Monday, March 30, 2009

Focus on Tumen, China, in the Los Angeles Times

The award-winning Chinese-language film "Summer Palace" (頤和園) focuses on the personal awakenings of a young woman named Yu Hong (played by Chinese actress Hao Lei) from the Chinese-Korean border town of Tumen after she moves away from her hometown in 1987 to attend college in Beijing. (The explicit sex scenes and the critical manner in which the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident is portrayed got the picture banned in China, even though Beijing was originally supportive of this multinational effort and allowed for most of the film to be shot there.)

Though the predominantly Korean city of Tumen is given little time on the screen, its isolation from the rest of China is almost an allegory for the alienation that the main character — who is implied to be Korean and speaks some Korean in the beginning of the film — experiences throughout the decade and a half that is depicted in the movie.

Tumen is behind some of the headlines today, as it was a staging ground of sorts for Current TV journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee as they tried to get close to the PRC-DPRK border to report on the plight of North Korean refugees hiding in China, and possibly human trafficking and worse.

It is against this backdrop that Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times, formerly that paper's Seoul-based correspondent, reports on this humble city on the edge of the Chinese world. But due to its proximity to North Korea, it sees its share of preachers, pimps, smugglers, and tourists.
Smugglers bring counterfeit currency and drugs out of North Korea, returning with foreign DVDs and radios. Missionaries flock here to console and convert newly arrived North Korean defectors. Human traffickers bring out young women to match up with lonely Chinese bachelors.

Besides the preachers and proselytizers, prostitutes and pimps, aid workers and refugee advocates, smugglers and spies, you've got the journalists.

At some point, almost every reporter writing about North Korea comes to Tumen.
It is a lifeline of North Korea's underground economy, and a veritable hub of North Korea-centered activity:
Tumen (population 138,000) thrives on its proximity to North Korea. Tourists go to a riverfront promenade for photos in front of the North Korean flag. They rent binoculars for 30 cents to peer at a bleak North Korean town and buy the little red badges of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il that Northerners are required to wear on their lapels; $25 for real ones, or so the shopkeeper claims, and $1.50 for fakes.
But it's interesting to note that back in the 1960s, the tables of prosperity had been turned:
During the early 1960s, people crossed from China into relatively prosperous North Korea to escape the famine resulting from Mao Tse-tung's disastrous Great Leap Forward. By the 1990s, the traffic had reversed. Northern defectors are still coming today, although they will be promptly sent home -- to face stiff sentences in labor camps -- if they're caught by the Chinese.
I may be over-interpreting, but I see in Barbara Demick's words a hint at rationalization that Ling, Lee, and their colleague Mitch Koss may have accidentally stepped over the border, but I'm still not buying it. A dog may not recognize the markings of geopolitical boundary, but humans sure do.

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