There were tons of fishing boats, just one problem, I don’t speak any Korean other than the greetings I memorized from my guide book.
I decided to pose as a journalist. Actually this was thought through well in advance. On February 21st I went to the tourist office and told them I wanted to do a story on the nature of South Korean fishing boats going into North Korean waters. I would obviously need a translator, so they contacted an English professor from a local university who worked part time as a volunteer translator. I talked to her briefly over the phone about what I wanted to do. Her name was Mrs. Jang.
Now, posing as a journalist is very natural for me, because I used to do some journalism. I was better set up for it than I had even thought. First I should tell you that the tourist office, primarily the main English-speaking contact, Mrs. Park, definitely seemed a little suspicious of me. Without my agreement, she decided it was best to call the harbor police about what I was doing. The harbor police were nervous about giving out information about boats going into North Korea, and they wanted to know a lot of details about me. This was all going in the wrong direction. But they asked me for my business card, and I had forgotten that the only business cards I had were some old ones that said ‘Greg Michaels, Writer’ on them!
Nevertheless, I had to get out of this dangerous trend toward meeting with the harbor police – something that would be just as counterproductive to an investigative journalist. I knew Mrs. Jang was my answer. I asked to call her, and, once I had her on the phone, I asked her if she could pick me up now in her car, take me away from the tourist office, and go talk to some fisherman. She enthusiastically agreed.
I found out more and more that I liked about Mrs. Jang. She was a university student in Seoul during the tumultuous and often violent Seoul anti-government protests of the eighties. She had been frequently tear-gassed and detained by police – not the type of person who is afraid to take risks and do what she’s not supposed to do (at least in the name of what she believes in). She seemed like the perfect adventure type for what I wanted to do.
Free from suspicious Mrs. Park, we drove off in Mrs. Jang’s car. First we visited the docks of squid fishermen and their boats adorned with strings of bright lights for night fishing. Inside their office were maps that all had a very conspicuous and ominous red line at 38 1/3 degrees north. They told me the line could not be crossed because it was North Korean waters. I told them what I read about the special permission. I also postulated that some fishermen might venture across the line to tap into what would be a sanctuary for fish.
But they told me there was nothing other than one story of a disoriented fisherman who strayed into the waters and was escorted back by North Korean patrol boats. I figured out that the fishermen who had the highest motivation to ‘stray’ into that region were crab fishermen, because the crab in North Korean waters were of particularly high quality. But now was not the season for crab fishing, nor for much of any kind of fishing. Most fishermen were repairing their boats in anticipation of warmer months for the best fishing.
The next day Mrs. Jang and I talked to more fishermen. I thought I might find some who admitted to secretly going into the forbidden zone. All of them said the same: they would not cross that thick red line drawn in the sea. I was trying to find people who would fish in the red zone but I only came up with red herrings!
For the rest of the day Mrs. Jang took me to an observatory that looked across the North Korean border where it meets the east coast. There were fences, walls and a mined no-man’s land. We also visited the pre-Korean War summer home of Kim Il Sung, the former leader of North Korea. A child photo of Kim Jong Il, the current North Korean leader, standing in front of the home, was also on display there.
Because of what I had perceived to be Mrs. Jang’s adventurous personality, I had decided to tell Mrs. Jang about confluence hunting, and my quest for 39N 129E. She was interested and looked it up on the internet, but she told me she actually DIDN’T like adventure, and could not join me on my journey to North Korean waters. Our work together was already finished. She no longer had free time to help me.
I was on my own again. At this point I had to go back to some information I had actually found out from the harbor police. Although I didn’t really trust what they told me at the time, I had to investigate the fact that they said only cargo ships had permission to ply the North Korean waters.
I went to the Sokcho international boat terminal and attempted to ask questions. It was true - there were now 2 possibilities for getting to the confluence! One option was a Russian ferry that made a circuit between Sokcho and Vladivostok. The other was a number of 15-meter Chinese cargo ships that provided the function of running between North Korea and South Korea to deliver products, since South Korean workers were not allowed into North Korea and vice versa. I speak both Russian and Chinese so I got started on trying to find a way.
Although the captains of the Russian ferry seemed to be sympathetic to the idea of getting the confluence point, I would need to go back to Seoul and get a Russian visa, a frustrating, expensive and often fruitless process due to the endemic corruption, bureaucracy and Russian mafia influence on the visa process. I’ve gone through this visa process several times before and was not looking forward to it again, especially considering that I really didn’t have enough time to do it.
As for the Chinese cargo boats, I talked to several of the workers who were very friendly. The contracting out of these boats for service was a complex arrangement between captain, boat owner and trade office. I got the trade office’s and the captain’s approval, and I started to get optimistic because everything was headed in the right direction. I proposed a price to pay for the service to the manager of the trade office. He said I would have to wait a day for a response from the boat owners.
I came back the next day. Unfortunately, the boat owners were the final sticking point. They were uneasy about taking an American into North Korean waters even though they could technically do it. On top of that, they wanted at least $500 for 10 hours of boat traveling. The trade office was supposed to charge me another $700, but the trade office guy gave me the idea that I might not have to pay that. It would have been too much money in any case. My options had run out.
I don’t plan to give up on getting the first North Korea confluence point. It took me 2 ½ years of trips, research, and experience to work my way up to get the world’s highest confluence. I’ll be back. I’ve learned from my experience, and I’ve got some really good new ideas to try next time.