All photos in this blog posts are shot by me: Ása Steinars
Disclaimer: Everything you are about to read is based off my own personal experiences in North Korea, so please take everything I say with a grain of salt. This article is NOT about the politics of North Korea.
It’s been almost 3 years since I visited North Korea. It’s taken me a while to feel ready to write and share my images from the trip. The trip left me overwhelmed, surprised, sad and generally lost for words.
Living in the western world means that I have always been exposed to a one-sided view point of what goes on there. Some of the reports we read in our western media are true, some aren’t. It has left me wanting to see the situation with my own eyes and try to make sense of the most isolated country in the world.
However it’s hard to look past the proofs we have about the country, like extreme starvation and concentration camps. My trip to North Korea made me realise that this place is every bit as weird as I always thought it was. It’s a dictatorship of the most extreme kind with visible propaganda everywhere.
What made me even more unsettled after the trip, was reading the news about Otto Warmbier, a US student sentenced to 15 years hard labour in North Korea for trying to steal a poster. Otto travelled with the same company as I did, Young Pioneer Tours and stayed in the same hotel. He stole a poster, I stole a newspaper and some cutlery. It’s hard to deny it, but there was this tendency in the group to collect as many souvenirs as possible. Newspapers and magazines were lying around the hotel, and everyone was tempted to collect something. Somehow nobody really seemed to realise the dangers that could follow with this act.
Thinking back it feels stupid and I feel truly sad about what happened to Otto.
My Journey To North Korea
Before the trip I had pretty mixed feelings about visiting the country, knowing the only way to get there is going with a tour, which is both expensive and pretty strict in terms of what you are allowed to see. Also guessing that most of the tour fees evidentially ends up in Kim’s pocket. Despite the cost and my own morality, I let the curiosity beat me; the thought of visiting and photographing the most secluded country in the world was just too difficult to resist. With only around 1800 visitors per year, North Korea is one of the least visited countries in the world.
First stop: boarders between China and North Korea
I started my tour in the Chinese border town, Dandong, where I took a 7 hour train ride through the countryside of North Korea before arriving in the capital, Pyongyang. The trip was designed to show the “very best parts” of the country, Pyongyang and a couple other regions. The North Koreans I laid eyes on throughout were likely the people faring the very best in the country.
The train ride was my favourite part of the trip, it felt unreal riding through the nature, passing small towns and villages. From the moment we borded the train, my eyes were glued out the window. I was fascinated by every little detail – from the distant mountains, to the farmers in the rice fields, to the first buildings of the capital. I tried to capture every unique moment I witnessed and interesting places on the way. It wasn’t always easy, especially not when the train stopped and the soldiers would wave their hands at me, signalling me to put the camera away.
Arriving to Pyongyang
Arriving at our hotel was pretty interesting, in the lobby was a big golden world map, of course South Korea was missing. I entered my hotel room and browsed through a few TV Channels. On every single one of them Kim’s face would show up. On the screen he would either be visiting farmers, flying an airplane or speaking in public.
Being a tourist in North Korea
“Where are your beers? This is a booze cruise!” Were one of the first things our British guide said to our group when our train departed from Dandong in China. He seemed already drunk himself, doing his thirty-second trip to North Korea. It set a strange tone being encouraged to drink at the beginning of the trip, as for myself I had no intentions of being intoxicated during this once in a lifetime experience. It felt uncomfortable, entering North Korea and realising your guide clearly had a problem with alcohol, who pressured others to join him throughout the trip.
Even on our second night, he asked us if we would rather explore the city or get drunk at a karaoke bar. Strangely most of the group went with the second choice, so karaoke is was! In a way it was interesting to see the bar, however it was not many locals there, only us and two other North Korean tour guides. Most of the karaoke songs where full of nationalist propaganda, with a b-roll video of Kim himself in the back. But we could choose between a few western songs as well. The morning after we had planned to explore more of the city. However the youngest person in our group was missing after the big night out. We searched all over for him. An hour passed and I noticed the worried facial expressions of the north korean tour guides. Luckily we ended up finding him, passed out in one of the hallways at our hotel.
Walking the streets of Pyongyang
It felt strange walking the streets of North Korea’s capital. The first things I noticed was that there was no advertisement. Everything was so clean and the only graphic you would see, were propaganda posters. The locals hardly look at us tourists, they truly avoided getting an eye contact, like they had been trained to do so.
Most of the people were dressed in similar clothes, greenish color, with no logos, only a pin with Kim’s face on it. It was striking to see how underweight most of them were, with the clothes kind of hanging around their bodies.
Watching the fireworks
During the tour the Worker’s party of DPRK were actually celebrating their 70th anniversary. The streets of Pyongyang were filled with people dancing and celebrating wearing the national costume. They even had a military parade, displaying the tanks and soldiers marching down the streets.
One of my most memorable moments from the trip was standing and watching the firework-show in the middle of the city. As I stood there I noticed a young handsome man with his family. I watched him closely and at some moment our eyes met. We stood there, making an eye-contact, which felt like forever. Somehow it felt like we were talking to each other, without saying a word. His eyes were so kind and full of curiosity, but sadness at the same time. At that moment it hit me, how two human beings can live such a different life, only depending on where they are born. I had no idea who he was or what was his whole story. Something about the whole situation broke my heart and it’s hard to describe why.
My North Korean Guide
Our North Korean Guide was probably one of the most interesting parts of my trip. Her name (or fake name) was Ji Su, born and educated in Pyongyang. When talking to her, I could tell she was intelligent and good at her job. She told me that she had travelled through China and Japan, I had no idea if I should believe her or not. She was extremely proud of number of strange things, like regular buildings or supermarkets. She even stopped once in a regular supermarket in town and made it as one of our tourist stops. She would tell us stories about how awesome this was, with so many different things to choose from. That truly gives you the feeling that something isn’t right.
In fact they would be proud of all kinds of “shitty” places. Which happens when a poor country tries to act like things are going fantastically. So there would be a fancy restaurant, looking clean and stylish, but then they would serve a dry omelette. Or even a good looking family theme park, but no one was there, looking all abandoned and torn down.
So many lies
When staying in North Korea, I tried to small talk with the locals that would be a part of our tour. But I quickly realised that most of the stories and information they told me wasn’t true. And it really messed with my mind during my stay. I’d find myself in these situations, absolutely confused of what to believe and what not. Looking at my guide and wondering if she was knowingly lying to me or fully brainwashed and thought she was telling me the truth? It was impossible to tell.
They never use the word North Korea
It’s not cool to call North Korea “North Korea.” The correct term is, DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the country’s official name). In their view, they are proud Koreans, living in Korea, but the south half is unfortunately currently occupied by the “Imperialist Americans”.
The locals they talk about the Korean War constantly, the war ended 60 years ago and is probably not the hottest topic in South Korea. Almost everything North Koreans learn about it is flagrantly incorrect. You can feel that they are angry and ready any day for another war. Again, I wasn’t sure if they truly meant it or if they were brainwashed to believe so.
Photos tell more than thousand words
At the moment I can’t find any more stories to tell from my trip. So here are some more images that speak for themselves.
My quick visit was both strange and enlightening, proving and disproving many of the rumors I’d heard and read about before my visit.