A 26-year-old American was recently granted a visa to travel to North Korea for four days. Taylor Pemberton of Minneapolis flew into Pyongyang, North Korea, from Beijing, China, because there are no direct flights from the United States to the secretive military state.
The young traveler documented his experience in the seclusive country in a series of incredible photographs that he uploaded to popular photo-sharing site Instagram.
On the flight over to North Korea, you’re able to already sense the extreme devotion and dedication to the late Kim Il-Sung. Even though Il-Sung hasn’t been alive since the 90s, the DPRK inhabitants consider him their president and outright great leader. When traveling through various cities, his presence and lineage is on constant display, with many residents proudly displaying pins on their clothing and with various monuments at popular transit points. It’s difficult to find a representation of Il-Sung or his family that hasn’t been artificially fabricated, and most of the history we discussed contained precomposed images to support various historical references. It was clear that no matter what, you pay respect to the great leader and to his rich family history that exists in North Korea today. #contrateur
Though he was continuously monitored 24/7, Pemberton was able to capture fascinating photos of daily life in the dictator state. He was granted the visa a week before he entered the nation.
Before I go any further, I feel it’s important to preface the content I’m about to share. With a country/topic like North Korea, I’d like to be as honest with my observations as possible. Many people have asked me how you gain access to a country that is so restricted. It’s pretty easy, even as an American. What you’ll need is simply time and money. This image is the visa that I was granted about a week before my flight. I flew from Beijing to Pyongyang, while non-Americans were able to cross the border from Dandong by rail. I got this visa because I applied via the various tourism companies that service North Korea. My trip was 4 days, and we had two guides: one male, one female. It’s also important to note that you are NOT able to roam free at any given time. You follow a strict itinerary and you are on a tight schedule to see what North Korea allows. You stay in a hotel that is isolated on an island, and you are strictly informed when it is okay/not okay to take photos. However! with thousands of visitors each year, the fabric loosens, and that’s where things start to get interesting. You’re able to witness the the imperfections, the infinite nuances… the hiccups that reveal why some foreigners have become so obsessed and return year after year to live with what exists behind the curtain. I’ll admit, it was a tough decision to fork over the money to travel to North Korea. There are serious things to consider, not all of which I’m comfortable supporting. I’ve been debating this trip for over 9 months, and it wasn’t until 4 weeks ago that I finally pulled the trigger. The flight in from Beijing was short, and when we touched down in Pyongyang, I was nervous. In fact, I don’t think I was ever fully at ease. I’m not by any means the first to visit North Korea. There were other foreigners all visiting Pyongyang when I was there. I was lucky to get paired with an insightful and intelligent group of 6 other travelers, ranging from 25 to 71 years old. My family was worried, so were my friends, but I went because the DPRK is so complicated. It was ultimately a tough decision, but one that was so so worth it. #contrateur A photo posted by Taylor Pemberton (@pemberton) on Aug 19, 2015 at 5:27am PDT
As protocol, tourists arriving in the country must declare any communication devices, art, literature and food.
North Korea considers itself a self-reliant socialist state. One of the benefits, they proclaim, is the subsidizing of core necessities: housing, healthcare, education, food, general commodities, etc. One of the things I noticed right away is that clothing choices appear standardized. Men generally wear slacks, dress shoes, and collared shirts. There are no consumer brands, no logos, no advertisements. There is most definitely nothing provocative or alluring worn or presented in public. It reminded me of simpler times, perhaps the early 20th century (minus the hats). After asking about this, I was told there are very few options to choose from, almost a ’rationing’ of sorts. It was tough to get a clear answer, and I think the mere curiosity seemed confusing to begin with. One thing you can always expect to see, however, is the pin displayed near the breast pocket… this time, a dual representation of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. #contrateur
The young American told Newsbeat: “My cameras, memory cards, and phones were screened on entry.”
Making a portrait of a local is basically impossible due to a tricky separation between tourists and general public. The only reason I was able to capture the man in the last post is because he was distracted by this, a mini-version of mass dance – a celebration that takes place on Liberation Day, a highlight of the trip. (I’ll be sharing more about this soon) #contrateur A photo posted by Taylor Pemberton (@pemberton) on Aug 19, 2015 at 8:53am PDT
The rules by which tourists are allowed to visit North Korea are severely strict as well.
“You are told when to wake up, when meals are available, and when your day is coming to an end.
“Each night you’re granted “leisure time” but you’re limited to roaming inside your hotel that’s strategically placed on an island.”
One of the first things you do in North Korea is go pay respect to the great Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. These bronze statues are 22 meters high and part of a monument complex that was constructed in downtown Pyongyang. You could argue that the two figures depicted here are North Korea’s equivalent of Jesus, the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and Gandhi combined (which still may not even communicate the importance these two hold in North Korean lives). Paying respect here is pretty simple: patrons purchase flowers, lay them at the base of the monument, make a bow, and go on their way. It’s mandatory to do so. #contrateur
The conditions for interacting with locals and taking photos are also incredibly stringent. One of the main conditions that travelers are obligated to adhere to is to refrain from photography military personnel in any circumstance.
