TPS SONY Grant: “Islands on the Line” David Guttenfelder

Scattered along the “Northern Limit Line,” an invisible boundary in the Yellow Sea that divides the waters of the two sides of the Korean Peninsula, are a string of tiny islands controlled by South Korea but claimed by North Korea. On these rocky outcroppings, islanders fish for blue crab in contested waters, bunkers have been built in every neighborhood for shelter, Korean War relics stand on the hillsides, and razor wire encircles the seafront. Half the population are South Korean Marines and their families.

When the Demilitarized Zone was created at the end of the Korean War, both sides insisted the division of the Korean Peninsula would be temporary. Soon, they said, Korea would be united again. But more than a half-century later the DMZ is still there, separating two of the world’s most bitter enemies. But the DMZ not only divided the land and seas. For 60+ years it has divided the Korean people, separating families indefinitely.

Over the past year, there has been daily news of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, UN resolutions to try to pressure Pyongyang to stop, and an exchange of threats between North Korea’s leader and America’s President. But also, in 2018 there have arguably been more positive steps towards a peaceful since than any other time since the 1953 Armistice.

I believe many outsiders remain largely uninformed about the realities of the Korean people. Few of us, looking on from the other side of the world, have seen firsthand the horrors of war.

The islands are some of the most cut-off places in Asia yet still stand closest to war. In 2010 the Cheonan, a South Korean navy ship, sank killing 46 people. Then, in November, the North launched an artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island, killing a civilian and razing much of the island’s main port town. I rushed to Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 to photograph the evacuation of its civilians and the aftermath of the attack. Now I wanted to go back, while there are renewed fears of a Korean War, to photograph these islands on the line.

My journey in creating this story of the Yellow Sea Islands began in 2017. I traveled with South Korean islanders and Marines aboard unpredictable, sometimes sea-sickening ferries to travel from one island to the next. On the islands, I joined fishermen on their boats to gather crab traps. I climbed into abandoned bunkers and military guard posts. I placed my camera lens to the eye-piece of observatory spotting scopes to photograph the North Korean mainland just a few miles across the sea. I met school teachers, Marines, elderly seaweed harvesters, and many others.

But my journey started long before. For the past 18 years, I have been working on both sides of the Korean peninsula. Having unprecedented access as a photojournalist, I have made nearly 50 visits to otherwise isolated North Korea. In 2017, I travelled to both North Korea and South Korea on assignment for National Geographic Magazine.

Traveling to these disputed Yellow Sea Islands is just one small part of longer, deeper project about Divided Korea. With the generous support of SONY and National Geographic Magazine, I am continuing my work. My aim is to show, through my photography, how the lives of the Korean people on either side of the line have diverged, but also how they remain remarkable echoes of one another.

To see a video and learn more about this project, visit:

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