North Korea - An exercise in masochism

Stolen moments: A photographic trip to North Korea

Photographing in North Korea is an exercise in masochism.

I had long wished to visit North Korea to catch a glimpse of a lost world, one which I actually knew from my past in Romania.

Born in Romania and having lived there until a short time after the fall of its iron fisted dictator Ceausescu I had a pretty good idea of life in a communist country but also sympathy for the plight of the common people having to live in such conditions.

I´ve always admired the fact that humans can enjoy life under any hardships and it was my intention to show a bit of what we normally associate with normal life - going to work, relaxing, laughing, socialising, romancing, getting married, angling, etc. - anything that could provide good photography within the limits imposed by the strict North Korean regime.

I´ve done such series on several countries and to one of them, Iran, I returned a couple of times conquered by people´s amazing hospitality and friendliness. I was hoping that by explaining my motifs I would be allowed more freedom, especially since I declared from the very beginning that I´m a photographer and I would not buy a trip if I weren´t allowed to photograph more than the average tourist.

I had likewise hoped that my argumentative powers and the mentioning of my interest for quality photography could convince my hosts to allow me to catch also moments of genuine life, in contract to the usual ceremonious visits to Potemkin-like villages.

After all, their foreign propaganda section should have been intelligent enough to imagine that nobody is interested in constantly seeing the giant bronze statues of the North Korean leaders or the immense empty squares in Pyongyang.

The trip would have been also a descent into my past, an attempt to reconsider the atmosphere of my younger years through the eyes of a now Westerner. North Korea was the more relevant to this attempt since the profound changes in the Romanian society after 1971, the year of the (in)famous Ceausescu´s "July Theses" putting an end to the cultural liberalism enjoyed for a short period in the years before, were the result of Ceausescu´s trip to North Korea and China and of his admiration for the Kim Il-Sung´s Juche philosophy of self-reliance. In fact, the exacerbated principle of self-reliance coupled with the shortages caused by the exports needed for servicing the external debt were among the main reasons for Ceausescu´s downfall in December 1989.

Of course I was aware that there were differences among the socialist countries but I expected to recognise many of the characteristics of Romanian socialism also in North Korea, albeit with a temporal delay of more than a quarter of a century.

And how wrong I was! The degree of control that the foreign tourist is subjected to is hard to imagine. Even the most inocuous demands were questioned and in most of the cases rejected or ignored. I tried to convince the guides that I merely wanted to give the North Korean society a human face but their freedom of action (most certainly dictated by the secret service in spite of their official employment by a youth travel agency) proved to be extremely limited. For instance, when mentioning that I wished to photograph anglers along the Pyongyang river, close to the hotel, and commenting that such a photo would only show people relaxing in their free time, maybe freer than their Western omologues, since in the West they would need a fishing permit(yes, I overdid it a bit here), I was totally ignored. Later, when watching a documentary about North Korea by a Romanian journalist, Adelin Petrisor, 
I saw a scene in which his North Korean guide was explaining to him that angling could be interpreted as being prompted by lack of food.

I was refused a simple walk through the centre of Pyongyang (I didn´t even dare to ask to be taken to a working class suburb), although I only wanted to photograph children playing. In Wonsan, only a few hundred yards away from the restaurant where we were supposed to be eating, I saw a wedding couple heading out of a park on a beautiful sunny weather. We had to drive by past them, park in front of the restaurant without my being allowed to return, with the motivation “I know a place in Pyongyang where there are always weddings. You can photograph when we get there.” Actually this was a blessing in disguise because in the wedding photo of Pyongyang I managed to catch in a corner of the photo young pioneers with plastic jerrycans waiting to be filled from a fountain, a hidden proof of the power shortages plaguing North Korea. I waited for the van to stop and then I ignored the guides´ instructions, or rather orders, and ran across the street haping to photograph at least the wedding cake carried by a waitress. To my surprise she laid the large, layered cake on the ground hiding from me behind a tree, a truly grotesque situation.

Whenever I was allowed to leave the car it didn´t take more than one minute for the second guide, a young and otherwise charming girl, to hurry me by telling me that I was delaying the programme.

