Lost world: Scenes from North Korea's closed society

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

David McNeill
Friday 05 August 2011 00:00
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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".

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