Photographers' Blog

All at sea – tales from Korea’s disputed border

Baengnyeong, South Korea

By Damir Sagolj

 A blue dot on a map shows a phone's current position on the island of Baengnyeong that lies just on the South Korean side of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the Yellow Sea April 13, 2014. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Look at the little blue dot showing a current position on a map: that is the island of Baengnyeong. The map might suggest this outcrop is deep inside North Korea but it’s not. The hand in the picture is mine, the phone with its high-speed internet connection is also mine, and the barbed wire is South Korean.

Baengnyeong – like a few other islands I visited recently – lies on the South’s side of the disputed maritime boundary that separates the two Koreas at sea. Known as the Northern Limit Line, it is an extension of the more famous land border between North and South Korea – the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ – but it curves further to the north. It is the line between two fierce neighbors whose war started over six decades ago and never really ended.

I had seen many pictures of the DMZ but very few of the NLL. The DMZ looks scary but familiar: it is the world’s most heavily armed border, and the only serious boundary remaining from the Cold War.

While recent news from Ukraine suggests that similar borders could soon be drawn elsewhere, the frontier between the Koreas is the real thing: an impenetrable line dividing two different worlds that used to be one.

Life along this border at sea was unknown to me. I had seen only a few news pictures after previous deadly incidents or artillery duels between the Koreas.

Mementos of Korea’s divided families

Last month North and South Korea allowed a group of families divided by the Korean War to come together for a brief reunion. Separated on either side of the border between North and South, it was the first time they had seen each other in more than six decades.

Those who took part in the reunion knew that they were luckier than many others, who didn’t get to see their loved ones across the border at all. But they still had to go through the pain of parting all over again – more than likely forever – after their brief, tearful meeting.    

I wasn’t allowed to cover the families at the scene of the reunion. But the event made me wonder what it was like for those who returned to a normal life in South Korea after emotional gatherings with their long-lost parents, kids, and siblings from the North.

Waiting on widow’s island

Geoje, South Korea

By Kim Hong-ji

After Germany was reunited in 1990, Korea has been the highest profile divided country in the world. The division has separated numerous families and made them miss each other. A few months ago, when the relationship between the two Koreas improved after five months of political tension, North Korea proposed a reunion ceremony for families who have been separated by the Korean War. Then it abruptly cancelled the ceremony, disappointing the families who have been waiting to reunite with long-lost relatives. Lots of separated families in the two Koreas are still living in great hope that they will be able to meet their loved ones some day.

Geoje island is a small and remote place in South Korea where 18 fisherman were abducted by North Korea while fishing in the disputed West Sea in December, 1972. Forty one years later, little is known about these husbands and sons, how they were abducted or where they may be living in North Korea. I only came to know about this incident when I heard one of the abducted fishermen, Jeon Wook-pyo, 68, escaped from North Korea and returned to South Korea a few months ago. I could not locate him and there is an ongoing investigation by the government. He was abducted 10 years before I was born and I had limited information to follow. Instead, I met a few grandmothers still living in a town heavy with grief for their lost family members. A widow who lost her husband and a mother who lost her child; just wishing they can be reunited in the town some day.

Kim Jeom-sun, 82, who lost her husband when he was abducted in 1972. She is now a grandmother living alone in a 10-square-yard house in Busan, east of the island. She left the island some twenty years ago due to the stigma – as if her husband was a betrayer who fled to the North. Much time has passed since then, but her memories stay with her. A few pictures hanging on the wall keep the memories lingering in her mind. “I have waited and waited until now.. even if he died in North Korea. I still wait for him.”

Five days with my North Korean minders

Pyongyang, North Korea

By Jason Lee

From stepping on to the Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang on the evening of July 24th until my return on the 29th, I didn’t stop taking pictures. Our group from Reuters, visiting the secretive state of North Korea for its celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, often found ourselves with no time to eat. It was only in the taxi on the way home from Beijing airport that I had time to think back on my trip.

GALLERY: INSIDE NORTH KOREA

It was the experience of a lifetime, a nation of 22 million people showing a depression and weakness of spirit that I tried my best to interpret through my cameras.

But it can also be seen through my experience with the closest North Korean people to me during the trip – the minders, the name we gave to the “guides” deployed by the government to accompany foreign media.

All aboard North Korea’s ship of weapons

Colon City, Panama

By Carlos Jasso

I received a call from a colleague late at night saying there were rumors that a shipment of missiles from Cuba had been found on a North Korean-flagged ship at the entrance of the Canal in Colon.
At that point I stopped what I was doing and started calling my contacts in the security services, colleagues and scanning Twitter to confirm the time and place where the ship had been intercepted.

I got word that the captain of the ship had tried to commit suicide when police boarded the vessel and that there were indeed arms on the ship. I left the house in less than 15 minutes and caught a ride to the port with a colleague from a local newspaper. The port is an hour and a half away from the city and it was pitch black. There was little chance to see anything, so we decided to sit it out until dawn; maybe we would get a chance to see the ship. We got ready for a long night, three photographers perched in the car with lots of gear and a family of annoying mosquitoes that kept us company throughout the night.