After some days I understood that the problem was not necessarily that I was photographing, but that I was doing this in the open and not from behind the van windows. Asking the guides to stop the van and allow me to photograph peasants in a rice field I stepped a few metres away from the van. When I turned around I saw, having come out of nowhere, an army officer questioning the guide about our activity and writing down the licence plate, the guide name and the name of the travel agency. 

On the other hand I have to recognise that the daily schedule was extremely busy and that the plan was followed to the minute, the last days encompassing even 5-6 events per day.

The east coast, in particular Kumgangsan, the Diamond Mountains, which I remembered from a cinema documentary from my childhood days, is superb, with fog covering the green valleys and stretching sometimes to the top of the mountains. Agriculture appears to be very extensive, any square metre of cultivatable land, even by the train lines, being exploited, but suffers from a severe lack of agricultural machinery. The “systemized” villages (in Ceausescu´s 80´s lingo) do not reflect wealth but are also not worse than villages seen in Asia, for instance in the Philippines. If only the North Korean authorities knew this, then they wouldn´t try to freight the tourists only through the same Potemkin village model farms.

The general atmosphere is, alas, of generalised fear and rejection of contact with the tourists and even the foreigners living in Pyongyang wear the same mask of fear. Doing the routine tourist visit of the circus I was seated relatively close to two Caucasian-looking ladies. I say “relatively” because my two minders were careful to bracket me like a prisoner meant to be transported from one jail to another. However, I tried to make small talk over the seat accommodating the charming North Korean guide. The ladies did not seem to be particularly talkative but I managed to find out that one of them was French. I tried to chat her up in French but I hit a wall. Obviously uneasy, she answered in a whispered voice: “Please, let´s revert to English. Your guides will feel uncomfortable if they don´t understand what we talk.”

People are afraid of being shown in photographs because they are told that the photos can be used as anti-regime propaganda and you seldom can spot a smile. In my case it took four days before I met a group of pioneers saluting me in English and with a broad smile: “Hello! What is your name?” Maybe there is still hope in the new generation …

The TV sets in the foreigners´ hotel rooms show a few Chinese channels, a Russian one (on which I watched the bizarre result of an opinion poll on whether the statue of the founder of the Communist secret police which later became the infamous KGB, Felix Dzerzhinkyi, should be reinstalled in front of Lubyanka, the KGB headquarters in the centre of Moscow – more than 60% of the respondents agreeing!) and Al Jazeera. In a funny twist, during my stay at the isolated … Hotel in Pyongyang, Al Jazeera announced that two North Korean soldiers had crossed the border and applied for asylum in South Korea. It was, I think, my third or fourth night on North Korean soil and I had already started to feel uncomfortable with all the lies and propaganda that I had been served. Every day I was trying to present the two guides with alternate truths I felt protected by the fact that it would have been logical for my two minders to keep all this to themselves, since revealing it to the secret service would implicitly admit dangerous, deviant, subversive knowledge. At the same time I knew that here being a foreigner was no defense against state repression and you could go to jail, and this for many years, even without knowing who and for which political means the decision was taken. I was considering seriously cutting my stay short, missing the rest of the, anyway scarce, photo opportunities but going back to the safety and normality that China would have represented. But in the morning I decided to test the main guide, tell him the defection story and savour his reaction. Mr. Kim was stunned. “Where did you hear this? How did it happen?” he asked, seeming very curious and revealing that only we, foreigners, have access to non-North Korean channels. 

With the exception of Kumngangsan, the Diamond Mountains, everything revolved around propaganda. As an example, the North Korean version of the 1950-1953 civil war has as a starting point a supposed attack by the US army and the guides at the two museums visited never said a word about the participation of the Chinese People´s Liberation Army resulting in the death of 900,000 Chinese. 

A personal regret is that the guides didn´t allow me to photograph the main hall of the Korean War Museum in Pyongyang, an impressive sample of socialist realism.

