See Photos of Life Side-by-Side in North and South Korea

Photographer Ed Jones has rare, regular access to North Korea, but is based in South Korea—the perfect setup to document how life in both countries can be similar.

The two nations that make up the Korean peninsula are often the center of world news. Sandwiched between China and Japan, citizens of North and South Korea have endured a decades-long conflict between the two nations—fueled by governments that have had difficulty finding common ground.

But this wasn’t always the case. Before Japan seized control of the peninsula in the early 1900s and then lost it at the end of World War II, the region was ruled by the centuries-old Joseon dynasty, forging a collective culture under unified leadership.

That dynasty has left a lasting impact on both countries. Despite the political and societal differences—one nation ruled by a dictatorship and the other governed by a democratic republic—elements of daily life for those living in North and South Korea sometimes look nearly the same.

Photographer Ed Jones, one of the only photographers granted regular access to North Korea, has spent years documenting the nation, capturing everything from military ceremonies to bus stops. Based in South Korea, his time in each country inspired him to create a side-by-side view of life in both places.

“On both sides of the DMZ, the prospects and consequences of unification, in one form or another, are an enduring issue,” he says. “Using photography and the privilege of traveling between the two countries to imagine that seemed an obvious choice.”

He has worked to present more than the posed images the North Korean government shares, showing rare glimpses of what life is really like in a country that has long remained isolated from the rest of the world—and demonstrating that its citizens aren’t so different after all.

“The most striking similarities between the two countries are subtle and can be difficult to show in a photo,” he says. “For example, the two farmers who live less [than] ten kilometers apart, share the same weather, and, at the time the photos were taken, the same daily soundtrack of propaganda broadcasts from loudspeakers in both the North and South.”

He says residents on both sides of the border share the same language, and though there are some differences, the similarities reveal the bonds between them.

Still, finding people to photograph in North Korea can be tricky. Jones relies on access he has been granted during regular reporting assignments to support projects like his comparison portraits.

“At times, curiosity about my presence lends itself to conversation that is useful in asking for a portrait, and for the most part, I find people graciously willing to pose,” he says.

Jones says that while the two countries remain separate and disconnected in many ways, curiosity has spurred more cross-country contact in recent years.

“In each of them, there is more interest in the other,” he says.