In recent months Jean Lee, bureau chief for the AP in Korea, and David Guttenfelder, AP’s chief photographer in North Korea, have been allowed a small luxury no North Korean citizen has ever had before; the ability to upload to Instagram. Koryolink, a joint venture between an Egyptian and North Korean state-owned telecom, recently activated a 3G mobile network within the hermit kingdom’s borders. Since then, Lee and Guttenfelder have been embarking on what could only be called a photo-junkies wet dream, instagramming and tweeting up a storm from deep within the reclusive country. What they’ve returned are quick snippets, either photos or fifteen second videos, of life in a country which fully embraces isolationism and the personality cult of the Kim Dynasty. However, there is a flip side to this unfiltered access, a kind of sensationalist streak that has run through the reporting on these photos.
“There are so many curious, strangely beautiful, or melancholy details around us here…These might not be typical of the news photos I usually transmit, but they offer fleeting glimpses of this country, and how it feels to be here.”
These are normal sentiments to have. In a world where unrestricted access to global content is ubiquitous, we clamor for any and all imagery that is denied from us; Gore, death, porn, North Korea. This post is no different. Below you’ll find a number of different photos and videos from both accounts that are particularly interesting and note-worthy, and do offer some insight into the regular day-to-day of Pyongyang. But while for many these photos raise the unsettling question of “How can these people live in such an authoritarian state”, the more hidden and unsettling question one should understand is “How much of this work inadvertently perpetuates the vision and myths of North Korea that that same authoritarian state wants us to see? How much does this “unrestricted” access contribute to a kind of global bystander effect?”
Vice ran into this dilemma when they recently sponsored Dennis Rodman’s trip to the country, and they weren’t the first to contribute to what is being called Basketball Diplomacy. It didn’t help that Rodman was, at least publicly, blithely oblivious towards his new friend’s true nature. A certain healthy uneasiness and questioning of our relationship with one of the cruelest and most vacuum-sealed places on Earth is good to keep in mind, particularly if Kim Jong-Un continues the trend of embracing western sensibilities himself while maintaining the status quo for everyone else. The majority of the following images are from Pyongyang, the idealized facade of what the Kim Dynasty wants or believes all of North Korea to be. You will not see any protesters in Pyongyang, no panhandlers, nobody loitering in places they shouldn’t be. You won’t see the average sleeping quarters of a North Korean, not the average work day of a North Korean, not even the average dress of a North Korean. You’ll see exactly what they want you to see, because you really want to see it.
Some of the most striking videos from Lee’s account are of the mass games held in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the armistice
These mass games most likely constitute some of the largest regular mass demonstrations on the planet
Brought to you by Totalitarianism
When one of your main bargaining chips with the outside world is your ability to fire rockets well beyond your borders, those rockets become a center piece of propaganda and pride
An interesting fusion of traditional propaganda art style with new gizmo aesthetic, and in stark contrast to the typical anti-US imagery. Also a tact acknowledgment of North Korea’s glacial shift into the modern age; Imagine the worker’s of the old USSR posters carrying smartphones
Pondering on the implications of the fusion between a totalitarian state and social media
Whole crowds of people waiting and it still feels like you could hear a pin drop
There’s a neat architectural contrast here
Pyongyang, where rollerblading never died
We’ll come back to this
I find the comments on the creepiness of this one interesting considering we literally do the same thing (complete with fasces!)
The whole family and the Kims
A sweet ride and rollercoaster
Pizza is the great uniter, the shared joy of all mankind
He knows something about journalism
There’s something oddly funny about this but can’t say exactly what
Ain’t no party like a Pyongyang party (literally)
Annnd some marching. Do you feel patriotic yet?
If we consider these glances of Pyongyang fleeting, then the shots they get of rural life are mere morsels or fragments. An important distinction to make is one of color contrasts. Pyongyang and the decoration therefore seems almost designed with vibrant colors and grand displays to awe, wow, and ultimately distract from the bleakness and gloom of everything that is not Pyongyang.
Not quite as industrialized
Just coming out of winter
A town from above
Quite the tractor
The lack of individual housing here is interesting, more of an emphasis on apartment blocks
Homes or barracks? Who knows
The long road to Kaesong
How the world handles North Korea in the years to come, even in perpetuation, will be one of the great stories of the 20th and 21st century. It’s an entire nation inside a black box that is only slowly beginning to open, and while what we’re seeing now captures our interest and awes us in spectacle, we can’t let that cloud over that things that should rightfully terrify and move us to action.