If one accepts that everything can be politicised and used in propaganda one could say that I enjoy a little bit of liberty. If this liberty was, as in the words of the main guide, “the most extended ever offered a tourist”, then I hope that the other tourist were not interested in photography and wished merely to see the landscape.

There´s an old saying: “Camera doesn´t lie”.  In the case of North Korea it is impossible not to be submitted to massive manipulation. The images of any photographer who documented North Korea, even when they carry the stamp of his or her own style, are mostly a propaganda work far away from the reality and variation that a photographic essay on a country should present. The proportion of candid moments to those staged by the hosts is minuscule and any photographer who´s published North Korea photos should have the decency to recognise this and explain it from the very start.

Summing up, for me, who came to North Korea with the genuine wish to simply produce quality photography, the experience was a true exercise in masochism. 

In North Korea the background may be much more interesting than the main subject. Behind this happy wedding couple, who totally ignored me, just like any other North Koreans, children play around the basin of a water fountain. What is less obvious is that the reason they are there is to to fill water in plastic canisters, since there are cuts in the water supply.

Here one can see the real reason why the pioneers were gathered around the fountain. A photo I love because it shows happy children, seeking contact (they asked me in English where I was from) and not influenced yet by propaganda.


Romanian version

Coreea de Nord - Un exercitiu de masochism

Am vrut de mult să vizitez Coreea de Nord pentru a regasi o frantura de lume pierdută, o lume pe care o vedeam inrudita cu cea pe care am trait-o cu totii inainte de revolutie si care mi-ar fi putut permite o mai buna intelegere a ambitiilor megalomane ale lui Ceausescu.

Se stie ca ideea nefasta, pentru noi si in cele din urma si pentru el, a Tezelor din iulie 1971, de a pune capat liberalismului cultural de care societatea romaneasca se bucurase in anii imediat premergatori si de a impune realismul socialism ca baza a culturii, a fost un rezultat direct al vizitei facute de dictator in China si Coreea de Nord si al admiratiei pentru filosofia “Juche”, de bazare a dezvoltarii economice pe propriile resurse. Aceasta auto-impusa autarhie a fost in cele din urma si cauza dezastrului economic al anilor ´70 si a sfarsitului violent al lui Ceausescu. In Coreea de Nord ea este insa doctrina de stat si  se bucura chiar si de un impunator monument in centrul capitalei.

Născut în România și traind acolo până la câteva luni după revolutie am o destul de buna idee de viața într-o țară comunistă, dar și simpatie pentru situația dificilă a celor care au nesansa sa trăiască într-o societate in care democratia este doar mimata. Am admirat întotdeauna faptul că oamenii se pot bucura de viata indiferent de greutăți și am plecat la drum in Coreea de Nord cu intentia de a fotografia momente de ceea ce, în general, ne asociem cu viața "normală", cotidiana – peisaje stradale, munca, relaxare, râs, socializare, căsătorii, etc. - si de a realiza un eseu fotografic care ar putea arata o latura umana a acestei societati inchise, fie si în limitele impuse de regimul strict nord-coreean.

Am realizat astfel de eseuri in mai multe țări și la una dintre ele, Iran, m-am întors iarasi si iarasi cucerit de ospitalitatea uimitoare a poporului iranian. Am sperat că prin explicarea motivelor mele mi s-ar permite mai multă libertate, mai ales ca am declarat de la bun început că sint fotograf și ca nu sint dispus sa cumpar o excursie daca nu mi se da voie să fotografiez mai mult decât turistul mediu. Am sperat, de asemenea, că puterile mele argumentative și invocarea interesului meu real fata de fotografia de calitate, ar putea convinge gazdele mele să-mi permita să surprind si clipe de viata autentica, spre deosebire de vizitele aranjate, ceremonioase, nu mult deosebite de cele pe care le fac demnitarii locali.

La urma urmei, sectia lor de propagandă externa ar trebui să fie suficient de inteligenta să-si imagineze ca nimeni nu este interesat sa vada constant statuile de bronz ale liderilor nord-coreeni sau pietele uriașe goale de la Phenian.

