A look inside North Korea, the hermit kingdom

Interview

An interview with photojournalist Julia Leeb

A look inside North Korea, the hermit kingdom

A look inside North Korea, the hermit kingdom
A look inside North Korea, the hermit kingdom

27 oktober 2014

Now that Kim Jong-Un, Supreme Leader of North Korea, has resurfaced and all speculation of a coup or his death has been halted, the world can divert their attention away once again from what is known as the most isolated country in the world. MO.be interviews Julia Leeb, the German photojournalist who recently was offered a rare glimpse of North Korea for her book 'North Korea, Anonymous Country'. 'What do we really know about these 24 million people living in absolute isolation?'

© teNeues

Were you accompanied by a government official whilst working?

‘There were plenty of opportunities to take pictures without supervision.’

Julia Leeb: Every visitor in the “hermit kingdom” is accompanied by two local guides and a driver. They supervise both the visitors as well as each other. Full control however is impossible. Since I was lucky enough to get to travel in a group of two with my travel companion and not with an entire tourist group in a big bus, we were more flexible and able to visit places buses cannot reach.

During my two stays in North Korea I travelled around and experienced a great deal.

We went hiking on the mountains, visited caves, went to see the border twice, and visited a lonely major in the hills who showed us the wall, the existence of which has been denied by South Korea.  We saw agricultural cooperatives, had a night picnic with local mussels, inspected factories, hospitals, kindergartens, schools, etc. I was traveling thousands of kilometers through the country and never stayed in a place for more than one night. During my journey there were plenty of opportunities to take pictures without supervision.

Were there any sites you were not allowed to photograph?

Julia Leeb: The cult of personality is a substitution for religion in North Korea. Thus I could not shoot most of these “sacred“ sites.

© Julia Leeb

© Julia Leeb

Are there pictures in your book the world will be surprised to see?

‘I focus on the people and go beyond the regime and the military parades.’

Julia Leeb: The way I choose to present this difficult topic may be provocative to some people. I focus on the people and go beyond the regime and the military parades. What do we really know about these 24 million people living in absolute isolation?

The book contains 160 photographs which are divided into three sections, each of them portraying exceptional features of North Korea in comparison to the rest of the world: architecture, culture and people.

The monumentality of the architecture, like in the days of the pharaohs, affect people´s perception and thereby built a new society. In North Korean Culture, the individual exists only in relation to the collective.

The best example is the synchronized mass dancing at the show Arirang. The interactive features of this book are one of a kind, an app you can download allows you to access additional content. The music video clips, with music from my good friend Xenia Maculan, which are accessible to those who bought the book show that North Koreans are not robots, but people who are very much alive.

© Julia Leeb

© Julia Leeb

What is your personal opinion on the country’s isolated status?

Up to this day North Korea is its own anachronistic micro-cosmos.

Julia Leeb: As we all know the country is currently politically isolated and faces hard sanctions. On top of that North Korea remains ideologically isolated. In my opinion the communist nationalism has its roots in the historical context.

Korea was one and had a shared history of over a thousand years when Japan annexed the country in 1910. After the second World War global tensions resulting in the Cold War developed immediately and Korea was divided amongst the victors of the war, the Soviet Union occupied the northern part of the peninsula and the US the south .

The casualties of the following civil and proxy war were horrendous. Over three million civilians were killed. Since the divide after the second World War, North Korea has evolved towards a separate universe. The Juche ideology, invented by Kim Il Sung, is based on three principles: political independence, economic self-sustenance and self-reliance in defense. Up to this day North Korea is its own anachronistic micro-cosmos.

© Julia Leeb

© Julia Leeb

How would you describe the world view of local North Koreans?

‘War was not an abstract term, but something concrete.’

Julia Leeb: Since North Koreans are cut off from the outside world, their perspective differs quite a lot from that of people in other countries. According to them the outside world acts aggressively towards them. They constantly feel threatened.

To me there was a huge difference between my two trips. We arrived in a sensitive period of time in 2013. The peace treaty agreement with South Korea had just dissolved and we really didn’t know if there would be war or not. We were unable to communicate with the outside world.

In North Korea not only the inhabitants but also the visitors are isolated from the rest of the world. We didn’t have internet, we were not able to make phone calls, we couldn’t read newspapers; complete isolation. Once we had television and we saw that America had brought two bombers to South Korea. We just didn’t know what was going on.

The first time I visited North Korea on the other hand, there was no talk of war at all. The second time, war was not an abstract term, but something concrete. The people we talked to did not talk about attacking but about self-defense.

In one phrase, how would you summarize your journey in North Korea?

Julia Leeb: A journey to North Korea is like traveling into a parallel universe.

‘North Korea, Anonymous Country’ is being published by teNeues.