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Inside, Outside

In August I went on a five-day tour to Pyongyang with a small group of 15 tourists. This is still the only way to visit North Korea. We were assigned two tour guides and a driver, all North Koreans. Minus the train journey between Dandong and Pyongyang, our real schedule is three days in Pyongyang. The journey was highly controlled, all direct contacts with North Korean citizens were avoided. It’s impossible to talk to them without attracting the attention of our guides. Whenever the tour bus stopped at tourist attractions, our visits were carefully timed and monitored. One tour guide would lead the way and give introductions with the other one tailing at the end of our group. Even at night we were only allowed 200 meters outside our hotel, with someone accompanying us of course.


Every two minutes, more photographs are produced than the total photos ever existed in history. North Korea must be one of the least photographed countries in the world. When I finally stepped out of the bus and set foot on this almost mythologized land, I was at a loss as where to point the camera. The shiny buildings, the propaganda paintings, the huge portrait of Kim Il Sung or the North Korean people?


This series of photographs is my attempt, (or failed attempt) to capture the theatricality of Pyongyang. We went to see two shows in Pyongyang, the mass game People’s Country which is mandatory if you want a visa to North Korea and an acrobatic performance, but to me the city itself is the real theatre. Everything in it is for show. 


As part of the schedule we visited the Tower of Juche Ideology, it gave us a bird’s-eye view over Pyongyang. The rectangular shaped buildings all lined up straight, there was a neat line of trees on each side of the street, the pavement was spotless and hardly any car ran past the road. The city looked like a mock up model, the kind that’s on display in a real estate company. That’s how it felt walking on the streets as well, like I’m walking inside a cardboard model. Coupled with the highly saturated color palette in Pyongyang, the city felt as unreal as a movie set.


Having lived in both Beijing and London, two of the most energetic metropolitans, I’m used to noises. The hustle bustle of a city is made up of a tsunami of sounds, car horns, kids laughing and running, street musicians, people talking on their phone, not to mention the drunk shouting in pubs. But something’s off on the streets of Pyongyang, it took me a while to realise that it’s the absence of noises. It was so quiet that it’s almost unnerving. Our footsteps, chatting and shutter clicking made us really stick out as tourists. One night we went to the Kaeson Youth Park. You might imagine an amusement park would be one of the loudest places on earth, but the main source of noises came from foreign tourists. There was only the occasional screaming from North Koreans on a roller coaster or the mega drop ride, the people queuing and the onlookers were all quiet with blank faces. Truth is, most of the North Koreans I saw looked a bit dead. I can’t seem to find a trace of excitement or anger on their faces. Maybe only when they return to the safety of their homes could they let out some real emotions.


As the bus only stops at the sights and tourist attractions that they want to show us, I did most of my observations on the bus. I stared out the window whenever I was not dozing off from the endless stories of the great leader Kim Il Sung told through a loud microphone. 


The Pyongyang I saw is not the Orwellian dystopia certain books or documentaries had led me to believe. But then at the same time I was horrified by the amount of similarities I could draw between North Korea and my own state. Not the 70's China that most of the travel blogs I've read had mentioned, but the here and now. 

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