Never before or since my short trip to North Korea have I felt so perplexed about the realities of a country. It’s easy to know certain things: it’s a hermit nation, it’s citizens have little to no access to the outside world, it’s been run by a family of despots since the end of the Korean War, and it seemingly revels in its own bad behavior, taunting the world but stopping just short of biting the hands that feed it. But like all things worth exploring, what’s on the surface can be a very shallow reflection of the place as a whole.
During my few days in country, I met some of the nicest, most intelligent people I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking with. North Koreans, born and raised. They would talk to me about the US’s foreign policies, about Vietnam’s peculiar brand of communism, and about many other things, but they would never talk about their own country. Except to say how great their Dear & Great Leaders were, or to proclaim how they wanted for nothing in North Korea. Which, well. Obviously. It made for a perplexing read on things. Lines were blurred from the start. I would see the same people over and over again. The man in the park was also the man in the museum. That family over there was having a picnic in the woods the day before. Maybe. I think. I don’t know. In a nation where every piece of reality seems fabricated, where is the final line drawn?
So that’s what I tried to show in the photographs I took. An unreal reality. A constant fog over the eyes. Blurred edges. Shadowy figures. A constant kind of questioning. But even now, so far removed from it, I have no idea what I really saw.
There’s no simple way to talk about North Korea. It defies easy categorization. It’s the kind of place that lends itself well to stereotypes and slandering. It’s stuck in the past. It’s led by an egotistical family dynasty and exploits the very things it purports to champion, like peasants and workers and a failing communist ideology. It’s locked in from the rest of the world. It’s insane on several levels. It’s nowhere you’d ever want to find yourself. These are the things that are beaten into us by news cycles the world over. And most of them aren’t wrong. But they’re also a bit sensationalized. It’s an absolutely gorgeous country, with people that are by turns friendly, helpful, informative, aloof, busy, mean, distracted, shy, smiling, scowling, and more. Like everyone and everywhere else in the world.
But it’s difficult to talk about North Korea because you never really know if what you’re saying or feeling hasn’t been put in place by someone or something else. Did I think that woman was friendly because someone told her to be friendly? Were these people dancing and having a picnic on this hillside because someone told them that tourists would be coming through, and that it would look good to be dancing and having a picnic on this hillside? Have the answers to my questions been coached? Are we being driven to only the most beautiful parts of town? Are the children smiling because they’re happy or afraid? There’s no way to really ever know. It’s hard to take politics and ongoing human rights violations out of the equation when talking about the country. Nor should you. But that’s a shame, because it could be such a beautiful place. Or rather it is such a beautiful place. But the cost of beauty and peace and serenity and quaintness and oddity is much too high. It’s a conversation that could go on forever, but who has the time. These are just meant to be photographs. Nothing more.