Pyongyang, North Korea

A Trip to the North.

I traveled to North Korea in February of 2013 to observe The Day of the Shining Star, also known as Kim Jong Il’s Birthday. It is one of the biggest holidays in the country for obvious reasons. I figured it would be an unforgettable time to be in North Korea during this event and man, I was not disappointed.

I use a fixed-lens 35mm camera for my photography and I am usually very happy with this instrument. However, traveling in North Korea, I sometimes wished I had an interchangeable lens camera as it would have given me more flexibility on the subjects I could have photographed. Compared to other places, it’s a bit more difficult in North Korea to get up close to the subjects you want to snap photos of.

I saw dazzling monuments to Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Juche (North Korean brand socialism). I had the rare opportunity to see Kim Jong Il’s embalmed body at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. We went out to the countryside and saw traditional Korean homes and Buddhist temples. But perhaps my favorite part of the trip were the walks around Pyongyang. Granted, the guides took us to certain, nicer neighborhoods in an obvious effort to hide the poverty and other ills that plagued the city and country. We explored the areas surrounding the famed Mansudae Apartments, Pyongyang Square, and other parks and public institutions. Despite the restrictions, the walks gave me a small glimpse of what normal life was like in Pyongyang.

Because I am a Korean-American and can speak the language, I was able to interact with some locals on the street. Not all that I reached out to were receptive to having a conversation with a complete stranger on the street but for the few that did, they were very curious and interested in my background: a Korean from the West. Not once did I experience any hostility from North Koreans regarding my American citizenship. In fact, they were extremely kind and displayed the kind of hospitality and warmth that is characteristic of Koreans. I did wonder at times if my ethnicity trumped my nationality. The children I encountered playing at the park or rollerblading in Pyongyang Square had no problems having their photographs taken. In fact, they encouraged it! They got a kick out of interacting with me, the “enemy.”

It is important to remind myself, that what I saw in North Korea was a very sanitized exhibition of the country. They did a not perfect, but still very good job hiding the terrible things that are normally associated with North Korea: the poverty, the lack of basic human rights.

Nonetheless, my encounters with the North Korean people have shown me that they are no different than any other groups of people. They were shockingly normal.

Comments 71

  1. Jessica March 12, 2013

    I think this is true about many places in the world we tend to—how should I say it?—“demonize.” Yes, what you saw is probably a tame taste of the true picture of socialism and the conditions in which people live under socialist rule. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t people just like you or me. People everywhere are much the same. That’s what I love about this crazy world we live in.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing. Hope I too can make it to North Korea someday. Best regards!

  2. Kate March 12, 2013

    Having just read “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives of North Koreans,” I was particularly interested in your pictures and topic. I’m surprised you were able to take photos. I had read that picture-taking by tourists wasn’t allowed. Did your guide say it was okay? Thanks for sharing a rare glimpse into the country.

    • A Quality in Things March 13, 2013

      They were surprisingly lax about picture taking. But they did instruct us to put our cameras down in more unsightly areas: dilapidated buildings, farmers traveling by ox driven carts. They also did not want us taking pictures of the increasing number of markets, stocked with Chinese and Russian goods, that seem to be popping up throughout the city.

      Thank you for reading. I’m glad to know you enjoyed the photos.

    • Jenny March 13, 2013

      fascinating. Thank you so much for the glimpse into this mysterious society!! how is it you were able to go??

      I especially love the pictures of children playing…for some reason I was a little surprised to see roller blades…i guess that sort of recreation doesn’t really fit with the idea of North Korea I have in my head. But it makes the world feel a little smaller to see that children in North Korea enjoy many of the same activities I enjoyed as a child 🙂 Also very interesting pictures of the street….no where else in the world do you see streets that empty in a capital city!! kind of eerie.

  3. jennnanigans March 12, 2013

    This is so interesting! I have been reading about North Korea since about 2005, when I read Guy Delisle’s ‘Pyongyang.’ I’ve watched a lot of documentaries and such since then, and am fascinated with it, and with the people and culture. Especially their future, and how insular their country is. This was one of the most interesting, especially given your unique perspective as a Korean American!

  4. artmoscow March 12, 2013

    “Let us further improve city management in conformity with the requirements of the developing situation” – Love this title! Reminded me oh so well about my own Soviet Union days and newspaper titles devoid of any sense.

