The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is one of the world’s most isolated regimes, an international pariah. Since its foundation, three generations of autocrats from the Kim family have imposed a Soviet-style dynasty on the country. Few photos have ever made it out, but now a British photojournalist is changing that.
Organized and overseen by state agencies, international visits to North Korea tend to be meticulously managed. Tourists are chaperoned between sites and discouraged from interacting freely with locals. Sometimes they must submit to bizarre formalities too, such as bowing before statues of Kim Il-Sung, the founder of North Korea, and his son, Kim Jong-Il.
But despite these restrictions, Seoul-based photographer Ed Jones has returned from North Korea with a slew of intimate portraits and candid street photography. He has been pushing the country’s journalistic boundaries ever since his employer, the news agency Agence France-Presse, opened a bureau in the North Korean capital Pyongyang in 2016.
As an autonomous state, North Korea was created in 1945 when the United States divided the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel. South Korea fell under American control; North Korea was controlled by the Soviet Union. The demilitarized zone pictured above runs for 160 miles between the two countries. It was created in 1953 during an armistice in the Korean War.
The war, which claimed a million lives and began when the north invaded the south in 1950, has technically and legally never ended. For that reason, North Korea maintains a formidable military constituted by one in five men of serviceable age. In fact, with approximately nine million active, reserve and paramilitary troops, the Korean People’s Army is one of the world’s largest military forces.
But the North Korean military is also an instrument of domestic control. According to German sociologist Max Weber, all nation states claim a monopoly on “legitimate use of physical force” against their citizens. And according to French Marxist Louis Althusser, a military organization such as the Korean People’s Army represents a “repressive state apparatus.”
One way in which the North Korean state attempts to legitimize its power – and by extension, the power of the Kim dynasty – is through public rituals. In the political realm, rituals represent much more than public theater. According to anthropologists A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and Bronislaw Malinowski, for example, rituals stabilize, regulate and bind a community to shared values.
Consequently, North Korean military parades sometimes incorporate the colors and symbols of traditional Korean culture. There is a joyous quality to picture above. Participants wield bunches of pink blossom beneath a float depicting a rocket. However, the scene is also suggestive of a political slogan used by the totalitarian regime in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 – “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.”
“Ask anyone to conjure up an image of North Korea and it would probably be of a mass military parade, with thousands of faces and feet moving in perfect sync,” wrote Jones on an AFP blog in 2016. Indeed, rallies are performances, orchestrated and more symbolic than real. What then are the actual quality and character of life behind state-managed choreographies?
For one thing, the country works, with heavy industry receiving the lion’s share of state investment funds. The men pictured above work for the Chollima Steel Complex, built in 1939 under Japanese colonial administration. Located south-west of Pyongyang, Chollima employs 8,000 people. It is one of the largest steel works in North Korea.
Aside from metallurgy, national industries include mining, food processing and textiles, with garments said to be the country’s most lucrative export. The 25-year-old woman pictured above works for the Kim Jong-Suk silk mill in Pyongang. It employs 1,600 people and is named after Kim Jong-Un’s grandmother. Jones described the mill as “a regular fixture on the itineraries of foreign journalists and tourists.”
Likewise, the woman above is one of 300 traffic security officers employed exclusively by Pyongyang. The role is unique in that it demands compulsory retirement at the age of 26. According to Jones, this serves to “ensure a steady supply of photogenic young women who are the favorite subject of visiting tourists and journalists.”
Generally, gender relations in North Korea appear to be complicated. The state has legislated to extend rights to women, including work rights and rights of marriage and divorce. Women work at all levels of society. But men appear to significantly outnumber women in the highest-paid positions. Despite egalitarian reforms, the country remains ostensibly patriarchal.
Nonetheless, there are signs that a revolution in the domestic sphere may be quietly transforming North Korea. According to some researchers, women may now be the main earners in most homes, partly because men are often compelled to work for free. In fact, women’s salaries may be twice as high as the traditional salaries of men, prompting some to describe their husbands as “pets.”
Beyond work, marriage and political rallies, life in North Korea involves recreation, although its depiction tends to be stage managed too. The photo above was taken at the tourist stop-off of West Sea Barrage beach near the city of Nampho. Looking happy for cameras isn’t such a bad job, but the subjects of this image do actually seem to be enjoying themselves.
In fact, Kim Jong-Un has been attempting to improve the country’s recreational facilities and in doing so improve “the lives of his fellow millennials.” The dictator has commissioned scores of new venues, including amusement parks, water parks and horse-riding clubs. Depicting a man posing for a photo on a model horse, the image above was taken at a “Folk Park” in Pyongyang in 2015.
Meanwhile, some of Jones’s most intriguing street photography was taken at off-the-beaten track locations, as this photo attests. Taken on the outskirts of the coastal city of Hamhung, it shows people pushing bicycles on a dirt road, perhaps on their way to work.
This image depicts a street in the coastal city of Chongjin, chimneys rising starkly over a crowded array of rooftops. Sometimes called the City of Iron, Chongjin is the third-largest city in the country. It serves as an industrial hub with car manufacturing, a shipyard and steel works.
However, as much Jones’s photos capture hitherto unseen textures of North Korean life, there remains much that is hidden and undocumented. Several inhumane prison camps are known to operate throughout the country where torture, slave labor, starvation, malnutrition and secret executions are everyday realities. The camps are home to approximately 150,000 to 200,000 political prisoners.
In an age of global connections and economic interdependence, North Korea stands alone, internationally isolated, a disturbing throwback to the Cold War-era. Nuclear weapons may or may not protect it from aggressors, but if the country is to truly modernize, it must throw open its doors to outsiders. And the above photos suggest that the regime may be moving very slightly towards a more open diplomatic position.