Our liaison at the demilitarized zone. He was actually very friendly and laid back, despite having caught him in an evil staredown. #contrateur A photo posted by Taylor Pemberton (@pemberton) on Aug 20, 2015 at 4:34am PDT
Pemberton admitted that he tries to respect these restraints as much as he can during his journey, but he also hopes overstepping boundaries will shed light on more important parts of North Korean life.
One of the first rules you’re told is that you should not, under any circumstance, photograph military personnel. When I took this photo I was moving in a fast bus and didn’t even see the mass of soldiers at ease. Truthfully, you can push these limits if you dare, but the consequences could be disastrous. I did see a few other travelers with robust telephoto lenses which makes me wonder what they captured. I tried to be as respectful as possible through my journey and hope that some of the riskier bits will shine light on some important aspects of North Korean life. #contrateur
A striking difference between North Korea and the rest of the world is their limited access to free information and the internet. Pemberton explained to Newsbeat that locals simply were not aware of the concept of an open world wide web.
Though the tour guides who interact with foreigners have some idea of the internet, they “are basically unaware of the magnitude that internet brings to popular culture.”
North Korea has no internet, no television, no free information. This is the only public news I saw in Pyongyang, where each headline and each image is a tribute to the DPRK and great leader. It’s difficult to wrap your head around the sheer magnitude this imposes for an ecosystem and it’s people. Want to openly make art? Want to free listen to music, or watch films? Want to create or learn anything outside the constructs of formal structure? Sorry, not possible. Even something as trivial as Instagram has had a huge impact on my ability to grow creatively. I’m able to practice the art of photography and documentary. I can be inspired by people I’ve never met. I feel the competition, the pressure to keep growing and exploring. I don’t know where I’d be without the accessibility of free information. I grew up on the Internet. I’ve formed my own conclusions. And for that, I feel very grateful. #contrateur
A photo posted by Taylor Pemberton (@pemberton) on Aug 21, 2015 at 6:41am PDT
Instead, the people of North Korea rely on an “intranet” of resources provided by the government as their source of information.
The Pyongyang Times. This just in: BROCCOLI 🙊 📰 #extraextra #contrateur A photo posted by Taylor Pemberton (@pemberton) on Aug 21, 2015 at 8:01pm PDT
He strategically planned his travel days around Liberation Day, a massive celebration that features a series of choreographed dances and festivities.
A photo posted by Taylor Pemberton (@pemberton) on Aug 20, 2015 at 5:19pm PDT
Even with the ongoing celebrations and festivities, Pemberton sighted evidence of poverty among the citizens:
“The food provided to us was luxury compared to the boiled rice and cabbage which I was told is common in even privileged life.”
Volleyball in Kim Il-Sung square. #contrateur A photo posted by Taylor Pemberton (@pemberton) on Aug 20, 2015 at 6:34am PDT
When he attempted to interact with locals, he was greeted with silence or coldness:
“I felt ignored when trying to wave, smile, or interact with locals. Some people reciprocate but it was nothing like other far away cultures.”
Typical scenes in North Korea happen just like everywhere else in the world. People tease each other, they trip up the stairs, they try to fix their hair in the reflection. I’m inspired by all this because it brings a sense of relation to a society that is alienated for obvious reasons. We were crossing underneath the main road when I saw this. I chose to take this photo (and now post) because it makes me know those things are real, even if it’s just for a moment. #contrateur
A photo posted by Taylor Pemberton (@pemberton) on Aug 23, 2015 at 7:26am PDT
Another surprising disparity Pemberton discovered was North Korea’s different time zone.
While I was in North Korea, a new time zone was established. From what we were told, this was an effort to further identify as an independent nation, one that no longer shares time with South Korea. The DPRK time zone is now 30 minutes prior to what was established when Japan controlled the Korean Peninsula thru WWII. #contrateur A photo posted by Taylor Pemberton (@pemberton) on Aug 20, 2015 at 12:07am PDT
Even with the cultural and world differences that Pemberton encountered in North Korea, he seems to do his best to remain objective.
I'll be sharing a few pieces from mass dance, a celebration in North Korea that takes place during Liberation Day. It's a strictly choreographed and bizzare orchestration which celebrates Korea's separation and independence 70 years ago. This all takes place in Kim Il-Sung square which is surrounded by massive buildings and prominent signage as you see here. This night was when we felt the best energy in Pyongyang. People seemed a bit more cheerful than normal and truly happy to share their excitement through both peers and foreigners. #contrateur
In doing so, it allows him to see the similarities that all people share.
“When all that melts away, and you are able to see the substance in the humanity, it’s amazing.”
I’ve exited North Korea which concludes an incredibly confusing, complicated, enlightening, and joyous study of culture. As I continue to gain experience traveling this world of ours, i’m dumbfounded by the spectrum of complexity that exists from human to human, country to country. I’m excited to share many of the severe contrasts that make up what I saw and felt in the DPRK, a world and society that raised more questions than it solved. #contrateur
A photo posted by Taylor Pemberton (@pemberton) on Aug 18, 2015 at 8:14pm PDT