Ever since the American president Donald Trump took office, the tensions between the United States and North Korea have warmed, heated and recently boiled to untenable temperatures. Trump has called Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, both a madman and a “Little Rocket Man” on a suicide mission. Jong-un has responded by labelling Trump a “rogue” and a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” In their latest salvo—a seemingly more substantive exchange than childish name-calling—Trump tweeted that the regime’s leaders “won’t be around much longer.” In response, North Korea’s foreign minister stated that this was, in effect, a declaration of war.
Beneath the overheated rhetoric, there are two countries populated by millions of people who know precious little about one another. As detailed very effectively in a recent New Yorker article, the amount of ignorance on both sides is astonishing. The misunderstandings begin between the countries’ two leaders and run down to the common person on the street.
It is in this context that the work of British photographer Tariq Zaidi is so valuable. In his words, the DPRK (North Korea’s official name) is “one of the most mysterious places in the world.” Because so few outsiders are given permission to visit the country, the world has remarkably little insight into what happens there on a day-to-day basis. And because outside media is so restricted, the North Korean populace lives in a shroud of misinformation.
Attracted by this mystery, Zaidi braved the logistic difficulties and traveled to North Korea. In two weeks, he traversed large parts of the country, beginning in Dandong (on the Chinese border) in the north and reaching the DMZ in the south, photographing along the way. His original intent was to visit a beer festival held annually in the country, an occasion in which “foreigners and locals can officially interact and take photos (relatively) freely.” Unfortunately, this year’s beer festival was “indefinitely postponed,” forcing Zaidi on a more tightly guided tour of the country.
This selection of images offers an important glimpse of the country behind the headlines, propaganda and politics. In Zaidi’s words, “To a great extent, the DPRK from the outside looks just like any other place. After all, everyone in the world wants to be respected, wants to work, wants a better life for their children, worries about their children’s future. Everyone also enjoys having a beer, singing, dancing, laughing, and playing. Of course, it is also radically different, as my pictures show. But overall, if you put politics aside (which I have tried to do in this photo essay), it is a scenic and beautiful country, probably one of the cleanest you will ever visit. It is filled with hospitable people who will go out of their way to help you.”
That said, it is important to note that all of these photographs had to be approved by Zaidi’s North Korean minders; many had to be deleted before he left the country. As Zaidi told us, “On many occasions I was asked by my guides to see my images, some of which they politely requested to be deleted. Sometimes, their demands seemed inexplicable—there was no seemingly no sensitive information in an image but they still asked for it to be erased. When asked why, their response was a simple: ‘We only want you to take the best pictures possible—please try to take only good pictures.’”
All of that is to say, Zaidi’s images feel authentic but we should keep in mind the high degree of control. As Zaidi himself concluded, “Of course, the only question I can’t answer is whether that positive image I found was all staged or real. And that, I think, is up to each individual to decide for themselves.”
If you’d like to see more work on this and similar subjects, we’d recommend these articles: Intimate Perspective on North Korea, a series that explores the day-to-day life in the isolated country, and Searching for a Human Side of North Korea, a photographic effort to pierce the mutual veil of misunderstanding.