It was challenging for us to witness the tragedy of North Korean refugees and see the breakdown of any standards of decency at the border. We were arrested by the Chinese Army, chased by police, and hospitalized with diseases. The drug dealing, human trafficking and abandoned children were a shock. But compassion won out over condemnation.
◆ June 21, 2007: We rent a house in Dandoong, China. It won't be possible to feel what it means to be a refugee in the safety and comfort of a hotel room. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," we tell ourselves. We move our luggage to the house and go to a nearby market to buy blankets, cooking utensils, and cleaning supplies. We change into Chinese clothes and shoes. Setting up in the border town, we are in a better position to cover the human trafficking and drug smuggling. We join a defector from the neighborhood when he meets a North Korean patrol boat smuggling drugs. When we move to Yenji, we once again avoid a hotel for local rented accommodation.
◆ July 20, 2007: A reporter and a producer fight. We meet a woman refugee who has once been repatriated to North Korea. She says she was forced to abort her child. The reporter wants to find out more about her story, while the producer is bent on capturing the pain and sorrow on her face better. "What did you feel when you had the abortion?" the producer asks abruptly. The woman weeps, saying, "You people are heartless." That night, the reporter demands to know why the producer seems to have no regard for the human rights of the interviewee, and the producer said it is necessary for a better film. We realize how challenging cross-media work can be.
◆ August 20, 2007: Before going into Winnan Mountain on the border between China and Laos, the guide rumbles us. We were trying to disguise ourselves as North Koreans to join the refugees planning to escape from China. He says, "You put other people's lives in danger." Late at night, we go to see him, asking for his understanding and support "We apologize for our lies," we tell him. "We are reporters from Korea who want to see our people's tragedy with our own eyes." The next day, we cross the border.
◆ August 30, 2007: We go to see an internist back in Seoul. Some of us are diagnosed with early-stage typhoid -- probably because of the dirty Mekong River water we drank. Also, after arriving in Laos from China we had to go back to China to validate our passports while the refugees were resting. We went through four illegal border crossing before we got to Bangkok. Hearing out story, the doctor says, "Don't even think of doing such a thing again." We receive treatment for a week before we leave for China again. A writer for National Geographic, Thomas O'Neill, who met us and heard our story in Yenji, told us, "You guys must be out of your mind."
◆ September 28, 2007: We are captured with the guide by Chinese border patrols while filming a North Korean village in Kaishantun, China. The soldiers take the camera. Guns are pointed at our heads. But we managed to take out the tape and hide it. The guide interprets, "You are spies, aren't you? You're going to be in jail for a few years." We get on a truck and call a taxi driver who has the best connections in the border town while the soldiers are communicating with headquarters.
We arrive at border patrol headquarters and are locked in an investigation room. The taxi driver comes into the room. Fortunately, the head is his friend. He says, "If we find any film of the border, you'll be in jail." Thank god that we hid the film. We are released after five hours and can't stop thanking the driver.
Two days later, some other team members are captured by Chinese public security in another border town. Director Jung In-taek is resisting to buy time so that director Lim Eun-jung and a North Korean refugee guide accompanying them can run away with the cameras and the tapes they have filmed. Without evidence, Chinese public security has to release Jung.
◆ October 30, 2007, Novorsibirsk, Russia: We follow Kim Man-soo to get into the North Korean district in Murtukit in Siberia. We decide to go to the 16th Timber Camp. After long hours of discussion, one reporter and one assistant director are chosen to go. An American missionary who helps North Korean defectors gets angry and says, "You shouldn't play with your lives. You won't come back alive."
That evening, they take a train to Murtukit. It really is a little Democratic People's Republic of Korea on foreign soil. Not a day goes by without sleeplessness and nerves until we complete the work on Nov. 4, 2007. Buying the ticket to Habarovks, Kim has a fight with a Russian soldier who seems racist to him. "If your identity is revealed, we're all dead," we tell him. We apologize to the soldier and give him some baksheesh.
◆ February 3, 2008: Negotiations to sell "On The Border" are held at BBC headquarters in London. One BBC staffer can't quite believe what she saw in the film, especially the parts involving North Korean soldiers, and suspects some manipulation. We tell her we risked our lives to get these stories, and every word is true. We show them our diaries from the trip. Finally, she decides. "I'll make sure it's broadcast. This is an honor for us."
◆ April 1, 2008: We get a phone call. It's a North Korean human trafficker we met at the border, who asks if we want to buy a young girl. We tell other reporters about the call. Unable to believe it, they ask us, "He must have been joking since it's April Fool's Day." But it makes us feel guilty and bitter to think it was just a joke, because we know that although our 10-month journey is over, the plight of the North Korean refugees continues.
By Park Jong-in, Lee Hark-joon