I Spent 2017 Living on North Korea's Doorstep
Australian photographer Ashley Crowther reflects on a year living 37 miles from the 38th parallel.
All images by Ashley Crowther
This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
It's been a tense year on the Korean Peninsula, with North Korea making major headway in its nuclear weapons program and showing no signs of slowing down. In 2017, the rogue state launched 20 missiles, conducted its sixth and so far most powerful nuclear test, and successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting mainland United States. These continued tests have sparked alarm, and debate, about how to deal with North Korea and its unstable dictator.
But living fewer than 37 miles from where the 38th parallel divides the Korean Peninsula, the Australian photographer Ashley Crowther says life on North Korea’s doorstep is not as tense as some media outlets would have you believe. "Some things that I read are more hawkish than others and do misrepresent the situation in a way that makes it feel as if war is imminent," he says. "On the ground, here in South Korea, there isn’t a hint of war in the air. Life goes on."
I asked Crowther to reflect on a year living so close to the sabre-rattling of North Korea, and reflect on some of the images he's shot in 2017 that have stayed with him:
Ashley Crowther: A flag waver leading a protest outside Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun area, taken a few days after one of the numerous nuclear missile tests north of the border. This man was part of a nationalistic, right-wing protest that called for the first strike against North Korea if they continue to test nuclear weapons. Essentially, supporting the idea of a second Korean war. I felt that the entire protest reflected a divide between old and young Koreans. From my observations, this particular protest, which was sizable, did not have one young Korean present.
Seong-yoel Lee, spinning handmade noodles in his rustic old restaurant in Korea’s rural Gangwon-do Province. Hurriedly inviting me to come in, he showered me with hospitality—which is a beautiful characteristic of Korea and its people. Our voices echoed off the walls of the empty restaurant while we ate noodles thrown into a hot soup. Mr. Lee explained his worries about the rise in living expenses in Korea. “I don’t have any money—look at my restaurant,” he said. South Korea is one of the wealthiest nations in the [world]; however, meeting people like Mr. Lee is a reminder that many Koreans, like him, struggle to eke out a living on such minimum wages and limited resources.
In South Korea, it is compulsory for young men to do up to two years of military service. This can range from being posted on the South-North Korean border, to civilian police postings or security guards. While the official reason is to train young men in case of an attack from North Korea, there are counterarguments that many young men mention. In Korean, the word for the military is "guendae," but many young men use the term to explain how they are going to be a slave for a couple of years. It is common for those doing their service to view it as essentially free labor for the government and its security services. Their wages can be as low as 45 cents per hour. Other reasons go deeper into ideas that the military service is used to further condition young Korean men into a strict hierarchal system of obeying older people and superiors. This idea is a strong foundation of Confucian culture, something that is deeply rooted in South Korea.
Close to half of Korea’s population of 50 million live in Seoul and its metro area. It is one of the most densely packed places on the planet and truly earns the tag of a megalopolis, which can be comprehended only from above. Seoul’s pull is far-reaching and people—especially the young—flock here from rural areas to pursue careers and education or just to live that big city life. Competition is fierce. Due to this magnetic pull of Seoul, rural areas across Korea are in slow decay.
VICE: Are the everyday South Koreans you’re meeting while conducting your street photography scared about the threat of North Korea?
It’s like a barking dog. It makes a lot of noise but never does anything. That’s a description I frequently hear from many, especially young, Koreans in regards to the North Korea issue. This explanation, in my opinion, is rooted in history. Most postwar Korean’s have grown up with constant non-materializing North Korean threats. Almost making it normal. From a general observation, people are preoccupied with careers, relationships, getting good grades, and trying to make a living. Similar to most industrialized societies.
However, that isn’t to say that Korean’s do not care about the North Korean threat—they do. A young university student, Earl Han, who I photographed, for example, explained that he voted for the current president, Moon Jae-in, because of one reason—his position against conflict with North Korea. He said it is the job of every president to do everything they can to avoid war. On the other end of the spectrum, there are significant numbers of older generations convinced that action is required immediately. I’ve talked to older generations at recent protests that openly want a US-led nuclear first strike. It’s concerning considering the potential casualties and the geopolitical fallout that would occur. From a national perspective, you are almost guaranteed to get a story, short or long, on North Korea throughout the Korean media landscape. It’s a near constant national issue and domestic politics, at times, can revolve heavily around North Korean policy.
