Five days with my North Korean minders
Pyongyang, North Korea
By Jason Lee
From stepping on to the Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang on the evening of July 24th until my return on the 29th, I didn’t stop taking pictures. Our group from Reuters, visiting the secretive state of North Korea for its celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, often found ourselves with no time to eat. It was only in the taxi on the way home from Beijing airport that I had time to think back on my trip.
It was the experience of a lifetime, a nation of 22 million people showing a depression and weakness of spirit that I tried my best to interpret through my cameras.
But it can also be seen through my experience with the closest North Korean people to me during the trip – the minders, the name we gave to the “guides” deployed by the government to accompany foreign media.
Probably because our Reuters group had a Korean American journalist, we got “special treatment”: two minders. One was a meek translator with no experience (I will refer him as Minder M) and the other a gruff chap (Minder G), who later turned out to be the head of a surveillance team assigned to the journalists’ shuttle bus. Upon our arrival in Pyongyang, I received a friendly warning from both of them: Please check with us before you take any picture.
Our first event was to cover the opening ceremony of the Cemetery of Fallen Fighters of the Korean People’s Army. None of the visiting journalists had been told that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, would be there, and in the ensuing media scrum to grab a shot of the latest, mysterious ruler of the Kim dynasty, Minder G was very kind, holding me steady as I stood on tiptoe on top of a ladder carrying three cameras.
But that started to change when we moved on to the square of the Kumsusan, or Palace of the Sun, the mausoleum of North Korea’s founder and the current leader’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung. I wanted to take pictures of children bowing to the portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, his son and the current leader’s father. Minder G eventually said yes, but requested that I bow first.
Later on, he decided to start teaching me how to take pictures: “You shouldn’t shoot from the back, you should shoot from the side.” After a few minutes, he noticed that I was waiting for someone to pass by to include in a shot, so he offered to perform the scene for me. I declined. Another few minutes passed and he then arranged for three students to walk past in front of me. I tried to explain to him that we were not allowed to set up pictures, but he just looked at me as if this was beyond his comprehension.
The next morning I complained to Minder G about his unreasonable control over me, getting in reply an awkward silence. When we went out again, I could gradually see how much stress he was under.
Later that night, we were to shoot the “Arirang” mass dance performance. All the journalists were focusing on the podium for the arrival of leader Kim Jong-un. However, after about five minutes of shooting, a large group of security staff emerged and stopped us from taking any more pictures of the podium. They pushed away the lenses of anyone who tried.
Minder G had a more effective way — he put his hand on my camera’s monopod, allowing him to more or less control its direction. I wasn’t in the mood to argue, because ultimately he was just doing what he was told. There were no other words in his mind except “carry out orders”.
On the morning of the 27th was the most important event: the military parade. Apparently there was no ban on photographing Kim Jong-un any more. Instead, Minder G started giving me instructions on how to photograph the leader, he even “borrowed” my long lens to watch who was on the podium, making it impossible for me to shoot. He might have thought those were friendly gestures, but I was getting close to the edge. I tried to show my frustration to Minder M, but he turned a deaf ear.
A day later, it started to rain heavily in the afternoon. My TV colleagues and I decided to go to a mass dance performance that night, although many journalists were willing to skip it, including our Korean American text reporter. As we were leaving the hotel, I found out only Minder M was with us. Before I could start to feel lucky, he began yelling at us out of the blue: “You must listen to me. Stay together!” I tried to calm him down: “Relax, this is the last event. It’s going to be a simple one, very simple.” I even convinced him to let me bring my laptop, so that I could file my pictures earlier.
But that wasn’t the end of the drama. I was stopped at the security checkpoint ahead of the performance after my TV colleague had already passed through. The soldiers ordered me to take the laptop back to the bus. I could immediately tell this news was a lightning bolt to Minder M, as he would have to leave my colleague and me, walk away from his duty, and go out in the heavy rain to find our bus. He didn’t have the luxury of a mobile phone to help. It took him about 30 minutes to come back, and I will never forget the angry and depressed expression on his face. I apologized and tried to tell him that I understood he was serious about his job, that he could share his thoughts with us. But he didn’t.
On the last day in Pyongyang, Minder M was sitting next to me as we traveled to the airport. I showed him some pictures on my phone — pictures of my family, my dog. He was very interested, so I began to tell him more about Beijing. I said that many people could not afford housing in Beijing because of the high property prices, and said that the economy was good in China but the air and water quality much worse. He spoke in a low voice, and finally, almost secretly, told me I was welcome to come back to his country again. “The first time we are friends, the second time we will be best friends, and the third time we will be brothers.” As for Minder G, we apologized to each other during the last dinner, it was a good ending.
The depressions and frustrations of these two men are a mirror of those that mark the lives of many North Korean people. I was lucky to be able to have a chance to document this.