  5. Ritu KT March 13, 2013

    North Korea is such an enclosed community, I have never heard too much about it. The country is definitely synonymous with tags that are not very attractive to the outsiders.
    Loved you pics and insights into this mysterious country. I have lived in South Korea for a few months and I know the politeness, warmth and friendliness of the Korean people first hand.

  6. Esther Haydock March 13, 2013

    Living in South Korea (down with the shipyards) I am always interested in articles from North of the border. We have lived in several different countries and people are people the world over, maybe some different customs and traditions but underneath we all have very similar desires, to look after our families, to have good companions and to be safe.

    • A Quality in Things March 13, 2013

      Yes, all of my conversations with the people of Pyongyang were about family, friends, culture or food. We spoke very little of politics (of North Korea and abroad) and the few times we did touch on that subject, it always concluded with the agreement that nobody wants armed conflict.

  7. bikolana March 13, 2013

    i was also wondering what kind of people they are but “they are shockingly normal” 🙂 in your photos, it raised a lot of question. the books and epitaph are in enlish. hmmm

  8. neonspndx March 13, 2013

    How did you get in? Even with Korean decent – it is almost impossible, which is why we know so little about this place. I think your pictures are fascinating and your blog is well written. How awesome!!

    • A Quality in Things March 13, 2013

      The little known secret is that people of most nationalities, including Americans, are allowed to travel to the DPRK. However, you must work with either the government run KITC or outside travel agencies that serve a intermediaries to set up an itinerary.

      Thank you for the nice words. Your blog is a pleasure to read.

  9. martininkorea March 13, 2013

    Hey, I really like your post! I am an ESL teacher in South Korea. I’ve been curious about visiting the North, but it very risky (especially in light of current events). It would be interesting to take a tour there. I can speak Korean fairly well as I’ve been living in South Korea for over three years and study the language as I have time. I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    • martininkorea March 13, 2013

      I would love to see the North someday, if it’s possible. I wonder what education is like up there? I write a blog about teaching and ESL (ketanhein.wordpress.com) and am interested if there is ESL education up there.

      • A Quality in Things March 15, 2013

        I did in fact sit next to a British woman on the plane ride over who works as an English language lecturer at a university in Pyongyang. She mentioned that there are only four or so foreign English language teachers in North Korea. Most of the language education is conducted by North Korean teachers.

      • martininkorea March 15, 2013

        I am a bit surprised that they even have foreign English teachers. I am curious as to how well they’re treated.

      • A Quality in Things March 17, 2013

        I can’t say on what their working conditions are like. But, the lady informed me that they live in the foreigners neighborhood of the city, also inhabited by members of NGOs and foreign businessmen, with some comforts of the outside world. She has been working there for the past two years and plans on renewing for the upcoming academic year. I wonder if that says anything about her position.

      • martininkorea March 18, 2013

        Hmmm, it would be interesting to teach up there. I would like to think they treat their foreign workers better than their own citizens, which is a sad thing to say.

  10. Eyagee March 13, 2013

    I was surprised at teh Buddhist Temple spotting. Never heard mentions of such things in any other trip/report on NK. While I am looking into helping out some of the refugees here in South Korea, I’ve only heard bits and pieces of their life before leaving their home land. I suspect that if you were allowed to speak with the ‘not so nice areas’, your opion would be a little less rosy. Assuming that you could even get a chance to talk with them :/

    • A Quality in Things March 13, 2013

      Of course. As an individual fully aware of North Korea’s unspeakable human rights record, as well as being someone who has distant relatives who have actually fled the North, I made sure on a couple of occasions in my posts to clearly preface that what I was presented with in North Korea was a very sanitized, family friendly presentation of the country. To not have done so would have been a extremely careless and unforgivable act on my part.

      It’s important to note also that Pyongyang is a city reserved only for the upper 성분 Seongbun, or upper elite of North Korean society. These people are more privileged than those outside of the city. Their outlook on life would of course be more positive than an outside citizen.

      With that being said, even in my conversations with the citizens of Pyongyang and in some of the villages we visited, people have admitted that their country is a poor country and that their people face hardships, both political and economic, that are unique to their country. It would be hard for them to say otherwise when there are dirty, malnourished children on the street next to the traditional sites we visited and when the electricity is constantly going off during our meals.

      Thank you for taking the time to visit the blog!

