After three days of filming in Yanji and its outlying villages, the three of us, along with our guide, went to a café to discuss our next day's filming plans. It was 9:00 p.m. and we'd just finished interviewing a defector in a small town close to the North Korean and Russian borders. Signs for restaurants and shops were written in all three languages: Chinese, Russian, and Korean. We passed a row of brothels disguised as massage parlors and could see groups of young women waiting inside rooms that were dimly lit with red light bulbs.

I was exhausted. When we landed in the region a week earlier, we hadn't allowed any time to get over the jet lag of a sixteen-hour flight and the sixteen-hour time difference. But it wasn't the lack of sleep that was getting to me. I was feeling emotionally drained from hearing the harrowing life stories of the defectors we'd met. I hoped that our report would bring greater attention to their plight.

Inside the smoke-filled café, we talked about going to the Tumen River, which forms the border between North Korea and China in this region. Days before, we'd filmed at the bridge in the city of Tumen, one of the official border crossings. But North Korean citizens don't have the luxury of simply walking across the overpass if they want to visit China. They cannot freely leave the country, and traveling abroad is reserved for the highly elite, who must obtain special clearance from the government. Defectors must take a different path if they want to get to China, traversing the waters separating the two countries. We wanted to film at the river to document this well-used trafficking route, one that in the wintertime is frozen, making it easier for defectors to cross. I thought about Ji-Yong's story and how she, like so many other North Korean defectors, had braved the ice-cold waters to escape their country's poverty, only to end up being used and exploited.

Throughout the night, our guide had been getting calls on his black cell phone. He had two phones, one black and one pink. He claimed the black one was used to communicate with his contacts in North Korea. He said he'd been talking to an officer in the North Korean military and was trying to determine if any defectors were crossing over and if we might be able to interview them. He also suggested the possibility of chatting with a North Korean border guard while standing on the frozen river. He said he had taken journalists to the area before, and they had been able to make small talk with some of the lackadaisical soldiers.

We wanted to get closer to a part of the Tumen River where defectors typically cross, so late that night we drove about an hour to the city of Tumen. We checked into a hotel and planned to head to the river the next morning before sunrise. We didn't intend on staying at the river long because we wanted to get back to Yanji to catch an afternoon flight south to Shenyang, where we would continue on with our shooting schedule.

FROM: Held Captive for 140 Days: Lisa Ling's Sister Breaks Her Silence
Published on May 18, 2010


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