North Korea is one of the most enigmatic countries in the world, with limited access by foreign media as well as tourists. Everything in this last communist state is controlled by the government – from an ideological, cultural, and political perspective in the world.
Nevertheless, Belgian photographer Carl De Keyzer became one of the few international photographers to tour the country and take photos of the happenings, albeit high supervision. The photographer spent 30 months during his four trips in 2015 and 2017, traversing the most mysterious country in the entire world.
What is De Keyzer known for?
De Keyzer has been captivated by the power structures as well as the impact of power on society. Among other international political situations, he captured the fall of the Soviet Union, religious fanaticism in the United States, and the decline of Cuba.
What De Keyzer’s photos show
With unprecedented access to the country officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, De Keyzer managed to document over 200 locations courtesy of his travel agent KoryoTours.
The images include the orderly architecture of tourist landmarks, state monuments, schools, social places, the closeness of private homes, and the spectacular natural landscapes of North Korea. Overall, most of the images captured showcase daily life in North Korea.
Some of the areas De Keyzer took photos of is the then newly launched Monsu Waterpark, Masikyrong Ski Resort, the Pyongyang Zoo, as well as the contemporary skyscrapers that the leader of the state Kim Jong-un had constructed in the context of his desire to find a socialist dream country.
Restricted access & forbidden photos
Speaking of his journey across the state, De Keyzer states:
I was brought from A to B by two guides, mostly young women, in a minivan with a driver. When we arrived, there was usually a speech by a local guide to be translated, and after all that, there was very little time to take pictures. A lot of places were ‘no photography’ as well, even the most propagandistic ones like the Army museum in Pyongyang. I was not allowed to take even one step on my own. Never to leave the hotel. I tried to make as many images as I could, even the ones that were not allowed. The guides knew that in the end, I had to submit all the images anyway.”
But as luck would have it, just three of the 400 images he submitted were refused. Most of the pictures that he was not allowed to take, including those of buildings with scaffolding, soldiers, the countryside, and people without permission, were, to his surprise, granted for his final documentation.
However, De Keyzer wanted to visit and photographed some other places in the country but was denied permission. One of these places was the International Friendship Museum in Pyongyang. In there, all the presents from the heads of states around the world are shown. He also wanted to take a photograph of the Palace of the Sun, where the mausoleums or mausolea of previous leaders are.
Reality vs. propaganda
For many years, North Korea has been a pariah state in the world, and the Western media and papers have believed to have played a hand in spreading propaganda about the country. According to De Keyzer, the images he took are nothing like what the country is being portraited in western media.
“There is a lot of western propaganda as well. We like to see DPRK as the next big enemy if only to sell papers and media. I could be wrong. Of course, there is a decent amount of manipulation going on with visitors, but I would say that a lot of information is exaggerated.”
Exhibitions & Book
The photos were shown at the American University Museum in Washington, DC, in 2017, just a few miles from the White House. The exhibition was titled States of Mind, and it contained 60 prints from De Keyzer’s collection. The display was the last in a series of Korea-themed exhibitions organized by Jack Rasmussen.
After taking snaps of various places he visited in the country, De Keyzer published a book titled DPR Korea Grand Tour, which comprises over 250 images of North Korea.
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The images from North Korea help to humanize the citizens of the state in the eyes of the world, and Rasmussen believes that because of these images, one has to at least think twice about dropping bombs on them.
The children in the images appear clean and fresh and well-fed; the men are more sophisticated, and the women elegant. There is nowhere that hints of the bad news that is always reported by the western media. In many western papers and media, the story is usually about malnutrition, refugee camps, human rights violations, poverty, and dictatorship. But with a mixture of golden-sweet pastel hues, modern architecture, red flags, and lively citizens, De Keyzer depicts an overall image of a country in which it is not as challenging to stay as it has been made to look.
While the western media paints North Korea as falling apart, De Keyzer presents it as antiseptic, literally so, with images of bedroom furniture enclosed behind a glass wall.
These images show that North Korea is not as many western media and papers have painted it. But many people believe that De Keyzer’s photos do not give a comprehensive picture of what North Korea really is. Or maybe the real message of the images is lost in different translations by viewers.
In some images, De Keyzer documents a pair of hotplates cooking a meal, and next to them is a television displaying a vivid scene of raging artillery guns. That appears to be a telling touch within dull tableaux. Another thing that could escape the attention of viewers is how De Keyzer presented the images. In one photo, we can see framed portraits of the country’s dictators from the Kim family, who seem to have an all-too-real influence on their subjects. Also, in some images, we can see people in the street where they seem a bit scared. In the end, it is still hard to tell what De Keyzer and his minders would have wanted to be revealed to the outside world.
Photos: Life in Pyongyang
Photos: Life outside of Pyongyang
All images: Carl De Keyzer. All captions: Koryo Tours. Text and images approved by Pyongyang. Used with permission.