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A Glimpse of North Korea


While the mere mention of this secluded nation evokes instant mental images, there's more to daily life in North Korea than meets the casual eye. Story and photographs by SCOTT A. WOODWARD.

Published on Jan 20, 2017

 

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is doubtless one of the most isolated and repressive nations on the planet. Shut off from the world since its liberation from Japanese rule at the end of World War II, and cloaked in mystery ever since, it is estimated that only 5,000 Western tourists visit the Hermit Kingdom annually.

Mangyongdae Funfair
Minding the gate of the Mangyongdae Funfair, a small amusement park in Mangyongdae-guyok, about 12 kilometers outside Pyongyang.

For the past 70 years, the North Korean regime has promulgated juche, the pervasive doctrine of self-reliance. The DPRK has long struggled against foreign occupation, molding into the collective consciousness a deep acrimony towards outside influence while remaining the last frontier of isolationism in the modern world. However, despite its tendency toward seclusion, North Korea has raised its curtain a bit in recent years, allowing a small and tightly controlled audience of Western visitors into the secretive state.

Mansudae Grand Monument
A bridal party at the Mansudae Grand Monument in Pyongyang. The 22-meter-high bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il stand in front of the Korean Revolution Museum displaying a mosaic of Paektu-san (or Mount Paektu, meaning "Long White Mountain"), an active volcano on the northwest border between North Korea and China that is considered sacred.

 

For more than a decade, I have been fascinated by the DPRK, longing to travel there and experience the infamous Hermit Kingdom. Finally, October 2015—after years of unsuccessful attempts and with the assistance of Uri Tours (uritours.com)—I was able to secure a visa and travel to North Korea for seven days during the national celebrations commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party of Korea, the lone ruling regime of the DPRK's 25 million citizens.

Glory Station
A group of North Koreans waits patiently for a train to arrive at Glory Station. Constructed in the 1970s, each of the 16 Metro stations is decorated with ornate chandeliers, intricate mosaics of smiling North Korean laborers as well as giant murals of the DPRK's Great Leader Kim Il-sung, and his son, the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.

The government's pageantry was a lavish affair: a meticulously choreographed performance featuring thousands of goose-stepping soldiers and a legion of military vehicles rolling through Kim Il-sung Square, and then thundering along Pyongyang's boulevards, thronged on either side by the flag-waving masses.

Metro at Prosperity Station
On the Metro at Prosperity Station, several North Koreans carry bright plastic flowers to wave at the Foundation Day parade later that day.

 

I expected this demonstration of might, showing the world and reassuring the collective that North Korea is strong, its leadership firmly in control. But the DPRK's theatrics are not limited to such occasions. I quickly learned that catching a glimpse of real life in the DPRK is nearly impossible.

Samjiyon
A military tour guide prepares to deliver a speech in front of a 15-metertall bronze likeness of Kim Il-sung at Samjiyon. Depicting the Great Leader as a 27-year-old soldier, this is the second largest statue in the DPRK and commemorates North Korea's war of resistance against Japan and the Battle of Pochonbo.

In an attempt to make the nation appear prosperous to foreign visitors, North Korea has scripted an elaborate fictional production that never breaks for intermission. I found myself staring out the windows of our coach and my hotel room at the mysterious land beyond the threshold, trying to see a life I could never imagine. We were never permitted to leave our state-run hotel alone; accompanied at all times by two government guides, our small tour group was closely monitored, every aspect of our experience carefully stage-managed as we ourselves became guest players in this live performance.

On the rare occasions when we were permitted to gape upon a garish monument, wander an empty square or gawk at an elaborate show, I was always more interested in what was happening off stage left or right than in what was taking place at center stage, much to my minders' chagrin.

Chongsanri Cooperative Farm
Chongsanri Cooperative Farm outside Nampho.

This series of photography represents my experience as an audience member marveling at the rehearsed mass spectacle that is North Korea, and as a player endeavouring to peek behind the curtain, glimpsing brief and unscripted moments of the Hermit Kingdom's individual people.

 

 

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Arch of Triumph, North Korea.
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