Onboard the train northward, Shin learns about the Tumen River, a long river that forms much of the China-North Korean border. When the train arrives in Gomusan, a small town about twenty-five miles from China, Shin befriends an old man who tells him about crossing into China. The old man instructs Shin to offer guards crackers, money, and cigarettes, and to tell them that he is a soldier visiting his family.
Previously Shin benefited from older, almost fatherly figures (Uncle and Park) who gave him advice about how to survive—here, another such figure told Shin how to make his way into China without arousing too much attention.
The next morning, Shin sets out for Musan, a mining town near the border. A few soldiers stop him, but he offers them cigarettes and they allow him to pass on. At the border checkpoints, soldiers ask Shin for cigarettes without even bothering to ask for identification. It is January 2005, and Shin manages to bribe his way past each one of the checkpoints—largely because, at the time, the North Korean government is being fairly lax about border passage.
At the time when Shin attempted to cross the border, bribery was at an all-time high, meaning that Shin had a relatively easy time making his way into China. As the soldier’s reaction would suggest, Shin was far from the first person who’d offered him a bribe recently.
Since the food crisis of the 1990s, North Korea has tolerated a fairly open border with China. In 2000, the government promised leniency to those who’d fled the country. Border arrests decreased, and the government began to recognize small-time traders selling food without permits. As a result of these reforms, the country became markedly wealthier and healthier. Then, in late 2004, North Korea began to prosecute defectors more harshly. Shin was extraordinarily lucky: when he crossed the border in January 2005, orders from the government hadn’t yet altered border protocol, and he was able to pass through.
North Korea’s government has maintained its power over the last half-century because it’s controlled its people’s contact with China, South Korea, and the United States. However, in recent years, Korea has had no choice but to open its borders somewhat rather than risk mass starvation or a rebellion. In the 2000s, then, North Korea has had an ambivalent relationship with its border: sometimes tolerating a back-and-forth with China and sometimes forbidding it.
Shin reaches the final checkpoint and offers the soldier some cigarettes and candy. The soldier points Shin toward the river, which is frozen, and tells him that people cross it all the time. Shin manages to cross the river, and when he reaches the north bank, he turns back and takes his last look at North Korea.
Because of persistence, ingenuity, and pure luck, Shin was finally able to escape North Korea—a notable success in his difficult life journey.