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From joke-cracking customs agents to giggling minders, the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea show their humanity despite the oppressive military regime, author Dave Gerow reports
Text by: Dave Gerow
Country:North Korea

hen I travel to fascinating places, I have two primary interests: Meeting the locals and photographing them. Of all the countries I’ve visited, North Korea has been the greatest challenge. The handful of tourists and reporters who have visited North Korea have brought back sufficient evidence of looming statues and propaganda, but the average citizen of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is rarely photographed intimately. I made it my goal.

The first obstacle to the traveling shutterbug is restrictions on camera lenses. The state-run tour company forewarns clients that no lens with a zoom greater than 150mm is allowed. I brought a 200mm lens and a 50mm backup in case the first was confiscated. As it turned out, the customs officer was North Korea’s answer to Buster Keaton: a stone-faced funnyman. Not only did he overlook my long lens, he also made jokes as he rifled through my bags. He very sternly examined a pen and said, “This is fountain pen camera?”

Security was surprisingly lax throughout the tour, as long as one obeyed the rules and didn’t venture out of the hotel unaccompanied by his guide. An organized tour is the only way into North Korea; my group consisted of three other English speakers and thirty Chinese. The rigid schedule is designed to showcase the very best of the DPRK, to glorify the brutal Kim dynasty, and to vilify South Korea and the United States. Sites include a museum displaying thousands of gifts sent to the Kims from abroad, the USS Pueblo, a captured American spy ship, and the birthplace of DPRK’s first leader Kim Il-sung, which is introduced with an apocryphal story about a 14-year-old Kim defeating the Japanese. Tourists are shepherded from one bizarre site to the next on a bus and on schedule.

Nowhere in the itinerary is time allowed for mingling with the natives.

Happily, there are places where interaction with the locals simply can’t be prevented, even by the most overbearing chaperone: Kim Il-sung Square, Pyongyang’s Friendship Tower and the park that surrounds it, the Pyongyang subway (proudly proclaimed to be the world’s deepest, and surely its weirdest with pictures of the Kims in every carriage). These are active, living, bustling hubs for citizens of Pyongyang. Foreigners like me stand out.

But the reaction of the locals to my presence wasn’t quite the same as it tends to be in other remote destinations. Of course, people stared at me freely, but even the far worldlier Chinese do that ad nauseam. Children and adults alike waved to me, but not once was I approached. No one wanted to shake my hand or show me to their bewildered children (these would be fairly standard experiences in most remote countries). And sadly, very few people wanted to pose for photos; I managed ten portraits out of 1,300 shots.

The North Koreans kept their distance, but they still conveyed friendliness; no one looked like they wanted to blow me up. It reinforced the lesson that the world traveler learns everywhere they go: Whatever the political situation in a country, people remain people.

The standoffishness of the locals puts a good deal of pressure on the tour guide, who is required to represent the entire country. My tour had two guides: One for the Chinese majority, and one for me and my three English-speaking companions: a British art dealer, a German writer and a young British English as a Second Language teacher. Our guide, whom we affectionately called “Dear Leader”, wasn’t the stony henchman I had feared would check my camera hourly; she was a young, bubbly woman with an irrepressible giggle. She laughed endlessly when I told her a joke about Beethoven’s favourite fruit (“Ba-na-na-na,” to the tune of the Fifth Symphony). She reciprocated with an utterly mystifying joke about a student misidentifying a bird (I couldn’t locate the punch line; she was doubled over as she told it).

Phrases such as “American imperialists” and “The Great Leader Generalissimo Kim Il-sung” sounded uncanny from my guide’s lips, and yet she spouted them completely earnestly. Whenever she spoke about politics, she might well have been quoting from the Pyongyang Times (actual headlines include, “Heinous criminals can never escape merciless punishment”). Of course, our dear young leader’s loyalty is only natural, because she isn’t just representing the regime – she’s doing pretty well in it.

She’s educated, the second child of a doctor with a government position. She belongs to the small minority with cell phones. She earns 400 Chinese yuan (40 pounds) per month, far more than most of her compatriots. She told me her future husband would have to be a member of the Communist Party.

She actually cried on the bus when discussing the recent death of Kim Jung-il. She said she stood for hours under his statue and that she would have stayed indefinitely had she not been herded on to make way for other mourners. When I asked her what happens to people who don’t love the leader, she said such a situation simply doesn’t occur (Amnesty International estimates that 200,000 North Koreans are detained in gulags). She also said there were no homosexuals in the country, and she seemed to believe it.

The Koreans who might be able to offer a different perspective were always tantalizingly visible through bus and train windows as we traversed the country from the northern Chinese border to the Demilitarized Zone in the south. I had to content myself with photographing them from afar. Taking pictures from train windows was forbidden, but with a little bit of stealth, I managed two hundred photos of the dry, barely mechanized countryside.

When my five days were up, I crossed back into China effortlessly. The same good-natured customs officer was on duty, and the man who checked my photographs was as lax as his comrades. No one noticed the extra memory card in my wallet, which contained the majority of my sneaky shots of soldiers. I doubt they would have raised any eyebrows.

Among my photos of North Korea, I find several which depict real people, each clothed in monochrome outfits symbolizing the regime. With all the government’s sword-rattling and xenophobic rhetoric, it’s dangerously easy to forget that there are people – very unfortunate people – under the fatigues.


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The softer side of North Korea

When I travel to fascinating places I have two objectives: to meet the local people and to photograph them. Of all of the countries that I have visited, North Koreans were the most difficult to photograph. Most tourists who visit North Korea return home with souvenirs, but rarely intimate photos of the people. I made it my goal to photograph them.

The firstchallenge for photographers when traveling to this country is the restriction on camera lenses. When I was going through customs, I was lucky to have customs official with a good sense of humor. He ignored my zoom lens and joked about a pen, “Is this a camera pen?”

An organized tour is the only way in to North Korea. The tour’s strict itinerary only shows tourists the best parts of the country and glorifies the Kim military regime. You are not allowed to walk around alone or talk with the local people. This is what makes photographing them so difficult!

Our tour guide was an energetic and friendly woman- not at all as I had expected. She was clearly very patriotic and even cried a little when she spoke about the recent death of Kim Jung-Il. She said that all North Koreans loved this leader-and really believed it!

I took some “forbidden” pictures through the bus window and also photos of soldiers, which I hid in my wallet on an extra memory card. I had no trouble getting out of North Korea with my photos, and I feel very lucky to have been able to get some photos of real North Koreans!

 

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