I went to North Korea as a tourist with a camera. I seem to have come back as Leni Riefenstahl. The North Korea in my pictures is the official version. I stayed in a 43-storey tourist hotel, shopped in tourist shops (with prices in Chinese RMB and Euros), and visited the Kim regime’s choice of tourist attractions, all the time accompanied by government guides.
The Pyongyang I saw was the manicured, immaculately clean city centre with neat little shops, beer kiosks, a beautifully decorated subway and smartly dressed, well-fed citizens. The electricity was always on and there was food on every table.
A photograph of a Kim Il Sung statue in Pyongyang looks no more sinister than one of a Mao statue in Beijing. A camera can’t capture the distinctions. The personality cult of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il looks eccentric rather than brutal.
By showing these pictures, I’m doing my very, very small part to disseminate the messages of the Pyongyang propaganda machine. These are my best photographs of the best parts of a country that does everything in its power to hide its secrets. As you would expect, these are more like Berlin Olympics pictures than Auschwitz gas chamber pictures.
I do have a few pictures taken discreetly through the windows of the fast-moving coach, but blurred photographs of people on bicycles and glimpses of poverty don’t really add much to the story.
After handing in my mobile phone at the travel agency, I met the sixteen other people in my tour group at Dandong station. All of them were Chinese but I was assured that the English-speaking guide I had paid for would be waiting in Pyongyang. We were ushered up to Chinese immigration control and boarded an unheated, hard-seat train.
We crossed the bridge into North Korea. Directly opposite Dandong is the small industrial city of Sinuiju. From the Chinese side of the river, trees hide most of the city, with only smoke stacks, a vacant funfair and limited dockside activity visible.
We passed the decaying riverfront and lorries waiting to cross the bridge and almost immediately stopped at Sunuiju station.
Soldiers and guards with stern expressions and poorly fitting uniforms entered the carriage. We were told to open our bags. A guard with an electronic temperature reader checked each of us. Soldiers on the platform carried machine guns.
A guard lifted some clothes out of my bag, rooted around for a couple of seconds and moved on. The man on the other side of the aisle, however, was given a thorough check – everything was taken out of his bag, pictures on his camera were checked, his books were flicked through, and he was patted down and scanned with an electric wand.
We handed in our passports (we wouldn’t get them back until we left North Korea) and were taken to a waiting room with covered windows and Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il portraits on the wall.
UN sanctions haven’t stopped luxury goods from finding their way to the train station duty free – bottles of Hennessey cognac were on sale for up to 1880RMB.
We had to wait two hours for the train to Pyongyang. Our Chinese-speaking North Korean guides arrived. The woman was twenty-seven years old, had plump cheeks, powdered white skin, wore a knee-length yellow leather coat and smelt of perfume. The man, around forty, wore a trench coat that he flicked around like Chow Yun Fat in a Hong Kong action movie.
It later became clear that neither of them were typical North Koreans. Whenever we walked through crowds, they stood out from their countrymen – they were taller, stronger, had clearer complexions and fuller faces. They wouldn’t have looked out of place on the streets of Seoul or Beijing. They were fine physical specimens chosen to represent their country.
Some other tour groups crossed at the same time and I recognised one of their guides from a hidden camera documentary about North Korea from a few years ago.
The guides instructed us not to take photographs while on the train and not to use MP3 players while in North Korea. We boarded another train – again with Kim portraits on the wall, and started the five hour journey to Pyongyang.
From Sinuiju to Pyongyang, most of the view looked like this:
Slightly scorched-looking farmland set against a backdrop of mountains. There were few sealed roads, almost no vehicles, and only occasionally farming machinery. Men, women and children harvested with scythes. There were small villages of white-washed single-storey buildings each with a Kim Jong Il slogan or Kim Il Sung statue.
We passed through small cities that had identical stations with Kim Il Sung portraits above the entrance. A couple of times some of us got out and stood on the platform while passengers were getting on and off the train. There were armed guards at every station. More than half of every crowd wore military uniforms.
In similarly sized rural locations in China, I would have had a lot of attention paid to me. People would have pointed me out to their children, others would have giggled, there would have been shouts of ‘laowai!’ (foreigner), old men would have stared. This didn’t happen at the North Korean stations. People glanced and very quickly looked away. Nobody made eye contact.
It was dark by the time we arrived in Pyongyang. We left the station through a special exit and got on to a coach. It was a short journey to the hotel, a tall building on an island in the river. It seemed to be almost empty. The lobby reminded me of Brunei airport with its faded attempts at grandeur.
I shared a room with a young Chinese-Korean man who was a representative of the Chinese travel agency and liked Britpop. We had a beer, looked around the hotel and the day was over.