Tags / Pyongyang
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My first visit to North Korea was in 2005, when the regime was still ruled by Kim Jong Il.
The country had not yet admitted to possessing nuclear weapons, but I found it strange that Western media showed such disinterest towards this isolationist state: why were they ignoring a country that still ran concentration camps?
In the summer of 2006 the DPRK announced that North Korea had built its first atomic bomb and suddenly Western media became aware of the fact that this country could possibly pose a global threat.
In my documentary, made in three stages between 2012 and 2015, I examine North Korea under the new leader Kim Jong Un. Even if his leadership appears no different to that of his predecessor -- continued purges, executions and the strict control of every citizen -- at an economic level, small but significant changes are visible. With increasing trade, the government is being forced to build bridges and to allow its merchants a possibility of economic development. This, in one of the poorest countries in the world.
Modern supermarkets, gambling halls, skyscrapers sprouting like mushrooms, lively streets with countless taxis, Mickey Mouse on TV... these are all signs of an economy that, albeit hesitantly, is moving towards a capitalist system: the capital Pyongyang is going through an historically unique period of growth. In an attempt to rid itself of the old soviet-style greyness, the city is changing from the bottom up to give itself a new image, quite as though Pyongyang had understood that it too has arrived in the 21st century.
This silent revolution, due in part to the female population which has discovered Western products, also promotes cultural exchange. One example of this development is the concert last summer by the rock group ''Laibach'', which marked a truly historic event, considering that Western music is banned in North Korea. Possession of foreign CDs and DVDs is also strictly punished by the regime which sees them as a corrupting poison for North Korean society.
Between the "Juche" ideology and National Socialism: there are concentration camps for actual and suspected regime opponents; convinced of the superiority of the Korean race, citizens are forbidden to have friendly relations with foreigners. I have encountered this reality, but over time I was also able to build small but significant friendships in North Korea. Through these I discovered true humanity in people living under this monstrous Stalinist system.
Dreams revolve not only around freedom, but also around a hope of reunification with their southern brother. This is not a forbidden subject in Pyongyang. During an interview with a student, she made it abundantly clear that every Korean was obliged to strive for reunion.
This dream, though, constantly clashes with reality, as I realized when visiting the Panmunjom border in March 2013: on the one side we saw South Korean military exercises, on the other continuous provocations by North Korea. Which is why, after all, this is considered the most dangerous border in the world.
While the grim side of life in North Korea has had plenty of exposure, photographer Ullrik Pedersen captured the colorful side of North Korea, offering a new image of one of the world's most restrictive states.
Although the DPRK officially describes itself as a Juche Korean-style socialist state where elections are held, it is widely considered a dictatorship. The country has been described as totalitarian, Stalinist state with an elaborate cult of personality around the Kim family. Juche, an ideology of self-reliance initiated by the country's first President Kim Il-sung, is the official state ideology. The means of production are owned by the state through state-run enterprises and collectivized farms, and most services such as healthcare, education, housing and food production are state funded or subsidized.
April 15th in North Korea marks the national holiday of "The Day of the Sun" which commemorates the birth of the countries founder Kim Il-Sung. Across Pyongyang celebrations and performances were held to mark the occasion. Children preformed with almost prodigal talent at the Pyongyang Childrens Palace; a place where grade school children come after school to practice artistic skills. Foreign performers from countries like Russia and Mongolia held a "Spring Friendship Art Festival" in the Pyongyang Grand Theatre to a crowd that included North Korean members of parliament. The finale of "The Day of the Sun" was marked by a grand 20 minute firework display over the Taedong River. When I asked one of my government minders why no military parades are held on that date anymore, he replied with a laugh. "We don't want the world thinking that's all we do here" The photographer visited North Korea (DPRK) in April, 2014.
There are an estimated nine and a half million members in the Peoples Korean Army in both active and reserve forces inside the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK). This fact is quite evident in Pyongyang where buses full of soldiers and officers walking the streets are a common sight. While highly advised against photographing any members of the military, it is a fact of life in the DPRK that is hard to avoid. The DPRK reveres it's military and it's proud to boast of it's "successes" in the 1950-1953 Korean War and it's "victory" over the United States and Republic of Korea armies. The Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum in Pyongyang is a sprawling testament to this version of history, with entire floors dedicated to events such as the "Liberation of Seoul". As well they proudly display destroyed and captured American planes, tanks and even a patrol vessel docked in the nearby river as trophies. All of which are technology not used by the United States for over 40 years. The KPA is most known for it's activities near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with South Korea at the village of Panmunjom. Contrary to popular belief, soldiers from both sides do not face each other on a daily basis. Both the North and the South alternate days standing guard at the border as well as alternate days where visitors can tour the site. This "Tourism Diplomacy" is one of the few co-operative initiatives that the North and South regularly adhere to. The distinctive blue negotiation buildings are no longer used for actual negotiations and is the only place where the photographing of soldiers is tolerated to a certain degree. The photographer visited North Korea (DPRK) in April, 2014
At first glance Pyongyang seems like any ordinary city, with the bustle you would come to expect from any capital. However, the city of 3.5 million people is anything but ordinary. With a city devoid of any forms of advertising, imposing patriotic posters take their place encouraging citizens to be loyal to the party and nation. Heroic images of soldiers and DPRK flags adorn the roofs of imposing government buildings. Soviet style apartment blocks are painted shades of pastel to cover the drab concrete and create an almost out of character cheery feel to the residential districts. Bus stops feature backdrops of anti-aircraft guns and monuments to the leaders and party pierce the skyline. The streets, while busy, are almost entirely composed of transit vehicles, military trucks or government cars. Very few vehicles appeared to be independently owned and operated by normal citizens. The interior of many of the buildings are kept dim and cold, with all electricity cut off around 1 am every time. That is, besides the portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Ill that adorn many buildings and are constantly illuminated throughout the night. Cut off from the world, the city seems to be stuck in many decades. With architecture of Cold War era Soviet Union, vehicles from both the 70's and 2000's, well dressed fashion from the early 90s, a nationalistic fervor from 1930's Germany, and the latest touch screen smart phones from China. Knowledge of the outside world is equally a skewed, with state run television showing clips of American military technology from the 1980s and 90s, mention of the missing Malaysia Air flight, and a lack of any knowledge of other countries beyond stereotypes from the few citizens we were able to speak with. Yet some sense of normalcy is not hard to find in the city. A skate park bustles with many trying their hand at rollerblading which appeared to be a very popular past-time. Games of volleyball are seen being played anywhere from dirt fields to sprawling squares in the city center usually associated with military parades. Stuck between a heavily militarized and oppressive ideology and a comparatively less visible softer side, Pyongyang is a city of drastic contrasts. The photographer visited North Korea (DPRK) in April, 2014
Children preform during part of "The Day of the Sun" celebrations at the Pyongyang Children's Palace on April 14, 2014. The celebration marks the birth of North Korea's founder Kim Il-Sung. Children practice various artistic skills for months at the extra curricular school in preparation for such events.Gavin John/Freelance/Transterra Media
Portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-Sun (left) and Kim Jong Ill (right) are lit up on the side of a building in downtown Pyongyang on April 12, 2014. The portraits are visible on most buildings across the city and are kept lit throughout the night. Gavin John/Freelance/Transterra Media
Female Militia training in Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang
Children at Mansudae School in North Korea.
Catholic North Koreans attending mass
Two "just married" North Koreans