The first rays of light brought reporters, photographers and cameramen and we all stormed out trying to catch a glimpse of the ship. It was pretty far away but luckily it was close enough to get by with, as a start. Interest in the story was mounting, especially after Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli tweeted a picture of what seemed to be a missile on board the ship. But there was no access and we kept being told “later, later.”

Chuseok and the world’s last Cold War frontier

By Lee Jae-Won

Chuseok, or the Full-Moon Harvest Festival, also dubbed the Korean Thanksgiving is one of the country’s biggest traditional holidays. Nearly 30 million out of South Korea’s population of 50 million will visit their hometown during the three-day holiday which ended October 1.

The Imjingak pavilion, a well-known tourist destination, is located just south of the demilitarized zone which divides the Korean peninsula into the capitalist South and communist North. It is the closest point to the inter-Korean border, where visitors are allowed to observe the North’s territory from the South without any specific government approval. The northern tip of the Paju city which the Imjingak area belongs to is only 130 miles south of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.

South Koreans who were born in North Korea before the fratricidal 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with a truce pact, not a peace treaty, come to the Imjingak pavilion to remember and pay tribute to their ancestors as they are banned from crossing the inter-Korean border freely to visit their hometowns in the North.

Window to North Korea

By Bobby Yip

A ten-day media tour to North Korea is a challenge for the authorities, as well as a challenge for the press. As one side tries to highly control what should be seen and who should be interviewed, the other side tries to show the world what the reality is.

Except visits to scheduled events, in most cases photographers are not allowed to walk on the street to take photos. Many of my images were shot through the window of a media bus or on one occasion through the window of a train. Watching the street scenes and the village scenes along the way, I felt an isolation between the people and me. I also sensed the isolation between the people themselves. It is the ideology behind the surface which distinguishes North Korea from many other countries, and it shows on the streets.

Events arranged for the media to cover are colorful.

North Korea surprisingly opened their rocket launch pad, as well as the control center at the site and another on the outskirts of the capital for media visits.

Damir Sagolj wins World Press award

Reuters photographer Damir Sagolj won first prize in the World Press Photo Daily Life Singles category with his photograph of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung on a wall in Pyongyang.

Below, he recounts taking the photograph.

“After days of excitement and lots of rare pictures in the provinces, I came back to Pyongyang without big plans for shooting in the capital. All I wanted were some moody general views of the city. This is probably the easiest big picture I shot for a long time – it was taken from the window of my hotel room in Pyongyang early morning, just before the sunrise. I knew that portrait was there and I insisted with our hosts to get a room on a very high floor facing that direction. So, all I had to do is to wake up early in the morning, make a coffee, light a cigarette and make sure I exposed well. The scene has this eerie look for maybe 5 to 10 minutes, then the revolutionary songs and propaganda speeches from loudspeakers wake the city up.”

Canon 5D Mark II, lens 70-200mm, f4, 1/60, ISO 800

Caption: A picture of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung decorates a building in the capital Pyongyang early October 5, 2011. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Death of god

By Kim Kyung-Hoon

Nobody knows when and where death will visit us.

The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il shows that this phrase applies to everyone. Death is inevitable, even for an absolute ruler who was believed to be an eternal creature in his reclusive kingdom and who provoked the international community with a nuclear weapons program and brinkmanship.


(Kyodo photo)

Hours after the tearful announcement by North Korea state TV of their Great Comrade Dear Leader’s death, I was on a flight from Tokyo to Seoul to reinforce our Seoul bureau. On the flight, I recalled the chaos when North Korea’s founder and Kim Jong-il’s father Kim Il-sung died in 1994. At that time, most Koreans were haunted by fear of a possible outbreak of war. This fear made South Koreans rush to shops to stockpile basic necessities. It also triggered an intense debate between conservatives and pro-unification activists who insisted on a condolence call for the main culprit of the Korean civil war. My mother stayed awake at night worrying about the outbreak of war because I was supposed to go to mandatory military service in just a few months.

However, what I found after landing in Seoul was different from what I had worried about and imagined. There were no empty shelves and no fierce clashes between riot police and pro-unification activists on the streets. Signs of chaos and rejoicing over the death of a mortal enemy were hardly seen in my country as Seoul cautiously responded to the abrupt news that came at the end of 2011.

The truce village of Panmunjom

By Lee Jae-won

South Korea is surrounded by the sea on all sides but one. The country is virtually an island as it is bordered to the north by reclusive North Korea.

There is only one place, called a truce village, where South Koreans and visitors can see the border and soldiers from the secretive state.

Panmunjom, about 55 km (34 miles) north of Seoul, is considered one of the last vestiges of the Cold War. It is located in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), the 4-km (2.5 mile) wide buffer that runs along the heavily armed military border.

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