I recently returned from my very first visit to North Korea, the recluse nation officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). The most appropriate word to describe my stay in this fascinating country is: surreal.From the moment the Air Koryo Ilyushin Il-62 aircraft landed at Sunan International Airport to the day I crossed the border back into China, I felt I had travelled back in time and to a place where many aspects of daily life were reminiscent of 1950s films. The restrictions on photography in the DPRK are well known by those who have attemped to visit the place.
They are clearly stated upon your arrival, repeated daily and enforced by the two government-mandated guides who will be with you all all time. For all that's been reported about the DPRK and given the heavy photography restrictions, you may wonder if it's even worth going there. Some will argue that any money spent in North Korea will only contribute to empowering a regime bent on maintaining a despotic grip on its people and threathening its neighbours militarily. For me, witnessing life in one of the last bastions of stalinism on the planet was an experience worth having. Evidently, anything and everything shown to travelers to the DPRK very incompletely tells the whole story about life there. Idiosyncrasies abound and the level of reverence for the "leaders" makes it a quasi religion. Nevertheless, on many occasions, I was able to see glimpses of the real life for some North Koreans. While I wasn't able to photograph everything I saw, I hope the selection of pictures below gives an insight of what it is like in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Kaesong is located near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas. Known as 'Songdo' during the Koryo dynasty (935-1392 CE), the city is remarkable for its abundance of hitorical sites. The houses in the pictures were photographed from Mount Janam, a 103m high hill on top of which an iconic statue of Kim Il Sung can be found.
Soldiers of the Korean People's Army prepare to pay their respects at the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery in Pyongyang, on April 15 2012. This day marked the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). A military parade and a speech by current leader Kim Jung-Un – his first public address – were part of massive celebrations.
This boy was very curious about my cameras, so he deserved to have a play. Red scarves are worn by 'Young Pioneers', a children's organization present in communist countries and reminiscent of the Scout movement.
Man on a bicycle in South Hamyiong Province
Farming village near Mount Myohyang.
Women at work inside the Hungnam Fertilizer Complex, South Hamgyong Province. According to the Federation of American Scientists, this very complex is one of eight factories in the DPRK which produces chemical weapons. I didn't try to find out!
The Tower of Juche Idea and Taedong Bridge seen from my room at the Yanggakdo Hotel, in Pyongyang. The 150m-high Tower offers sweeping views of the North Korean capital. The stone structure is considered the second tallest in the world, after the San Jacinto Memorial in Texas, USA. Introduced by Kim il-Sung in 1955, Juche is an ideology with roots in Marxism and Leninism. It promotes the concept of self-reliance and political independence. Juche has become North Korea's de-facto political, economic and quasi-religious ideology.
A group of children rehearse a mass gymnastics performance in Hamhung. I was very often approached by young people who spoke basic english. Their desire to exchange and the curiosity they displayed contrasted with the more reserved attitude of most North Koreans. This spontaneity is shared by young people almost everywhere, but engaging with North Korean youth was quite special. Those who spoke good english were mostly curious about how life was in my home country.
An armed soldier stands guard near a statue of Kim Jong-Il, in the port city of Wonsan. While most of the city's streets were in total darkness that night (and possibly every night), banks of lights illuminated the statue while loudspeakers blared patriotic songs.
As the mini bus was taking me back to Pyongyang, I had a quick second to photograph this man checking the time on his watch.
Pyongyang, North Korea, April 16 2012. A decorated military officer and his young grand-daughters walk near giant bronze statues of Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il at the Mansuadae Grand Monument. Citizens travelled en mass to the hilltop monument on the 100th anniversary of Kim il-Sung's birth to lay flowers and bow in front of the effigies of North Korea's late leaders.
Puhung metro station, Pyongyang, North Korea. Commuters gather around a copy of the Rodong Sinmun newspaper which features articles about the policies and persona of North Korea's young new leader Kim Jong-un. The 'Respected Leader' gave his first public speech on April 15 2012, breaking a tradition of silence by his father, Kim Jong-il, North Korea's former leader who died in December 2011. Kim Jong-un's 40-minute address praised his father's "military first" policy and called for a 'push forward to final victory'. The new leader's first public speech contrasted with his father's sole and short public address, given in 1992: Glory to the heroic soldiers of the Korean People's Army!
No-Dong 1 missile launcher on show in Pyongyang, during a military parade marking the hundredth birthday of North Korea's founder and late leader Kim il-Sung. No-Dong 1 missiles are based on Scud-B designs initially developed by Soviet firm Makeyev. No-Dongs have estimated range of 1300 Km and payloads 600 – 1000 Kg.
Anti-american propaganda inside a school, Pyongyang.
Port City of Wonsan at Dusk, Kangwon Province.
Pyongyang skyline at sunset, as seen from my hotel room on Yanggak island.