Călătoria ar fi fost, de asemenea, o descindere in propriul trecut, o încercare de a reconsidera atmosfera din anii mei de tinerete, prin ochii cuiva trait de-acum 25 ani in occident.

Desigur, eram conștient de faptul că au existat diferențe între țările socialiste, dar mă așteptam să recunosc multe dintre caracteristicile socialismului românesc in ciuda unui defazaj de mai bine de un sfert de secol.

Și cât de mult m-am inselat! Gradul de control la care este supus turistul individual este greu de imaginat. Chiar cererile cele mai inofensive au fost chestionațe și în cele mai multe cazuri respinse. Am incercat sa-i conving pe ghizi ca vreau doar sa dau societatii nord-coreene o fata umana insa libertatea lor de actiune (dictata in mod cert de serviciile secrete) s-a dovedit extrem de limitata. De exemplu, cind am mentionat ca as dori sa fotografiez pescari amatori de-a lungul unui râu comentand ca o asemenea fotografie ar arăta doar oameni relaxandu-se in timpul lor liber, poate chiar mai liberi decat omologii lor occidentali (da, am exagerat aici un pic), deoarece în occident ar fi avut nevoie de un permis de pescuit, am fost ignorat total. Mai târziu, în timp ce vizionam un documentar al lui Adelin Petrisor despre Coreea de Nord, am văzut cum ghidul nord-coreean ii explica cum că pescuitul ar putea fi interpretat ca un semn al lipsei de alimente.

Mi s-a refuzat o simpla plimbare prin centrul Phenianului (nici n-am indraznit sa cer sa fiu dus intr-o suburbie muncitoreasca), deși nu mi-am dorit altceva decit sa fotografiez copii jucandu-se. In Wonsan, la doar citeva sute de metri de restaurantul in care urma sa mincam, am vazut un cuplu matrimonial iesind dintr-un parc pe o vreme superba. A trebuit sa trecem pe linga ei, sa parcam in fata restaurantului fara a ma putea intoarce inapoi, cu motivatia ca “Stiu un loc la Phenian unde sint intodeauna nunti. Puteti sa fotografiati cind vom ajunge acolo.” Vazind insa o femeie purtind un tort decorat pentru nunta am traversat strada in goana si am incercat sa fotografiez. Ghinion! Obosita, femeia a lasat jos tortul pentru o clipa. Am asteptat sa-l ridice si sa o fotografiez purtindu-l dar ghidul, are ma ajunsese din urma, mi-a explicat ca femeia nu vrea in ruptul capului sa apara in fotografie nici macar de la spate. 

De fiecare dată când mi s-a permis să ies din masina a fost nevoie de mai puțin de un minut pentru ca in special cel de-al doilea ghid, o tanara si de altfel foarte sarmanta nord-coreeana, sa ma grabeasca si sa ma indemne sa terminam fiindca altfel intirziem programul.

Am realizat, de asemenea, că, uneori, problema nu a fost neapărat că am fotografiat, dar că o faceam în în aer liber și nu din spatele ferestrelor masinii. În acest sens, după câteva zile am înțeles strictețea ghidului deoarece, odata, când mi s-a permis sa ies din mașină pentru a fotografia tarani cultivind orez pe un camp, un militar s-a apropiat de vehicul, l-a chestionat pe ghid cu privire la activitatea noastra si apoi si-a notat numărul de înmatriculare al masinii, numele ghidului si datele agentiei de voiaj organizatoare.

Calatoria a avut insa si o latura … romaneasca! Anuntindu-l pe unul dintre bunii mei prieteni de la München, Cornel Ionescu, cunoscutul muzicutist si poliinstrumentist, ca voi pleca in Coreea de Nord, acesta, vadit excitat, mi-a trimis imediat un email al unei admiratoare care il informa ca intr-un fel de biblioteca muzicala din Phenian se afla piese favorite ale lui Kim Jong-Il, printre care si Rapsodia Romana a lui Enescu, in interpretarea lui Cornel Ionescu la muzicuta in loc de vioara. I-am spus ghidului povestea si, desi mi-a marturisit ca nimeni nu facuse pina atunci o cerere atit de bizara, cum nu era vorba de nimic susceptibil de a fi politizat, vizita s-a aprobat. N-a durat mai mult de 5 minute, cu tot cu traducerea doleantei mele si cautarea respectiva in baza de date a institutului si dintr-o data am vazut pe ecran “Rumanian Rhapsody”, Georges Enesco, in timp ce din casti se revarsau acordurile muzicutei lui Cornel Ionescu.

