Peeking behind the closed doors of North Korea is always a fascinating exercise, but maybe even more so these days. Tensions between the United States and North Korea seem to have escalated with President Trump in office, but there have been surprising developments between the two countries, as well. Despite the ebb and flow of tensions over the past year or so, it seems increasingly likely that Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are headed to a face-to-face meeting. Indeed, it was recently revealed that CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, made a clandestine trip to North Korea over the Easter weekend.
According to The Post’s Karoun Demirjian and Shane Harris, the meeting “did not broker any agreements, and the encounter was not the formal beginning of negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program. … But Pompeo did help set the table for those negotiations to commence, when Kim and Trump meet in a yet-to-be-determined location.”
Again, now is a very interesting time to try to see what our counterparts in North Korea are up to. Over the years there have been a few photographers who have been able to peel back the curtain on the DPRK: Reuters photojournalist Damir Sagolj is one of them.
In November 2017, Sagolj and reporting partner Sue-Lin Wong embarked on a week-long road trip on the border between China and North Korea. Usually when we are presented with photos of North Korea, we mostly see a glimpse into the lives of the country’s elite living in Pyongyang. Sagolj and Wong’s trip didn’t focus on the capital city but on the lives being lived on the border. Of the trip, Sagolj told Reuters: “What we saw — from dirt-poor daily lives to clandestine economic activity on the Korean side — included scenes not yet witnessed in foreign media.” So instead of the now-familiar scenes of Kim Il Sung statues, women traffic cops and Pyongyang’s subway system, Sagolj’s photos show us less familiar scenes of North Koreans (and some tourists ogling them from afar) living on the border.
The trip wasn’t an easy one. Sagolj couldn’t photograph everything he saw. For example, he told Reuters what it was like to encounter the numerous checkpoints manned by armed Chinese soldiers along the way:
“I guess we were an odd couple — a Chinese Australian woman and a Bosnian man — and it was not surprising that the Chinese police stopped us at every one. Once identified, we were sent out of the area immediately with no further discussion. Simple as that. No hanging about to take pictures.
“So one part of the border — an impoverished and undeveloped section in the middle — remains a dark spot on our map. People say the Chinese are building up their military installations to prevent a possible influx of North Korean refugees if ‘something serious happens.’
“What they are doing, the soldiers told us, ‘is secret.’ ”
Although we may not be seeing all they encountered, it is a fascinating glimpse into a world we rarely see.
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