While in the DPRK, my intention was to portray myself as an obedient tourist. I wanted to establish a sense of trust by showing the guides that I followed their rules. This strategy worked to my advantage. The guides realized that they could leave me alone while they focussed their attention on those travellers who flouted the rules by taking photographs without permission. Whenever one of these travellers started to snap away, the guides diverted their attention towards him. I witnessed occasions where a guide would run over to a traveller and tell him that photographing a certain area was prohibited. Meanwhile, all the others in the tour group were free to take pictures of whatever we wanted, including, ironically, the very same things that our “delinquent” fellow travellers would later have to delete.
I never had to delete any photos, although I was yelled at once for disobeying the rules by taking a photo outside the bus after we left Pyongyang. The subject matter that tarnished my exemplary tourist behaviour was nothing more harmless than a traffic sign. I realized that the subject matter wasn’t as much of a problem as breaking the rules was.
There were plenty of occasions throughout rural and northern North Korea where the guides issued stern warnings not to photograph certain things. After receiving warnings such as that, we were petrified to move, no matter how slightly, for fear that any gesture might be mistaken for attempting a camera shot. The forbidden objects would be standing right in front of us, such as the MiG jetfighters lining the runway at Orang Airport. The MiGs were under guard and Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours had the foresight to warn us when we boarded the Air Koryo jet at Samjiyon that there would be serious repercussions if anyone took photos of the aircraft when we landed at Orang, which is primarily a military airport. We exited the plane on the runway and hung around waiting for clearance to enter the small terminal building. The MiGs were right in front of us with rigid guards standing in a perimeter around them. We were prohibited from taking pictures anywhere at Orang Airport, although I forgot this rule when we flew from Orang to Pyongyang, and I snapped this picture inside the terminal with its gaudy green plush chairs:
I can understand that the authorities wouldn’t want us to photograph MiGs, but there were plenty of other occasions where the forbidden subject matter seemed more innocuous than harmful. When we arrived in Samjiyon, the tour groups boarded smaller buses like this:
We made a procession on the start of our journey to Mount Paektu (the hike up the mountain, sacred to Koreans from both sides of the DMZ, will be the subject of a future post). Shortly after we left the airport, one of the buses got a flat tire. All the buses pulled over and we got out. The groups were prohibited from photographing the tire change. One of the members of my tour group, however, took photos of the episode, claiming that she had never heard any such warning. That she still has the photographs shows that none of the guides asked her to stop, or perhaps they didn’t even notice her taking pictures:
That I am showing photographs the North Koreans might consider to be disrespectful, a violation of state security or possibly even insulting to the country gives me mixed feelings as I certainly do not wish to cast the Koreans in an unfavourable light. I went there with the intention to show respect towards the country and I left with not a diminished respect but a stronger sense of reverence. I have not altered my perception of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea after having witnessed a tire being changed or by seeing an ox cart instead of what in most other nations would be a motorized vehicle:
We were not allowed to photograph store interiors in Pyongyang, likely because the guides or the store workers themselves did not want foreigners to see what (little) was on offer. This applied even to the hard currency stores that catered mostly, but not exclusively, to foreigners. North Koreans could certainly shop there as well, provided they paid in euros, Chinese renminbi or American dollars. I took two photos of the main store within the Yanggakdo Hotel, and would have gone undetected had I settled for just one picture. I was spotted after I took the second, and the photo here shows one of the clerks waving at me, not as a greeting, but as a signal that photography was prohibited.
She yelled out “No!”, which gave me quite a scare on account of her volume. It was at that moment where I felt the most scared, even more scared than when I had hit a security officer with my suitcase as I was passing through DPRK customs. I felt certain that hotel security was going to find me and confiscate my camera, but nothing came of it.
The northeastern city of Chongjin was opened to tourists for the first time ever this year. Chongjin was devastated by the famine from ten to fifteen years ago. It was here, as well as in the central eastern city of Hamhung, where photography was the most restricted. We could hardly photograph anything in Chongjin. Everywhere we went, the guides told us that we could not take pictures, and it was obvious that they were nervous with us, for fear that we would start snapping away. Chongjin is a polluted city, with a colossal iron and steel factory in the centre of town that spewed black smoke from several stacks. I asked with polite sincerity if I might have permission to take a picture of the sky (a light grey haze polluted with black streaks of swirling smoke; it was the filthiest sky I had ever seen in my life) and was turned down. I almost expected to have been granted permission, since all requests to take pictures of the things we saw on the ground were declined. Even our accompanying Koryo Tours rep was reprimanded by one of our guides for taking a photo of a Chongjin bus.
