Pyongyang is North Korea, North Korea is Pyongyang

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.

Guttenfelder’s short, unedited videos provide an interesting and unique look at life inside North Korea for the outside world.

…every little glimpse we get behind the curtain is thrilling. The mundane is illuminating, and the most uneventful scene appears packed with suspense.

However, the first Instagram videos coming out of the country offer unfiltered peeks into what many call the “Hermit Kingdom”.

As Guttenfelder himself puts it,

“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

Communal farming

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.



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