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This photo essay was originally published at the author’s Matador Community blog.

WHEN I LANDED in Pyongyang, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), I immediately had to hand in my mobile phone. From that moment on, we were always accompanied. No one was allowed to leave the hotel without a guide.

There were many times when I was not allowed to take photos, particularly of anyone dressed casually or performing manual labor, and at military checkpoints. I had my camera confiscated twice and my pictures examined and discussed at length, but each time, my camera and photos were returned intact.

All photos by the author.

Culture + ReligionPhoto Essay


 

About The Author

Sue Sandberg

Sue has lived in four different countries: England, South Africa, Australia and currently Hong Kong. She loves to travel and grabs every opportunity that comes her way. Sue says: 'I want to be more than just a tourist passing through, I try to understand the daily lives of people'. Read more about her travels at suewombat.com.

  • The Drifters Blog

    Beautiful photos! I have to admit, this is my first glance into the depths of North Korean society, and what I’ve seen here fascinates me. There is an air of mystery that surrounds this country, and it’s great to put a face to the preconceptions. I loved your captions, especially the one about people picking up stones. Interesting.

    • Sue Sandberg

      Thanks! It’s going to be fascinating to see what happens. How long will the regime last? The infrastructure is falling apart, aside from food, lack of electricity and water are major problems. Will the new ‘Dear Leader’ be able to hold it together? And will he be able to make real change? Or is he just a front for a very entrenched privileged power base?

  • Cheryl Herbert

    Beautiful pictures and well written captions.

  • Tricia Tan

    I love this Sue. You really have captured North Korea in a little nutshell.

  • Confucius Confucius

    Nice to see North Korean women on roller skates since they are banned from riding bicycles.

    • Sue Sandberg

      Surprisingly I saw lots of mobile phones and roller skates. Bicycles was a main mode of transport, and many women were doing the shopping, etc on bikes. Any ban must have been lifted.

    • Confucius Confucius
    • Sue Sandberg

      That’s so sad! How are they going to get around? Petrol costs over US$20 a gallon and the roads are falling apart. What a nonsensical rule!!

  • Julian Lange

    Fascinating photos, Sue and your captions are perfect. This is the most human view of N Korea that I’ve ever seen.

  • Adam Thompson

    Hey Sue, I am eventually planning to go to the DPRK, was just wondering from someone who has been there, what type of cameras are you allowed in? dslr? Thanks you, beautiful essay, it helps to curve the idea that the DPRK is this “evil state”.

    • Sue Sandberg

      There was no problem with cameras at all. They were never checked, but I was told that they don’t like extreme zoom lenses. We could take in computers. The restrictions were only mobile phones and anything with GPS. With the photos I tried to portray that like everywhere else these are just people trying to survive under difficult conditions imposed by their leadership. And I have to admit that there were things to admire, the education system and the medical system seemed very efficient.

    • Bennett Murray

      Since you mentioned that the health care system seemed very efficient, I must ask: There are widespread reports that North Koreans must bribe doctors for even the most basic services, the black market is a primary source of medicine for most, and that the country has one of the highest rates of TB infection in the world. Do you believe these to be falsehoods?

    • Sue Sandberg

      Hi Bennett, I could only speak to our ‘guides’ and ordinary people were not keen to talk to us. But I was told that doctors from local clinics regularly visit everyone in their community to assess their health and provide preventative medicine. Healthcare has been free since 1953 and everyone has a health card. And that there is a system of regional and district hospitals to ensure that everyone can access healthcare. This does ‘seem’ very efficient. But it is entirely possible that the reports you refer to are correct. This is a poor country where people live in difficult circumstances.

    • Jamie Robinson

      I think you meant curb, not “curve”. It is an evil state in which it’s leaders are worshiped in some sort of “cult of personality”. It’s horrible to see humans repressed and frightened into submission. Photos are beautiful by the way.

    • Sue Sandberg

      Thanks. The North Koreans are taught to fear and hate the rest of the world, particularly the American Government, from an early age. Considering the length of time that this has been happening and how entrenched the indoctrination is, it’s hard to see how re-integration can happen without a lot of suffering.

  • Shane Rose

    Hey Sue! Great photos.Thanks for sharing! How did you organize your travels in DPRK? Tour group or solo traveling with hired guide. How many days and what would you suggest for a budget?

    • Sue Sandberg

      I went with this group http://www.koryogroup.com/travel_tours.php. Although you can go on your own, I don’t know anyone who has. You cant make friends with the locals, so it could be very lonely on your own. This is one time I preferred to be in a group, particularly as we had a few Korean speakers which helped a lot. I thought 7 days of kimchi was enough! Bear in mind that you are isolated, no contact with the outside world. We once had no water at all (other than bottled) for 24 hours. No flushing of toilets – and did that bathroom stink!

  • Lola Lá

    Thank you Sue!
    I find your photos of the DPRK very mesmerizing. They really make me think about the underlying implications of everyday life, not just in North Korea. When does culture stop being culture and become a means of mass control? Maybe we’re equivalently brainwashed and pacified by certain aspects of the western way of life. Materialistic, competitive and bureaucratic.
    hmm.

  • Andrew Hws

    Do you seriously not realized how staged and fake all the things you’re photographing are? Many of my friends have been there. Everything you’re seeing, events and activities, are all a show. Do your research!

  • Arpan Mandal

    loved the photos. do not know whether they were staged or not, but it changes the image in my head that all north Koreans are treated horribly.. from the pictures it seems they too lead a normal life. Would love to hear more stories about the trip… thanks

    • Sharan Pratima

      beautiful photos,it depicts that author is more than a tourist, well tried to understand the daily lives of korean people …very interesting post….thanks

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