PHOTOS: Inside A North Korea That Is Changing — But At Its Own Pace

Oct 1, 2018
Originally published on October 1, 2018 12:41 pm

NPR journalists Mary Louise Kelly and Becky Sullivan and freelance photographer David Guttenfelder were among the some 150 foreign reporters who visited North Korea last month, at the invitation of the government, to cover celebrations commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Guttenfelder has taken nearly 40 reporting trips to the isolated country since 2000.

After just seven years under the rule of Kim Jong Un, North Korea is in a moment of change. Most visibly to the outside world, Kim — the third generation of North Korea's founding family to lead the nation — has made 2018 a year of unprecedented diplomatic engagement, with South Korea and the U.S.

Signs of change are visible inside the country, too. Once thought of as a Stalinist relic preserved in amber, with empty streets, cold gray buildings and an outdated airport, Pyongyang of today looks increasingly modern, as do a handful of other cities targeted for development. Conditions are worse in less favored areas — there are still shortages of food and electricity — but the country's economy is improving despite sanctions, and, overall, quality of life has come a long way since the famine of the 1990s.

It is hard to know what this flurry of modernization and diplomacy means for North Korea in the long term. Sanctions remain in place. The vast majority of North Koreans still can't travel freely, access the global Internet or express any sentiment about the leadership other than praise and gratitude. There's no guarantee that the authoritarian, dynastic regime can survive dramatic changes to the country's economy and a growing awareness among North Koreans of the quality of life outside their borders.

But it was in this moment of engagement with the outside world that North Korea chose to invite us in.

During our six-day stay there, timed to the 70th anniversary of the country's founding by Kim Il Sung, we were brought to witness a classic set of North Korean spectacles. Chief among them were the massive parades — one during the day to showcase the county's military power; the other, at night by torchlight, a display of a population in actual lockstep. We were taken on highly orchestrated tours of factories, a school and a farm. The country and its message are still tightly controlled by the grandson of North Korea's founder.

We sought to both document these events and look beyond them for a glimpse at normal life for North Koreans. In those moments, and in between them, we saw a changing North Korea that was at turns impressive, surreal, beautiful, melancholy and human.

Some things, of course, remain the same. Foreign journalists visiting North Korea still can't report freely. Government guides accompanied us at all times. After the itinerary of official events ended, our government minders took us only to tourist destinations and restaurants.

Our experience was that a visit to any location beyond the hotel doors had to be approved in advance, and we did not receive that approval to visit even the most mundane of public spaces — the subway, a market. (At other times, however, American journalists have visited the Pyongyang subway and markets throughout North Korea.)

Government guides tend to start from a place of distrust. They sometimes scold photographers pointing cameras at people doing everyday things: a man washing a car, a woman walking along an older bridge, a farmer with his ox cart. They often say that these images will embarrass rather than humanize.

It is possible to overcome that sentiment with time. Foreign journalists who have made repeated trips to the country have been able to build a level of trust with their government guides. For us, six days was not enough.

Speaking to North Koreans is also complicated. Journalists can't simply interview whomever we like. The government controls whom we speak to, even whom we see.

Above all, dissidence in North Korea is dangerous. Citizens risk political imprisonment for voicing critical opinions about the Kim regime, even in the confidence of their own family and friends.

For years, the country barred foreigners from bringing in cellphones, and images of North Korea were rare. While the rest of the world descended into selfies, Instagram and Snapchat, the flow of photographs from North Korea remained tightly controlled by the government, which produced most images seen in the West.

Then, in early 2013, the country added a 3G mobile Internet network for foreigners and allowed them to bring cellphones in for the first time. The world's most closed society opened a sliver.

Now, practically everyone who visits North Korea — journalists and tourists alike — takes and shares photos with their phones, capturing their own moments of spontaneity and humanity. Those of us outside North Korea are seeing more of the country than ever before.

For North Koreans, access to the global Internet remains restricted to a very small group of well-connected elites and government employees. For the vast majority of citizens, the North Korean government maintains a closed intranet with limited content.

The capital city of Pyongyang is in the midst of a dramatic facelift. During the Korean War, most of the city was flattened by a sustained U.S. bombing campaign. Rebuilding began after the end of hostilities in 1953. No private development meant no variety in architecture. Soviet-style raw concrete apartment blocks, gray and looming, dominated. The wide paved boulevards, multiple lanes across in each direction, were famously empty of traffic.

Within the past decade, dozens of new skyscrapers — retro-futuristic in style, with curves and glass — have been constructed all over the city. The older buildings have been repainted with bright candy shades of coral red, seafoam green and sky blue.

There are taxis now, and new cable cars have replaced the old trolleys. A growing class of Pyongyang elite wealthy enough to own their own cars means there's honest-to-god traffic at times. The people on the sidewalks, too, seem more modern, their hair a little less conservative and clothes a little more colorful.

At Pyongyang's airport, a new international terminal opened in 2015. It's the very model of a modern airport: high ceilings, glass walls, jetways, coffee shops, restaurants and duty-free stores inside. Still, it's North Korea. These amenities serve the passengers of roughly two flights a day in and out. The only destinations are China and Russia.

Another thing unchanged in the face of this development is Pyongyang's most distinctive civic feature: Likenesses of the country's two previous leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, are everywhere. The father and son smile benevolently in their official portraits, which hang above public squares and building entryways and classroom chalkboards. One pair of statues on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang stands more than 60 feet tall.

Our visit to North Korea in early September was timed to a significant moment for the country, the 70th-anniversary celebration of its founding. But it was only one important moment in a year of many, with more to come.

A week after we left Pyongyang, South Korean President Moon Jae-in arrived, greeted by a crowd of 150,000 North Koreans. Before the year is out, Kim is expected to meet a third time with Moon and a second time with President Trump.

Yet this isn't the first time North Korea has seemed to embrace diplomacy. Relations warm, and cool, and warm again. Meanwhile, life for North Koreans changes at its own pace.

For all the colorful new paint, there are still military parades. For all the VR headsets in a classroom, there are still government minders watching our every step. For all the new cars, the supermarkets, the Italian restaurants, the occasional smartphone, there is still the old Japanese boombox on the bar, four vases of flowers placed carefully around it.

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