As the world’s most secretive and elusive nation, North Korea provokes curiosity and intrigue like no other. I’d wanted to get there for many years. Having worked regularly in neighbouring countries I’d grown used to seeing Pyongyang on airport departure boards, where it always seemed so close and yet so far away.
When a North Korea specialist tour operator proposed a trip to coincide with Kim IL Sung’s 100th Anniversary I signed up without hesitation. Despite having passed away in 1994, Kim IL Sung remains President of North Korea and is still venerated with a religious fervour. Revered as the father of the nation, the celebrations for the centenary of his birth were to be on an epic scale. The entire country had been engaged in extensive preparations stretching back over several years.
Flying in from Beijing to Pyongyang on Air Koryo, you are instantly aware of going somewhere very different: everything, from the décor of the plane, to the attire of the flight attendants and the brands on the trolley, was unfamiliar. Massive portraits of the Great Leaders dominate the arrivals hall in Pyongyang Airport.
Our small group met formally as we collected our baggage. We were an eclectic mix with diverse reasons for joining this tour, reasons which would remain largely unspoken until safely back in Beijing. At times on our travels together we felt much like the cast of an Agatha Christie novel.
There is no such thing as independent travel in North Korea. Entry is only permitted on an authorized tour and movement within the country remains heavily restricted. As a visitor it’s safe to assume you will be under surveillance throughout your stay. Hotel rooms and telephones may be monitored. Any deviation from the itinerary is classified as espionage.
We were introduced to our guides and driven along empty roads to join huge boulevards flanked by endless uniform housing blocks as we entered Pyongyang. In the cavernous foyer of our hotel, we were politely informed that on no account could we leave the hotel except in the group and accompanied by our guides.
As a photographer, the extensive list of what not to do was even more challenging: do not take any pictures unless told you can; don’t photograph scenes of poverty, or anything else that could convey a negative impression of the DPRK; no photographs to be shot from the vehicle window; no photographing any officials, soldiers or other people without permission.
North Korean government authorities can construe unauthorized pictures as espionage, confiscate cameras and detain the photographer. In reality, having begun extremely cautiously for the first few days, I built up a degree of trust with my guides and government minders. After a while they were no longer constantly behind me, watching my every move. They accepted, albeit a bit reluctantly, that I was the one of the group who took endless photographs wherever we went.
Our first stop was at the famous Mansudae Grand Monument to see the spectacular 20m tall statues of the Great Leaders. Millions of Koreans visit each year to pay their respects. We were expected to lay a wreath and then bow in unison. Having spent rather too long fiddling with my camera, a gentleman in an ominous sombre suit approached me to ask if I was a journalist. We had been given permission to photograph the Statues and eventually, to my relief, he seemed satisfied that I was just someone very interested in photography.
As all tour groups follow similar itineraries it proved challenging to find alternative ways to photograph familiar subjects. I’m used to spending long periods of time composing an image, waiting for the best light and action. On a whirlwind guided tour this was impossible. The only option was to adapt to the circumstances and adopt a more ‘documentary’ style.
The 100th Anniversary of the birth of President Kim IL Sung delivered a glorious day of festivities and parades. It seemed the entire female population of Pyongyang were out in their flamboyant national costumes; the streets and parks were awash with music and dancing. There were military processions with trucks full of smiling soldiers holding flowers and waving as they passed through the crowded streets. A leisurely walk through Moran Hill Park provided an opportunity to people watch and mingle in a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere.
For the next few days we visited other locations around North Korea: the DMZ, the most heavily fortified border in the world; Wonsan and Hamhung; a maternity hospital; Mangyondae schoolchildren’s Palace; Nampo orphanage; an embroidery institute; an ostrich farm; Chonsam Ri Co-Operative farm; the Hungnam Fertilizer complex; various temples, shrines and statues; and the stunning mountains around Mt. Kumgang.
Chaperoned to the best sectors of the cities and countryside, visitors are restricted to areas that showcase the better funded and administered areas where the needs of the population can be seen to be served. With our tour so meticulously choreographed, we were denied any real insight into how the majority of North Koreans live. We were under no illusion that what we were shown reflected the wider reality. On the day of festivities in Pyongyang, people had seemed to be genuinely happy and exuberant, but that was not the norm. I was pleasantly surprised at the level of contact we were at times allowed. When presented with an opportunity to chat with us many ordinary people seemed relaxed enough to do so and on these occasions we didn’t feel under such close scrutiny.
It was a revelation in this age of constant connectivity to be deprived of access to email, wi-fi and Google. A trip to North Korea is a technological de-tox. Although at times frustrating, it was also gratifying to be unencumbered by the plethora of communications we normally take for granted.
If the quality of accommodation, food and other services in North Korea continues to improve and more sights are opened to visitors, tourism is likely to expand to this intriguing country. Relations between North and South Korea have begun to improve. For those wanting to experience a communist country, a trip to North Korea is becoming easier to organize. But be quick, if Trump and Kim Jong-un maintain their ongoing dialogue it’s just possible that North Korea may cease to exist as we know it today.