  11. Riyad Almubarak March 13, 2013

    I enjoyed much your pics & honestly I haven’t thought before of North Korea as one of states I’m looking forward to exploring oneday but that has changed directly after reading your lovely post. I really wonder why not North and South Korea be one nation as just Korea for the benefit and strength of both! let’s hope so oneday.

    • A Quality in Things March 15, 2013

      Thank you for taking the time to read. I would definitely recommend traveling there as it is a fascinating and simply unforgettable experience. But at the same time, to be honest, you will not have the same experience as someone who is of Korean descent. There were many opportunities that I enjoyed because of my ethnicity and language abilities such as speaking with the locals, overhearing conversations on the subway, reading the propaganda, and overall preferential treatment from the guides. It might be unfair, but that is the sad reality of it unfortunately.

  12. zoetic * epics March 13, 2013

    I just HAD to read this post because I’ve been to South Korea (and absolutely LOVED it) but didn’t make it as far to North Korea. Thanks for sharing that side of the country with those who didn’t get to experience it yet! Great to know it’s not as scary as rumors have it. A great read!

    • A Quality in Things March 15, 2013

      Im glad you understand my position. I think it goes without being said that the North Korean regime has been an unspeakable terror on its own people. But, the point of this blog is not about politics but of my own experiences. Thank you so much for taking the time to read.

  13. The People March 13, 2013

    I don’t get how socialism can control such a beautiful place. I can only hope that socialism will be gone (probably not in our life times) in places like North Korea so that many people will not feel afraid to discover it’s beauty!
    TopInquiry.net

  14. dee March 13, 2013

    I loved reading this! Very informative and it gave us a different mindset on North Korea. I agree with you that your ethnicity must have trumped the fact that you were an American citizen. Loved the pictures!

  15. sugarabstinence March 13, 2013

    Lovely to read about North Korea. I am very interested in both North and South Korea, especially how the cultures have diverged so since their division. It’s nice to read something which doesn’t make the place look better or worse than it is. Thank you.

    • A Quality in Things March 15, 2013

      I agree, the cultures have diverged quite a bit since the division. But, at the same time from what I saw, the similarities are uncanny. I tried to avoid the political aspects on this blog as there really isn’t much more one can say on the atrocities committed by the North Korean government. I tried my best to just record what I experienced over there. Thanks for reading!

  16. Pingback: Life Inside North Korea: Photos, Video | Screenshots News

  17. annettedavis March 15, 2013

    Loved your post. North Korea fascinates me. That a whole country can be so brainwashed is a scary thing. The thing that struck me with your photos is that the city is deserted. There are hardly any people around. No bustling crowds going about their business. It’s almost like a film set.

    • A Quality in Things March 15, 2013

      Thank you for the nice comment.

      I do not wish to mislead with my pictures, but there was actually a lot of people on the street! Kids were rollerblading or playing on the streets, couples were enjoying walks in the park, families were waiting jn lines at food stands and people were walking to and from home. I imagine the large number of pedestrians is due to an inefficient public transportation system and no private ownership of cars.

      But, yes, there wasn’t much car traffic on the streets. It doesn’t have the hustle and bustle capital cities are usually plagued with. It’s strange to see a major city in the evening and no cars on the street!

  18. Selvinas March 18, 2013

    Where are all the people? It looks very quiet outside!
    Did you also get the chance to go inside any stores? Did they look different from ours or do they have the same over stocked look?

    • A Quality in Things March 21, 2013

      If you look at a later post of mine, you can see the streets busy with people. We were able to visit a number of stores, some aimed at tourists and some for native Pyongyangers. I also did peek into a number of them during our city walks. A lot of them are stocked, but not overflowing with the variety and quantity of goods we are used to back home. I’ve noticed that their shops, with the exception of fruits, vegetables and meats stores, sell a number of goods. Small shops sell cosmetics, electronics, stationary and whatever goods all together.

      The stores are usually a small counter with goods on shelves or behind glass. The exception is the electronics and clothes stores; goods are displayed around the store for customers to interact with.

  19. wanderrwithmee March 22, 2013

    I personally want to go to North Korea since I’ve seen a documentary once about it a few years back.
    I envy you for actually having a chance to go there!
    Thank you for the awesome pictures. It inspires me even more. 🙂

  20. shanesbookblog March 27, 2013

    I Love the photos….i certainly would never go there but i appreciate you for going and documenting your journey! Photographers don’t get enough credit in this world i swear!

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