In Korea, like many other East Asian cultures, place great importance on age. Found in language is this cultural characteristic and also in the way people address one another depending on age. In Korean, Joendet Mal (honorific) is used to address older people and Ban Mal (casual) is used to talk to younger people or close friends. At times, it can even be considered rude not to agree with someone older than you, despite them being wrong or rude. From adults to children, these ideas still have a strong presence in contemporary Korean culture.
Heeja Choi, 72, putting on makeup in her small apartment while a documentary on North Korea plays on her old Samsung TV. Choi, part of the post-Korean War generation, didn't have an opinion on a solution between North and South Korea. Right after this image was taken, she turned to me and said, “Right now, Korea is more dangerous, but it always has been... It is too complicated."
Do you think there’s anything that “western” media is fundamentally misunderstanding about what’s going on in Korea, and how the conflict is affecting the lives of South Koreans?
It is interesting when I receive messages from people at home or other western nations asking if everything is ok or suggesting that I should consider leaving. That, to me, makes it clear that the western media is blanketing the current political climate with some sense of fear mongering. However, on the flip side, so much of what I am reading, from the western media, is making a reasonable case against war. Mark Bowden’s article in the Atlantic "How to Deal With North Korea" makes it clear that there are no good options if conflict is the chosen policy. No matter how you look at it, the cost of human life would be unimaginable if a second Korean war broke out. From a mass refugee crisis that would make Syria look like a walk in the park to the potential of Seoul, a city of 15 million people, being shelled or bombed.
If I were to point the finger, I wouldn’t point it at the western media, rather at the current US leadership. The war rhetoric spouted is extremely destabilizing and does not show a good understanding of the situation on the Korean peninsula, both past and present. As Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy: The Ordinary Lives of North Koreans, correctly said in a recent interview that North Korea views being nuclear armed as the only way the current regime can hold on to power... It’s easy to tout war when you’re an ocean away from the mass devastation a war on the Korean peninsula would cause. It is a very complex situation; however, there are no easy answers. I think that the Koreans here in the South know that too, which is why life goes on here, mostly uninterrupted.
Work and corporate culture in Korea can be harsh. South Korea ranks third globally for hours worked. On average, South Koreans work more than 2,000 hours per year, which is almost double Germany’s average. It is also not uncommon for workers in South Korea to work dramatic overtime for little or no pay. These overtime hours, at times, are not included in average statistics. It is still common practice in some companies that if a higher ranking employee has not left the office, no matter what the time, the lower ranks cannot leave.
Gentrification in Seoul is striking and rampant. This area, Chojidong, part of Seoul’s larger metro area, is part of a redevelopment project close to a new high-speed train station connecting it to the national rail network. These old businesses catered to people of lower socioeconomic backgrounds. They will soon be demolished to accommodate high-end luxury apartments, such as those that loom over the area now. The poor are, at an increasing rate, being pushed further away and out of sight. Where they are going and what they will do with their lives goes largely unnoticed.
A street scene inside a relatively unchanged area of Seoul. Much of the city was devastated during the Korean War, and the majority of Seoul was build up after the war. Old districts resemble unplanned mazes that are crowded and unorganized. More than 50 years has passed since the war, and Korea is continuing to undergo rapid modernization. However, there is still, what one might call, its rough and beautiful edges. Many restaurants and shops, such as the one pictured, are disappearing and taking their places are fancy new buildings and overpriced menus.
A man in mourning, alone. He was wandering a subway station in Central Seoul asking strangers and calling out if anybody had seen his wife. “This is my wife. This is my wife! Have you seen her? This is my wife.” Those were the only sentences that he was calling out and asking people while showing them her portrait. It was heartbreaking to witness such an old man in such a helpless state. It looked like he had been like that for many years.