North Korea… A mysterious destination, synonimous with – Axis of evil, weapons of mass destruction, Stalinist dictatorship, rogue regime, starvation etc. Yet when pushed further, very few people could say much more than that.
What everyone knows for sure is that North Korea is one of, if not the most, isolated and least understood country in the world. Itâ€™s also one of the least visited by foreigners. In fact, most people would point out how secretive the state is and assume that it is nearly impossible to get into; especially for journalists.
Having been bombarded by these sorts of assumptions for years, I decided it was time for me to find out what was really behind those closed doors. I was expecting it to be a â€˜mission impossibleâ€™ just to get the visa as a photographer. Well, it took me precisely two e-mails before I was told that it would be OK for me to comeâ€”a very welcome surprise indeed. In March 2006, I was on a Soviet-era aircraft heading for Pyongyang, capital of North Korea.
Pyongyang airport appears at first just like any other mid-size regional airport, but a very large portrait of Kim Il Sung on the terminal building itself unmistakably declares its location. What a place! And I hadnâ€™t even got off the plane yet. Kim Il Sungâ€™s figure was one that I was to become extremely familiar with during my stay. In fact, in North Korea almost every important building and every room features a portrait of the â€˜great leaderâ€™, either alone or together with his son, â€˜dear leaderâ€™ Kim Jong Il. In most cases, there are important quotations from the leaders to complement the portraits.
Before I could declare myself officially in North Korea, I had to â€˜surviveâ€™ North Korean immigration and customs, which one would expect to be much stricter than, say, in the United States. Passport control took barely 10 minutes, 9 of which were spent queuing. Then came the customs officer, who saw my rather hefty camera bag and â€œGPS?â€ he asked, meaning any satellite tracking devices. Fortunately, I had been made aware earlier that anything wireless is a big no no, so didn’t bring any, except a mobile phone, for which they have a locker at the airport to take temporary custody. Otherwise no further questions, checks, nothing, fairly simple really. Having said this, it’s important to bear in mind that my entry would probably have been significantly harder had I been an American citizen or a â€˜blacklistedâ€™ journalist. North Korea is one place in the world where you really donâ€™t want to be American. Everything in the country is geared towards blaming the United States. There are propaganda posters all around Pyongyang proudly displaying North Korean missiles striking the U.S. or a Korean man crushing the head of a U.S. marine, which effectively demonstrate the sentiment against the ‘US imperialists’. The Koreans make full use of every opportunity to slag off the U.S. for her actions during the Korean War, known in North Korea as the â€˜Victorious Fatherland Liberation Warâ€™ â€“ a strange name considering the stalemate armistice or lack of any liberation.
Wherever I travelled in the country, I was accompanied by at least two ‘guides’, a driver plus a further local guide at each location I visited. Since I had no intention of engaging in any espionage, photograph strategic military subjects or to wander off alone, they almost never sought to interfere with my photography. There were a few instances in when I was told not to photograph â€œin that direction, because the photos might fall into the hands of people hostile to my countryâ€, quickly followed by a disclaimer: â€œWhen my country is re-unified I hope you will visit again on holiday with your wife and children, and take as many photographs as you likeâ€. A family trip to North Korea is still some way off, but the guides were nonetheless extremely nice and polite. In this country, when they are satisfied you are not a spy or a â€˜pawn of the U.S. imperialistsâ€™, they are very nice and welcoming indeed.
Pyongyang is a strange place by anyoneâ€™s standard. The Stalinesque architecture, with large concrete blocks and outrageously wide and clean streets that lack any vehicles, is odd indeed. No beggars, street-sellers, homeless people or buskers to be found anywhere. Everybody seems to have a purpose at any moment in time. People getting along with their daily lives make a startling contrast with the hardcore propaganda posters found on every corner. At night though, the city of 2 million is silent. When I say â€˜silentâ€™, I mean it. I look out of my window at night from a very tall hotel and it is one of the oddest experiences of my life. It is as if even the buildings themselves were asleep. There are no lights and no noise. It is eerie, yet peaceful. The only things spoiling this experience are the occasional flashes on the distant horizon, which I am told are â€œmilitary manoeuvres preparing for warâ€. Well, I am in North Korea after all.
My appointed hotel was on a little island on the Taedong river that divides Pyongyang in two. The island is one place where I could have a short stroll around on my own, but not without asking first. I tried to spend a little bit of time in the afternoons walking around the hotel and by the river, where teenagers seemed to come to hang out after school. They play cards, basketball or just sit around chatting. If they even noticed me, they didn’t show it. I felt like a see-through alien and headed back to the hotel, as I didn’t want my guides to get nervous. I am told that there have been incidents when visitors simply wandered off the island. One even got as far as the Juche tower, which is more a good mile away on the east bank, before they caught up with him. I can imagine the upset this might have caused everyone involved. The guides must have taken the blame and the â€˜offenderâ€™ probably had to leave the country prematurely.
The Juche tower is one of many huge monuments in the city. Pyongyang has the worldâ€™s largest stadium, the tallest hotel (although incomplete), a triumphal arch that dwarfs the one in Paris, a library with 30 million books, a colossal bronze statue of Kim Il Sungâ€”you get the idea. The city is also home to the most elaborate human show on Earth: Arirang. The show takes place on important dates almost every year and involves a cast 100,000 strong. Basically, there are these many â€˜smallâ€™ monuments that make up this one big monument called Pyongyang.
In Pyongyang, there are no working traffic lights. Instead there are very smartly dressed, good looking female traffic wardens located in a small circle in the middle of almost every intersection, giving directions in a robotic manner to the occasional vehicle that passes. Just like all the other workers I saw, they appear to do their job with utmost care, respect and pride. The Koreans really do appear to believe in their way of life and have very strongly held beliefs. These priviledged citizens and the monumental city they inhabit make up the showcase capital of North Korea, representing the ideology and the ambitions of the regime in an unmistakable manner. It’s easy, however, to forget that Pyongyang is not representative of North Korea as a whole. People in rural areas live in very basic conditions to say the least. North Korea’s forced isolation from the world seems to have really taken its toll, and it’s likely to get worse with the further sanctions imposed after the nuclear test conducted by North Korea in October 2006.
North Korea, or formally the Democratic Peopleâ€™s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is a difficult country to understand; and an easy one to misunderstand. A personal visit to North Korea is mandatory for anyone wishing to delve deeper than the â€˜axis-of-evilâ€™ label, but even then, it is not easy to grasp the true essence of the country when contact with the locals are extremely limited.
Alejandro Cao de Benos, North Korea’s Special Delegate of the Committeee for Cultural Relations With Foreign Countries says a nuclear deterrent is vital to the country’s existence and protection from the U.S. aggression: â€œDPRK wants peace and hopes to sit at the table with the U.S. and be treated as an equal. Sanctions will only worsen the situation as Korean people never kneel down.â€ Only time will tell the future of Cold War’s only remaining front.
Author – Cavit Erginsoy
Photography – David Astley.
All photographs reproduced with kind permission of David Astley, under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike2.5 licence.