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".

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn