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Beyond the Shadows in North Korea

4 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

Every six weeks, Agence France-Presse’s photographer Ed Jones boards a plane from Seoul to Beijing, where he catches a connecting flight to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. He’s one of the few Western journalists allowed to enter the secluded country on a regular basis. Jones is aware that such access is particularly important at a time when tensions are rising in the Korean peninsula.

“It is difficult to overstate the privilege I have in being able to travel regularly between North and South, something that it is impossible for the ordinary citizens of each country,” Jones tells TIME. “It is a constant reminder of the predicament of the Korean peninsula and the unimaginable sorrow faced by families forcibly separated by the 250 kilometers of barbed wire and landmines known as the Demilitarized Zone [DMZ].”

Since 1953, after decades of Japanese rule and a Cold War proxy fight that resulted in an armistice but no peace treaty, the Korean peninsula has been split in two, forcibly dividing a people, its culture and millions of families.

Jones’ first trip in North Korea was in 2012, at which point he covered the celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung. AFP was just one of the many Western news organizations allowed in the country at that time. But, since September 2016 when AFP opened a bureau in North Korea, the agency has had two permanent local journalists (a photographer and video journalist) as well as regular visits from Jones, a writer and a video journalist, who make the short flight from South Korea and report for a period of 10 to 14 days at a time.

Jones’ movements remained tightly controlled when he’s in the isolated country, but, he tells TIME, “we are gradually learning what is and is not possible in terms of putting forward coverage proposals.” He adds: “North Korean policy is never easy to interpret, and the opening has been very gradual, with Japan’s Kyodo, the Associated Press and AFP joining Chinese and Russian media already present in Pyongyang.”

Despite the restrictions, Jones applies the same journalistic principles to his North Korean work that he would rely on in any other country. “I need to interpret what I see or what is presented to me in a way that is impartial and unbiased, but I must also know when to document those things for what they are,” he says. “My abilities as a photographer and journalist will always be a work-in-progress and I think the same can be said of my approach, in that there is a need to constantly learn and adapt.”

Of course, his documentation of the reclusive country will never be complete, he says. “If there are any photographs that come to mind,” he says, musing on the pictures that are as yet beyond his reach, “they are the ones that I cannot take — for the children, parents, sisters and brothers, on both sides, so that they might be able to see each other again.”

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly described photographer Ed Jones’s trip from Seoul to Pyongyang. He does not fly directly between the Korean capitals; he transfers in Beijing.

Ed Jones is Agence France-Presse’s chief photographer for North and South Korea, based in Seoul. Follow him on Instagram @edjonesafp.

Myles Little, who edited this photo essay, is a senior photo editor at TIME.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

Visitors wait to enter the Museum of Natural History in Pyongyang on Sept. 28, 2016.Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images
North Korean women paractice a traditional see-saw game in a park in Pyongyang on Sept. 27, 2016.Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images
A foreign competitor poses for a photo prior to the start of the Pyongyang Marathon at Kim Il-Sung stadium in Pyongyang on April 9, 2017. Hundreds of foreigners lined up in Pyongyang's Kim Il-Sung Stadium on April 9 for the city's annual marathon, the highlight of the tourism calendar in isolated North Korea.Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images
Swimmers perform in a synchronized swimming gala event in Pyongyang on Feb. 15, 2017. The gala was part of a series of events being held to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images
A performer jumps from a catapault during an 'Arrirang Festival mass games display' at the 150,000-seat Rungnado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang on July 26, 2013. Arrirang performances feature some 100,000 participants to create a 'synchronized socialist-realist spectacular in a 90 minute display of gymnastics, dance, acrobatics, and dramatic performance, in a highly politicized package' according to the China-based North Korean travel company Koryo Tours. North Korea is preparing to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War which ran from 1950 to 1953, with a series of performances, festivals, and cultural events culminating with a large military parade.Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images
Participants perform in a mass dance event on Kim Il-Sung square marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung, in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017.Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images
A basketball player takes a shot at the basket as he practices on a court in Pyongyang on April 8, 2017.Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images
People gather around a pen for a game involving a goose in which contestants attempt to throw rings around its neck at the Central Zoo in Pyongyang on April 16, 2017.Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images
Children throw snacks to bears in an enclosure in the Central Zoo on the outskirts of Pyongyang on Nov. 27, 2016.Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images
Korean People's Army (KPA) soldiers salute as they watch a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung, in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017.Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images
An employee walks between workstations at the Kim Jong Suk Silk Mill in Pyongyang on Feb. 21, 2017. The Kim Jong Suk Silk Mill employs a workforce of 1,600 people, and is named after the grandmother of current North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images
Ri Sun-Chol, chief of the economic research institute of the North Korea's Academy of Social Sciences speaks to AFP in Pyongyang on Feb. 21, 2017. A North Korean state economic official sought to play down the impact of China's shock announcement that it was suspending coal imports from the country for the rest of the year.Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images
A television shows footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un during a military parade at a barber shop inside a leisure centre during an organised tour for visiting foreign journalists, in Pyongyang on April 16, 2017.Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images
Attendees wait for the opening ceremony for the Ryomyong Street housing development in Pyongyang on April 13, 2017. Completion of the sprawling Ryomyong Street development, just down a wide avenue from the mausoleum where Kim Jong-Un's grandfather Kim Il-Sung and father Kim Jong-Il lie in state, was repeatedly promised in time for the 105th anniversary of the birth of the North's founder.Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images
North Koreans sit on a ride at a fairground in Pyongyang on July 9, 2016.Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images
Spectators watch a figure skater perform at the Paektusan Prize International Figure Skating Festival in Pyongyang on Feb. 15, 2017. The Paektusan Prize International Figure Skating Festival is held every year to celebrate Kim Jong-Il, the leader who oversaw the North's first nuclear tests.Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images

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