Life in enemy territory
The portrayal of "normal everyday life" in North Korea surprises those who see it
Photo-sharing app Instagram has become a valuable source of insight into North Korea, as foreigners there with Internet access document everyday life as best they can within the rules that govern what visitors are allowed to see. Koryolink, North Korea’s tourist-only data service, was launched in 2013, the same year that the use of mobile phones by foreigners was finally permitted within its borders.
Internet access is not cheap: A prepaid 3G SIM card costs US$80 (Bt2,700) and data costs extra, with some reports putting it at $200 for 2 gigabytes.
Access to Instagram was briefly blocked last month in what North Korea watchers think was an attempt to cover up the fire at the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang. The platform is now accessible again.
Not many people are active on Instagram while exploring North Korea. The few that have banded together to form the project @EverydayDPRK, a collective account where a number of verified Instagram users collate their photographs that has attracted 56,800 followers.
The collective was founded by David Guttenfelder, a National Geographic Society Fellow who helped open the Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang in 2011, and contributors include the operators of Koryo Tours and Uri Tours, as well as expats living and working in North Korea.
Simon Cockerell, the general manager of Koryo Tours, is due to visit North Korea for the 144th time this month. His Instagram account, @simonkoryo, depicts his many encounters throughout his travels across the country, with pictures of streetscapes, public spaces like parks and squares, and locals going about their jobs.
In addition to current images, the company has recently launched @koryotours to publish their archive of photographs taken since tours began in 1993. Each of Cockerell’s photographs is eagerly dissected by his followers, intrigued by the latest chance at sighting the commonplace in the DPRK. Many of the posts are also met with surprise, with people blanching at the portrayal of North Koreans going about everyday activities. “I think people simply don’t expect to see a picture of anything looking at all like ‘normality’ from North Korea,“ he says.
“If they see anything a little more mundane, such as someone eating an ice cream, some children playing, someone riding a bike … while what we see is far from all there is that exists in the country, it is still a side of life being lived, and when we see it we realise that the many millions of people in the country do other things than march in uniform.”
Shin Choi has also faced these reactions. A Canadian lecturer who spent six months teaching English at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, Choi posted images of his experiences in the city on his account @shinchoi.
“Some of the comments that I get are critical of my photographs … because of the hyper exposure of the same types of images we see in the mass media: poverty, or the regime, or the military. And when we don’t see that, we ask, why isn’t that there? Well it is powerful, it is there, but people still live day-to-day within that system, as anyone else would in the world.”
Foreigners posting photos inside North Korea are by no means roaming freely. They are accompanied at all times by a guide, and only have access to certain areas of the country. While the photographs that people are able to capture are limited to what has been deemed appropriate for foreigners to see, the account holders maintain the value in sharing these rare images.
Cockerell reflects that some access is far better than none. “We see one side of life and not the deepest, darkest parts of the country. But what we see is not a performance made for foreigners; we see real life and real people going about their real business. It’s a tiny glimpse, but it is a real glimpse.”