Our group was taken to the central square and after our obligatory bow in front of the enormous statue of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, we were informed by Mr. Kim that we could take pictures in three directions only. We could take a picture of the Kim statue directly in front of us and we could photograph the buildings on the left and right sides of the statue. Everyone took the same photos, and we all shifted ninety degrees to shoot the buildings. I was curious about a nearby building, and asked what it was. Mr. Kim told me it was the Chongjin library. Mr. Kim already knew that I worked in a library, and I asked if I might photograph it as well, since I always like to take pictures of libraries wherever I travel. This is true, and not a story I made up on-the-spot in order to get an extra photo of the city. The Chongjin library is here:
It was in Chongjin that I decided to take advantage of my (almost) stellar reputation as a tourist who obeyed the guides’ rules. After everyone had taken the same three photographs, some members of our and other tour groups walked around the square and started snapping away. The guides did not like this, and ran after them, yelling at them to stop. At this moment I suddenly realized that there was no one watching us, those of us who hadn’t run off. I took some shots of Chongjin that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to get if the guides had remained behind.
We were taken to a coastal spot in Chongjin where Kim Jong Suk, the mother of the Dear Leader Comrade General Kim Jong Il, who herself is also a national hero and is known as the Mother of Korea, displayed remarkable skills of marksmanship. The guides showed us several spots where she shot her pistol at the coastal rocks. During this tour we were warned on several occasions not to take any pictures of the boats on the coastline. Even the launching area was off limits. We could see several long dark boats on the sand and thought that nothing looked extraordinarily sensitive. While enjoying the coastal scenery I took some photos of a fisherman and some children nearby. After I had taken these pictures I realized that I had been left behind. The guides and most of the tourists had already started to walk back to the bus. During the walk back, the forbidden boats and launching area lay right in front of me. No one was around to tell me not to photograph them, so I lifted up my camera and took one quick shot. This picture was taken on 14 September 2011:
Our group flew back to Pyongyang that night and as I was watching the BBC world news in the Koryo Hotel I was astonished to see a story about nine North Korean defectors who had been picked up by the Japanese coast guard. These defectors had escaped from Chongjin. Their boat looked exactly like the boats we were forbidden to photograph. At dinner that night everyone in my tour group was talking about this news story. We figured out that the guides must have known that there had been an escape, and did not want us to know about it. Perhaps they thought that a photograph of the Chongjin boat launch might wind up in the western media if anyone in our tour group had taken a picture of it. This goes to show that western television for tourists is not censored in North Korea. Only certain hotel rooms could get these stations, as the floors where North Koreans stay (including our guides) have no cable access to any outside media. I sometimes felt like asking our guides to come down to my room to watch the news and see what was going on in the rest of the world.
In Hamhung, we were permitted to take photographs of the opera house and of the children rehearsing for the Great Leader Kim Il Sung’s centenary celebrations taking place next year. However a man and then a woman, each pushing a large cart, walked into the scene. This was a rural scene dropped into the middle of the cultural centre square. The guides did not want us to photograph these cart-pushers. I was not aware of this photographic restriction at all. The guides only went after the tour group members who had been issued photography warnings already, including my roommate, who was asked to delete his photographs of the male cart-pusher. I believe I was not asked to delete my pictures because the guides were not even paying attention to me.
Propaganda vans are seen throughout the DPRK. While not unique to that country, they were the first ones I had ever seen and the guides would have liked it if no one in our group had ever laid eyes on them. Messrs. Kim forbade us from taking any shots of these vans, which were outfitted on top with enormous tannoy speakers. These vans cruise up and down the streets, blasting music and propaganda speeches all day. In Anju, one such van was parked outside our hotel and blasted from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. I recorded three of its broadcasts, yet the tinny audio quality made it sound even worse when played back on my camera. I am happy to at least have recorded the special chimes the van sounds every hour on the hour.
On two occasions, in Kaesong and Wonsan, we had no choice but to walk past propaganda vans that were parked at the side of the road. Everybody in my tour group looked at one another, giving each other cringing glances which telegraphed volumes. We were walking past propaganda vans and it was killing us that we couldn’t take a picture of them.
On the walk back to our bus in Wonsan, the younger Mr. Kim told us that no photos were permitted for the unexpressed but well understood reason that we were going to be passing a propaganda van. I had my camera around my neck and took a wild chance that I would capture the van in the frame. The picture I took is this:
In case anyone saw me take that picture, I dared not even look at my camera until I got back to the hotel room. Pictures of prop vans are not uncommon: the Internet and YouTube are filled with them. My photos are not even good photos. But it goes to show you what level of control we were under when we were told that we were not allowed to photograph something.
And my video of a van as we were driving through Kaesong:
My tour group visited several of Pyongyang’s foreign-currency department stores. None of them showed any obvious logic in their arrangement of items for sale. It was hilarious to go shopping with members of my tour group. We’d find feminine hygiene products on display next to industrial batteries. We also saw the gargantuan propaganda van tannoy speakers for sale, next to the souvenir Korean dolls in national dress.