Inside North Korea: No one said anything
Questions immediately filled my mind when I learned I would be part of a Reuters team heading to North Korea to cover a ceremony, where it was rumored Kim Jong-il’s son and heir apparent would make his debut.
- Would I be able to take pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il? No photographer outside North Korea had taken his picture for a while.
- What access would I have to the parade? I worried they’d put us in some corner far away from the action.
- How would I transmit my pictures? Some people said we wouldn’t have Internet connections.
- Where would we sleep? I had heard there are two good hotels in Pyongyang, but one is on an island and difficult to leave without close supervision.
- Would I be able to shoot photos of ordinary street life?
Upon landing in Pyongyang with about 70 other members of the international media, we went through the passport and custom control where we handed over our mobile phones. I took a couple of pictures at the airport and no one said anything.
Soon after, we were introduced to our minders, and bundled into Chinese made cars (BYD) for the trip to the city. I had flashbacks from the 1980s when I had traveled through some eastern European countries, but my impression of Pyongyang was better than I had expected. The city and people are clean, with neat haircuts, modest clothes, and all wearing a patriotic badge on the left side of their chests.
After checking into our rooms at the Koryo Hotel, which is very close to the Kim-il Sung square (and not on the feared island), we were told to prepare to leave the hotel the next morning at 7 am. Before heading to bed, I went to the media center on the second floor and tested the Internet connection. Bingo! To my great pleasure, it was a pretty fast Internet line.
So, two of my concerns had already been put to rest.
In the morning, we were given arm bands identifying us as journalists and we received invitation tickets for an event. A convoy of cars took us to an unknown location.
The atmosphere was solemn. On the street, men wore suits and women wore the traditional Korean dress called a hanbok. While the convoy was delayed at a security checkpoint, I joined other colleagues who started taking pictures of passers-by. I couldn’t resist and snapped some shots of North Korean soldiers going in and out of a gate nearby. No one said anything.
Ten minutes later, we were ushered through the final security check where soldiers examined invitation tickets. I took some more pictures and… no one said anything.
I asked one of our minders if we had some sort of seats or assigned places, and he smiled, saying “Just wait, you will see.” I worried there would be too many people in front of me and was eager to get through quickly to establish a better position.
Finally through the security checks, I was shepherded through a crowded hallway and out toward a huge square named after DPRK founding leader Kim Il-sung. I couldn’t believe my eyes — international media was being given front line access! We were standing on the edge of the square with no ropes or security guard in front. I walked around, taking pictures of army officers and VIPs. Using an opportunity to take some shots unusual for North Korea, low angle, close ups. No drama. No one said anything.
Suddenly, to the accompaniment of loud brass music, soldiers started marching and filling the square. I took a look back at the balcony where Kim Jong-il was supposed to be seated. I spotted him and to his left was his son, Kim Jong-un. Using my long lens, I kept shooting for a while. It wasn’t a great angle, but I didn’t have time to move. At one point, Kim Jong-il took a quick, stern look towards his son. Snap! I knew this was the shot I needed.
The ceremony concluded with civilians waving flowers and chanting “manse” — wishing a long life to their leader. Some of them were even in tears. I looked back and Kim Jong-il was very close on the balcony, applauding the crowd. I kept shooting while the chants continued in the background. Manse! Manse! Manse!
The next morning, we were taken to the Party Foundation Monument, where some 200 people were sitting on the ground, listening to music while others danced. I took some quick pictures. Behind the monument, I found a park where a man was taking pictures of his family, some kids were reading books and playing around. I took some more pictures and then walked back to the street to take shots of pedestrians, a group of soldiers entering an underpass, some traffic pictures. Still, no one said anything.
In the afternoon, I had opportunities to take more photos of regular people and army officers. People were polite and honorable, I exchanged a smile with some of them whenever we made eye contact. No one said anything.
Now, back in Beijing, I keep thinking about my trip to North Korea. I feel privileged to have been able to cover such an unusual event. It was by far the best assignment in my more than 30 years as a professional photographer and an opportunity of a lifetime. In three days, I took thousands of photos and transmitted about one hundred to our global clients.
Throughout the trip, no one said anything. And I hope it remains that way.