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.
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 in recent years, allowing a small and tightly controlled audience of Western tourists to visit the secretive state.
In October 2015, I traveled with Uri Tours to North Korea during the national celebrations commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party of Korea, the lone ruling regime of the DPRK’s 24 million citizens. 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.
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.
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 gape at an elaborate show, I was always more interested in what was happening stage left or right than in what was taking place at centre stage, much to my minders’ chagrin.
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 peak behind the curtain, glimpsing brief and unscripted moments of the Hermit Kingdom’s individual people.
See Part II of my photography from inside the DPRK and read more about my experiences visiting the Hermit Kingdom in Travel + Leisure magazine and Le Mag by Nikon France. And browse my North Korea reportage that exhibited at the Singapore International Festival of Photography (2016), Auckland Festival of Photography (2017) and the Head On Photo Festival (2018).