This is the first in a series of posts in which I show photos and tell stories about North Korea. The material comes from a trip I took last summer with Koryo Tours. I haven’t posted anything about the trip publicly until now because I didn’t feel right profiting from it. In North Korea, I saw and met a lot of wonderful people who are suffering because of the actions of both their government and others – particularly the United States. However, I keep seeing salacious stories on Facebook and elsewhere taken by people on similar tours which sell themselves as “illegal” and were “smuggled out” of the country. Some of them are good photos but generally I find them to be misrepresentations and exaggerations for the purpose of journalism. The way they are presented, whilst not outright lies, is intended to make the author/photographer appear more daring, and the country to appear darker and more terrifying. What I saw was the human face of the people – a side of the country we genuinely never see. It may not be as appealing as photos of soldiers or the lies behind “Floor 5 at the Yanggakdo Hotel,” but sometimes the truth lacks that cutting edge. I will be posting these photos over the coming days and weeks, and I hope that they act as a counterweight to the more sensationalist ones you’ll find in more mainstream publications.
North Korea is famously a hermit state – an absolute pariah of the modern world. It barely trades with or communicates with the outside world, and its citizens can only leave under the strictest conditions, or by escaping illegally across one of its borders.
As such, we know very little about North Korea except what can be learned through satellite monitoring. Their propaganda is laughable, and any semblance of truth is hidden behind an impressive veil of secrecy.
Yet reporting on North Korea is big business. News agencies around the world regularly tell us what is happening in Pyongyang and elsewhere. They tell us who’s vying for power and who’s been recently executed. The only problem is, this is mere conjecture posing as fact. It is in some cases our best guess, and in many cases complete fabrication. Right-wing and left-wing publications are equally guilty. It seems that when it comes to North Korea, press standards go out the window – and that almost seems reasonable, given that North Korea itself has an entire lack of press freedom, and a comical propaganda machine.
Some information, though, does slip out. What’s more, one can actually get into the country and see for oneself what North Korea is like. Of course, journalists are banned… but the average person can, for a fee, visit North Korea and see what is hidden to most of the rest of the world.
Whether or not that’s ethical is up for debate. I danced with this issue for years before deciding for definite to go. On the one hand we’re funding the country’s repressive government, but on the other hand we’re giving money to an impoverished people. On the one hand we’re tools in their propaganda, but on the other hand we’re showing that foreigners are human beings just the same as them. Moreover, we’re seeing a side of North Korea that normally remains hidden to the world, dehumanizing its people and allowing our governments to use North Koreans as pawns in their war with the Kim Dynasty.
Last summer I went to North Korea for the half marathon on Mount Paekdu with Koryo Tours. I flew from Beijing to Pyongyang and toured the city for a few days. We flew up to Mount Paekdu and saw some of the sights there, ran the half marathon, and then returned to Pyongyang before taking a train back up through the country and into China.
Cynics say that in North Korea you’ll never see the *real* country. Those cynics haven’t actually been to North Korea, of course… so they don’t know. The truth is that of course you’re going to see what the government wants you to see, and you’re never going to get a tour of a North Korean prison labour camp. That idea is absurd. The guides on any tour to North Korea will show you what the government wants you to see – impressive statues and artwork, museums and restaurants, etc. But you do get to see more than that. You’re driving around the country, seeing life as it is. You see regular people doing regular things – old men playing chess, children picking their noses and playing games with each other, men and women going to work. It’s easy to forget… North Koreans are humans, too. Their government may be evil and life may be tough, but they are just like we are.
Most people there are very shy around foreigners, and it’s easy to see why. They are told awful things about us that make them fearful. Yet some of them are curious. I speak a bit of Korean, having lived in South Korea for several years. Sometimes the guides would disappear and leave us in the middle of Pyongyang, surrounded by thousands of people going about their lives, and I would talk to people. They wouldn’t say much, of course, but it was fascinating. It’s an experience I never thought I would have, and that may cynics deny is even possible.
A lot of people, too, suggest that everything you see is staged. That may well be true in certain, limited cases, but for the most part you are viewing real life as it goes on regardless of the proximity of foreigners. For example, my room way up high in the Yanggakdo Hotel overlooked Pyongyang, and through my camera’s long lens I could see parts of the city that clearly were never intended for foreigners to view. Life goes on there as it does elsewhere. On the subway, even, you see people going about their daily life, and they’re shocked and fascinated by foreigners much the same as people in rural China. In the north of the country, where we did the half marathon, we saw people working in fields and walking along country roads. They looked thin, over-worked, and deeply impoverished. None of this was hidden. Sometimes we’d see something the guides deemed “embarrassing” to the country, and we’d be told not to take photos – like soldiers being moved around in carts pulled by donkeys.
At the end of the trip, upon leaving the country, guards come onto the train and check every passenger’s luggage by hand, and investigate cameras for illicit photos – ie pictures of soldiers, construction sites, etc. When the guard came to my cabin he was, like almost all North Koreans I encountered, military or otherwise, very friendly. He asked what I had in my bag and I said, “Just clothes.” He accepted that. When going through our phones and cameras he laughed and looked at pictures from back home instead, asking about our wives and families and pets. He didn’t care about the pictures we had that broke the rules. (The featured photo at the top of this page is an example of a “banned photo.” It features the statues of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung without including the entirety of their bodies. This is the sort of photo other photographers sell as “illegal” and suggest is dangerous to take.)
North Korea is different from what you think. I’m not defending their government or its actions in any way. But this is a country of human beings – of bright and friendly and warm human beings – and we group them together as “North Korea.” We talk about going to war with them and being able to destroy them easily. In that scenario, who suffers? I’ll tell you: the same people who’ve been suffering for the past sixty-plus years.