Last December, photographer Elijah Hurwitz journeyed to the Chinese border with North Korea by way of the Yalu River. He found the boundary surprisingly porous, especially outside the major cities, aside from the occasional odd security camera.
Dandong is a Chinese city and the locus for trade, both legal and illicit, across the countries. It’s also a place for family members to meet, and exchange goods and remittances, especially at times when the border is less monitored. Centuries ago it was arguably part of the Korean Koryo dynasty. At the end of the dynasty in the 14 century, the Yalu River became the Chinese and Korean border. As such, many ethnic Koreans (joseon-jok) have lived there for generations and speak the local language.
“My first day in Dandong I shared a taxi with two women who were transporting boxes of soju, who said they were from Pyongyang,” Hurwitz said. “I was skeptical and later ended up showing a picture I took of them to a local Chinese resident in Dandong and he felt confident they were indeed from North Korea.”
At the end of 2017, the UN cracked down with sanctions against Pyongyang in an attempt to halt its weapons program, and Beijing followed suit. Despite the freeze between the two traditional allies and the harsh winter, Hurwitz was able to document what is for many, everyday life. Even amid the tensions, he was able to capture the relative shared experience of being neighbors along one of the most scrutinized borders in the world. (See pictures from both sides of Korea's heavily fortified DMZ.)
On the Chinese side, Hurwitz felt the heightened stakes, especially in Changbai village, a small Chinese town about a 10-hour drive north of Dandong that sits across the Yalu River from Hyesan, North Korea.
“It was probably the most tense place I visited. They are notoriously wary of outsiders and foreign journalists, who have been accused of espionage and imprisoned in the past. My driver was extremely paranoid here, there were security cameras everywhere, and I received extremely suspicious looks from locals as [an] outsider,” Hurwitz, a documentary photographer based in Los Angeles, said. “It was the only place where I felt the need to hide my camera while taking pictures near the border. There were police checkpoints where they stopped our vehicle.”
Indeed, until the last month, when Kim Jung Un made a second surprise visit to Beijing, relations between the two countries have been increasingly tense.
“The Yalu River is one of two rivers that form the border between North Korea and China. The Yalu is wider than Tumen, which is north and east," explained Tim Peters, a Christian activist whose work includes evacuating North Korean defectors from northeast China. "In a way, in particular in the winter, it is a no man’s land, giving the opportunity [to those] who wish to make an exodus [into China].”
Peters, as well as other activists and journalists, have noticed the growing security presence on China’s part over the past 18 months. “This river, especially over the last year, and access to it by non-residents, is increasingly difficult ... due to the militarization on the Chinese side,” he added.
Across the river, in plain sight, North Korean life remains dramatically different and halted: there is no escaping the poverty, desperation and lack of basic necessities. Just as the Chinese tourists gaze upon North Korea from boats, the citizens of Hyesan are likewise used to seeing Chinese tourists across the river.
Still, on the border cities, the two cultures manage to coexist, as they have for centuries. The evidence is the many Korean restaurants, as noted by Hurwitz.
“On a lighter note, I was moved by the delicious traditional Korean food I had in China, especially in Ji'an, Jilin,” he said.
Soo Youn is a freelance journalist based in New York City and Los Angeles.
Elijah Solomon Hurwitz is a documentary photographer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Instagram @ElijahSol.