Photos of Pyongyang are certainly no longer rare, with hundreds of shots taken by tourists emerging on photo-sharing websites every year.
But while such pictures are well known for spawning countless gallery-driven albums on newspaper websites, the commentaries provided on them often comes from tourists who think their work shows a “glimpse” into real life in North Korea.
The London-based photographer Michael Huniewicz, for example, nearly “risked detention” for publishing a series of well-taken but otherwise unremarkable shots of the typical sites on the North Korean tourist route.
What, though, do former citizens of Pyongyang think when they see photos like these? And what can their memories tell us about the reality of life in the North Korean capital?
To better understand, NK News showed a series of 25 photos taken this and last year to former residents of the capital, the first 12 of which are published today.
Park Chol Su (alias) and Kim Jun Hyuk (alias), the two former residents who looked over the shots, left in 2012 and 2015 respectively. Park was a former Korean People’s Army officer, while Kim was a former business person in the construction sector.
Photo 1: Practice for a public display
Once, I had to use a plastic bottle… as no one was allowed to go to the restroom one hour from the event
Park Chol Su: You have no idea how tiresome this gets. The actual final event would start around evening, but you have to be on standby outside from early in the morning, like 3 or 4 am. Once, I had to use a plastic bottle… as no one was allowed to go to the restroom for one hour from the event. The worst part comes when the major event is over. Everyone – who has nothing else in mind but to go back home – would get loose from the line and rush to the direction they have to go. It would be complete chaos after the event.
Kim Jun Hyuk: It makes me sick looking at this… You have to train around six months just to show off in a one-hour long event. The university students who are drafted would spend about two to three hours after school practicing this for five straight months. A month before the event, they would skip the whole class and spend every moment to practice this. That is why some of the students attending universities in Pyongyang would study over four years in school, as many had to skip classes to take part in this.
Photo 2: Pyongyang subway
Which book I read (using cellphone)? Hmm… lots of South Korean books
Park: When I left North Korea cell phones were only seen in Pyongyang, Pyongsong, and Nampo. About 60 percent of the Pyongyang citizens had phones at the time. Cells started to become widely popular from 2013 to 2014. When I left, a scene like this – where a man would look at his phone on the way to the subway – wasn’t so familiar, and the phones we used were limited to old style flip phones.
Kim: I used to read e-books using a smartphone like this. I shared data with others using Bluetooth or SD cards. Which books did I read? Hmm… lots of South Korean books. I read just about every kind, including a collection of life tips and lots of novels, but I didn’t know who the authors were at the time.
Photo 3: Wedding celebration
Look at those awful flower ornaments, are you sure these people are from Pyongyang?
Park: Many people would celebrate a wedding at their home. But some people would do it at the places we call “wedding restaurant,” where they provide Karaoke service as well. Weddings in Pyongyang are quite standardized. After the wedding, the couple would visit the Mansudae Grand Monument and greet the (statues of) former leaders. Later, they would go to the Mansudae Art Theatre and take wedding photos.
But look at those awful flower ornaments, are you sure these people are from Pyongyang? I think they could’ve come from the countryside.
Kim: Are you asking me if they are part of the government setups to look good on foreign travelers’ eyes? No, a man wearing a suit and a woman wearing Hanbok (Korean traditional dress): this is how many people celebrate their wedding in Pyongyang.
Photo 4: Construction on Ryomyong Street
Once the construction is done, the price of that street (Ryomyong Street) will be even higher
Park: Wow, isn’t that The Tower of Immortality? I didn’t see those buildings being built before I left. Once the construction of the apartment is done, around 50% of the floors would go to the government while 20% would go to the investors who paid for the construction process.
The construction business is very lucrative because you don’t have to pay the workers like you do in South Korea. Also, you can just dredge sand from the Taedong River and use them for the construction.
Apparently, the location where they are building those skyscrapers at already had the highest land prices in Pyongyang. Once the construction is done, the price of that street (Ryomyong Street) will be even higher.
Photo 5: Students preparing for a mass rally
Those sticks in their hands? They are used to spin them in their hands during the mass rally
Park: By looking at their badges, I can see they are most likely university students. The girl on the left is carrying a lunch box, and this scene looks like they are drafted to take part in some mass rally. Those sticks in their hands? They are used to spin them in their hands during the mass rally.
Kim: Those are torch lights used for the mass rally during the night time.
Photo 6: Street cleaning
Kim: They are the workers from the Department of Pyongyang City Management. Part of their job is to wash and clean the city facilities on a daily basis.
Photo 7: KPA Veterans
Around 70% of the university students are formed of KPA veterans
Park: Look at how short their hair is, they must have just left the Korean People’s Army (KPA). Around 70% of university students are formed of KPA veterans, while only 30% would come straight after finishing North Korean high schools.
Kim: They are the former KPA. Their hair is too short to be anything else. Many would do their ten years mandatory military service and then join the university, often meaning a huge age gap between students even in the same grade.
Photo 8: Dredging the Taedong-gang
The number of them (drenching boats) has increased significantly in the recent years
Park: Dredging? I didn’t see ships like this on the Taedong River when I left.
Kim: These are dredging ships, they existed for quite a time, but the number of them has increased significantly in the recent years.
Why? Because including Ryomyong Street, buildings are going up in many places in Pyongyang.
Photo 9: Sauna time
This would be the best sauna they (North Koreans) have experienced
Kim: One side of these buildings has sauna facilities, and the other has an outdoor ice-skating rink. The facility inside is not that bad. Of course, South Korea has better saunas than this, but in North Korean eyes this would be the best sauna they have experienced. However, as the building is made of parts imported from China, objectively speaking, it isn’t the best one.
Photo 10: Learning propaganda
The contents are quite repetitive so it isn’t that hard (to memorize for the test)
Park: Yeah, all of that propaganda was on the school tests. We had to memorize every bit of it to attend university and to graduate from school. It isn’t as hard as you might imagine, though, as every North Korean around the age of nine or ten starts memorizing it. The contents are quite repetitive, so it isn’t that hard.
However, only during the test period is when many people concentrate and try to memorize the whole lot. Once the tests are over, we would return to the “blank” state, telling ourselves “Wow we made it.”
Photo 11: Sports
Volleyball, basketball, soccer and table tennis are the four most popular sports in North Korea
Park: Volleyball, basketball, soccer and table tennis are the four most popular sports in North Korea. I’d never heard or learned about foot volleyball (popular among South Korean males) until I came to the South.
Photo 12: Pyongyang ruins
Any buildings that can degrade the beauty of it (Pyongyang) soon get demolished
Park: There aren’t many “ruins” in Pyongyang. As the city is considered like Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s face, any buildings that can degrade the beauty of it soon get demolished. Normally, it is about one year before a building is considered as “troublesome” if it is left as a ruin.
Part 2 of the story is to be published on Friday.
Featured Image: NK News