Pe de alta parte trebuie recunoscut ca programul zilnic a fost deosebit de incarcat si ca agentia coreeana de turism care a organizat vizita a facut un plan extrem de plin si respectat la minut, ultimele zile avind chiar 5-6 obiective pe zi.

Coasta de est, in special Kumgangsan, Muntii de Diamant, pe care mi-i aminteam de altfel dintr-un documentar prezentat la cinema in anii copilariei, e superba, cu ceturi care acopera vaile impadurite si se intind uneori pina inspre virfurile muntilor. Agricultura pare a fi foarte extensiva, in sensul ca orice metru patrat de pamant cultivabil e exploatat, insa sufera de o lipsa aproape totala de masini agricole. Satele, “sistematizate”, nu dau aparenta de bogatie dar in nici un caz nu arata mai rau decit unele sate vazute in Asia, sa zicem in Filipine. lucru pe care daca l-ar sti autoritatile nord-coreene poate ca n-ar mai incerca sa poarte turistii numai prin CAPurile fruntase unde toti viziteaza aceeasi casa model.

Atmosfera generala este insa de teama generalizata si de respingere a contactului cu turistii. Oamenii se tem sa apara in fotografii fiindca li se spune ca pozele pot fi utilizate ca propaganda anti-regim si rar se intimpla sa intalnesti un zambet pe fata unui localnic. In cazul meu a durat patru zile pana sa fiu strigat de niste pionieri: “Hello! What is your name?” si sa mi se zambeasca larg. Cit de diferit fata de atitudinea pe care am intilnit-o intotdeauna in China si in general in Asia!

Televizoarele din camerele pentru straini au citeva canale chinezesti, unul rusesc si Al-Jazeera, in timp ce nord-coreenii se pot bucura de un singur canal oficial pe care l-am vizionat din cand in cand in foyerul hotelului. Multa propaganda si vizite de lucru …

Apropo de propaganda, versiunea nord-coreeana a razboiului civil din 1950-1953 are ca punct de plecare un presupus atac al armatei americane iar ghizii de la cele doua muzee vizitate nu au suflat nici o vorba despre participarea armatei chineze soldata cu un numar de morti estimat la 900.000. Un regret personal e ca nu s-a permis fotografierea in interiorul muzeului dedicat razboiului Coreei din Phenian, sala principala fiind o impresionanta mostra de realism socialist arhitectonic.

Dacă cineva acceptă că totul poate fi politizat și utilizat în propagandă, s-ar putea spune că poate am m-am bucurat de un pic de libertate. Dacă această libertate a fost, în cuvintele ghidului principal "cea mai extinsa de care s-a bucurat un turist vreodată" atunci sper ca ceilalti turisti nu au fost fotografi și nu au dorit altceva decit a vedea peisajul.

O veche vorba spune: “Camera nu minte”. In cazul Coreei de Nord e imposibil sa nu fii supus unei manipulari masive. Imaginile oricarui fotograf care a documentat Coreea de Nord, chiar daca poarta automat amprenta stilului propriu, sint in cea mai mare masura o opera de propaganda departe de realitatea, fie ea trunchiata si trecuta prin filtrul propriu, si variatiunea pe care ar trebui s-o prezinte un eseu fotografic despre o tara. Proportia de momente candide fata de cele regizate de catre gazde e infima si fiecare fotograf ar trebui sa aiba decenta s-o recunoasca.

Pentru a rezuma lucrurile, pentru mine, care am venit in Coreea de Nord cu dorința reală de a realiza pur și simplu fotografie de calitate, experienta a fost un adevarat exercițiu de masochism.