North Korea – From the outside looking in
Recently, I went to the Chinese border-town of Dandong on the Yalu River to see what I could photograph to match stories about reports that the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was sick. Dandong is one of the closest towns on the border to the secretive country, and was the obvious choice due mainly to the chances of a journalist entering the highly restricted and reclusive country at such short notice being practically impossible. They don’t accept journalists at the best of times, let alone when their ‘dear leader’, as he is officially known, is not well. Kim has led communist North Korea for 14 years and if he was dead, the potentially nuclear-capable country could quickly become a scary and somewhat horrifying scenario.My hope for the assignment was that maybe I could get pictures of North Korean soldiers on border patrols, or perhaps even people working in the fields – something that showed life on the ‘other side’.
A local contact told us of boats for hire about one hours drive north of Dandong. I thought ok, it would be something like a small fishing village where the locals occasionally subsidise their incomes by taking people for rides to see the secretive side of the river, but when we arrived we found a thriving, well organised tourism industry. There was a fleet of six large boats that took 20 people at a time, or a fleet of speedboats that took five at a time. You could go for 20 minutes or for over an hour, cruising along the Chinese side of the river photographing or filming North Koreans washing their clothes or themselves, riding bicycles, tending their crops, or just fishing as they tried to get any extra food to supplement what measly portions they were obviously receiving.
Myself, text journalist Chris Buckley and Reuters cameraman Johnnie boarded a boat and headed towards the small town of Qing Cheng which was once connected to China via a bridge that protrudes from both sides of the river but had it’s middle portion blown-up 60 years ago – a symbolic reminder that this country is separated from the rest of the world.
The first amazing sight was a boat full of North Korean soldiers floating down the river. I thought for sure they would follow us, but most of them just waved and smiled. Mind you, thankfully, there was another boat between us and them, and they didn’t really see us I am pretty sure.
The next thing that surprised me was the sight of maybe a hundred people either walking, riding bikes or on animal-drawn carts travelling along a road that hugged the banks of the river. This was where I managed to get a picture of a military officer riding a motorbike with who I presume was his wife and young child aboard. A rare sight indeed I am sure.
We then came across a building that extended out into the river, and where three men huddled inside. We could only just see them through a hole in a wall, and it certainly personified the sad state these people were in.
The finale of our trip produced probably my favourite image I have taken involving North Korea. I only just noticed her behind the tree – a female North Korean soldier on patrol along the border fence was desperately trying to stay out of sight. And what made the picture was the way in which she failed – she just couldn’t resist taking a peek at us.
After we got back to the hotel and I had sent my pictures, I couldn’t help but think how distressing the whole scene was. A whole tourism industry built on people being treated like zoo animals. There would be hundreds of tourists everyday riding in these boats, which even had signs aboard them saying you weren’t allowed to give food to anybody, especially if they asked for it. No wonder the children threw rocks at them.
I just hope that my pictures make people aware and feel sympathetic to the North Korean people’s situation, and ask that when perhaps one day you visit the lovely city of Dandong, you will just be satisfied with looking at North Korea from the Chinese side of the river.