North Korea – From the outside looking in

September 17, 2008

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.


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Thank you David.

I appreciate your insights on this interesting assignment.

I would recommend that you take a look at Eric Lafforgue’s unpublished gallery on North Korea. His approach is similar to yours in the way that he shows a great deal of sense of humor in his own North Korean assignment.

Lafforgue was first in North Korea last April. He is currently on a second assignment there. His photos are here: cs/sets/72157604812751507/

Posted by Sebastien Lenelle | Report as abusive

Wow. I’m not a huge media fan unless its photography, but I really think that you captured what it is truly like for those ‘behind the wire’. The picture of the Officer probably taking his wife somewhere actually shows that there are people there instead of the crazies that most people tend to hear and talk about. I also think that the picture of the three men huddling in the broken building is pretty powerful because it shows that even though there country isn’t in the best of positions, the people of the country are there for eachother.

Posted by Paddles | Report as abusive

Thanks for your efforts David. This truly depicts the condition and mindset of the North Koreans.

It’s sad that we have come to the extent of comparing the condition of these people with zoo !!

Posted by VN | Report as abusive