Lost world: Scenes from North Korea's closed society

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A remarkable set of photographs by David Guttenfelder sheds rare light on one of the planet's most isolated and secretive nations

In Pyongyang, jittery government minders keep a vice-like control over the few journalists who make it inside and discourage them from meeting or photographing its citizens. So the true picture of life in North Korea's capital is in the telling, snatched details of ordinary life.

The empty, multi-lane highway from the city's main airport, traffic cops standing in roads almost devoid of cars; commuters riding in rickety but serviceable underground trains, the unsmiling portraits of the nation's father-and-son dictatorship hanging over each carriage doorway.

These images come from David Guttenfelder, chief Asia photographer for the Associated Press, who has been given unprecedented access to the isolated Stalinist state as part of the agency's efforts to expand its coverage there. The pictures are among the most candid ever published in Western newspapers.

Soldiers appear shrunken in their oversized hats and military uniforms. In a city where the short and malnourished are reportedly weeded out for the benefit of visiting foreigners, few have enough to eat and black markets operate off the main streets. About a quarter of the North's 24 million people need food aid, according to The World Food Programme.

The best-fed men in the country seem to be the two who dominate its physical and psychological landscape: founder Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il, a famous epicurean. The tradition continues, if pictures of the family's grandson and heir, the porky Kim Jong-un, are any indication. Pyongyang watchers wonder if his rise will finally detonate the regime's downfall.

With few factories, the unpolluted air over Pyongyang is crisp and clear, though at dusk, with power stations struggling to crank out enough electricity to light up the streets, the city turns prison-grey. At night, dim 40-watt bulbs wink from apartments. The brightest-lit structures are the illuminated Kim portraits dotted throughout the city and the560ft Juche Tower, a monument to Kim Il-Sung's deluded philosophy of self-reliance.

At the 1,000-room Yanggakdo Hotel, the lights are on for the foreigners in the top floors, but from outside the entire middle section above the lobby is dark. Foreign visitors are hustled around approved Pyongyang, ending at the 100ft bronze statue of Kim Il-sung. The encounter with the cult of Kim climaxes in front of the "Great Leader's" embalmed corpse in Kumsusan Palace, a tumescent monument to his mythological greatness.

Most visitors emerge at best amused by its funereal, worshipful treatment of the man in the sarcophagus; at worst appalled that one of Asia's most infamous dictators is accorded such false-idol status. Amid the stereotyped images of a country seemingly going backwards in history, however, signs of progress. International mobile phones are confiscated but Chinese-made Huawei cell phones proliferate: more than 535,000 people in North Korea now use them. Technology is slowly arriving and with it, perhaps, the chance for greater freedom in a country where people are famously told they have "nothing to envy".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea