Deciphering North Korea has never been an easy task, and with the recent rise of a secretive third-generation Kim family dictator, the quest seems more relevant than ever.
As photographer, I’ve been fascinated with North Korea for years. I visited Pyongyang twice, but there was a limit of how much I could see or learn from the inside. Next, my curiosity took me to the Chinese-North Korean border with the help of a grant from the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund. I managed to meet with several North Koreans who had left their country in the past year. They told me of recent food shortages, ongoing power cuts, and the shocking brutality or authorities.
Along the border, I made a series of panoramic-format photographs. It is an attempt to expand our visual understanding of North Korea—beyond the stage-managed scenes from its Potemkin capital—to the less-known border landscapes where unscripted stories of defectors, smugglers, guards and traders play out.
Not everything that I witnessed along the Chinese-North Korea border made for a perfectly publishable photograph. At times I had to work with a handheld mini-video camera to avoid suspicion. Zoomed to maximum magnification, I was able to film North Korean soldiers and civilians carrying scavenged strips of scrap metal to a boat on the river border.
A smuggler then took the boat across the river and dropped off his load illegally on the Chinese shore.
On another occasion I rode in a speedboat along the border river. These boats are often hired by curious Chinese tourists to bring them as close as possible to the North Korean shore. The boat driver told me that his boss had bribed the North Korean border guards to allow these excursions. I took several boat trips, and I saw two things that were very telling of the reality far from Pyongyang. On one of the trips we saw a small North Korean boy hiding along the banks of the river. When he saw us, he motioned to his mouth to beg for food. When I tried to take a picture, the boat driver slapped down my camera, but I managed to get a slightly blurry shot of the boy.
Then the boat driver opened a bag of food and offered to sell me some to give to the boy. He saw North Korean children begging frequently, and he treated the situation like selling treats at a zoo. I bought the boy some food, and he ran off just as a soldier caught sight of us.
On a later ride in a different boat, the driver called out to a North Korean soldier stationed on the shore. Apparently they knew each other, because the soldier came running toward us. When he was only a few meters away, the boat driver threw him an envelope with a Chinese mobile phone card inside. This time I hid my camera and discreetly used the handheld video camera.
Witnessing these situations, I learned more about the real state of discipline of NK’s army and the level of hunger in the country than anything I had seen on my visits inside.