Pyongyang – Pictures taken by an Israeli photographer who traveled to North Korea as a tourist tell a tale of two countries: one where residents appear prosperous and healthy, and another where citizens live in shocking poverty.
Moshe Shai traveled to Pyongyang in April without revealing that he was a professional photographer. North Korea has been promoting tourism in an effort to boost the country’s economy, but visitors are subjected to strict rules and those who are suspected of breaking with protocol find themselves in dire straits.
The May arrest of a pair of United States citizens brings the number of Americans currently detained in the communist country to three as previously reported on VIN News (http://bit.ly/2sln7M9).
Shai’s visit to North Korea as part of a small group of tourists took place in April. One day prior to his trip he posted on Facebook “tomorrow I am leaving on Israel’s Independence Day to a country that is very much not free, to North Korea. It will be a different life, two weeks with no WiFi, internet, What’s App, phone, etc.”
From the moment Shai and his fellow travelers landed in North Korea, they were under constant surveillance. Their suitcases and all of their possessions were subjected to a thorough each and the group was under vigilant watch by a pair of escorts, Shai told Israel’s Channel 2 News.
“Why were there two people with us at all times?” asked Shai. “First, because it provides more supervision. And second is that the guards are watching each other so that if one of them starts to say too much to the tourists, the other can report her. That is the kind of security that is there. Everyone is watching everyone else.”
Shai took pictures whenever he could, using his years of experience to snap photographs as surreptitiously as possible. Still, it was clear to him that the guards assigned to the group would have readily disposed of his camera had he left it unattended for even a minute.
Shai said that the tourists were taken to places where they were shown the beauty of North Korean life, but that everything they saw was clearly staged for their benefit.
“The people we were allowed to see were all part of the world’s largest play and weren’t allowed to speak with the tourists at all,” said Shai. “It was all an attempt to show one of the poorest countries in the world as a success story.”
Many of the laws in North Korea pertain to the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and his predecessors, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
It is forbidden to fold the pictures of the North Korean leader which appear in every newspaper, and visitors are expected to bring flowers as an offering when they flock to two massive bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. They are also required to bow before the statues, which stand over 72 feet high, and are forbidden from turning their backs on the monuments, a sign of disrespect.
“Everything is connected to the leader, even the way they count the years,” noted Shai. “They aren’t living in 2017. They are living in the 105th year since the birth of Kim Il-sung.”
A parade to celebrate Kim Il-sung’s most recent birthday was an impressive event, one that was replayed on a repeating loop in the media for a full week.
“There were planes flying overhead and fireworks in the middle of the day,” said Shai. “The people who were there were cheering like they were victorious but how many of them really believe the propaganda and how many were just playing the game so that they could live better lives? There isn’t a lot of place there to express a differing opinion.”
The tourists were accompanied everywhere they went and the only time Shai was ever alone was in his hotel room, where he was able to look outside and see mile-long lines of tanks, rockets, soldiers and military transport traveling on the roads below.
There is no internet available for public use in North Korea and Shai said that the group’s phones, handheld devices and computers were subject to constant screening. Phone calls were made through a central switchboard and were also monitored.
“ Internet is the biggest enemy in North Korea,” said Shai. “It is a dictatorship, the most dictatorial country in the world. You are restricted from all information. In any normal country, you get to your hotel, you dump your suitcases and then you go out to get a beer or a pizza or something.
There is nothing like that there. You can’t even leave the hotel. You get go four meters to the end of the driveway. By the fifth meter they turn you around and make you go back.”
There were numerous occasions during the group’s public trips that Shai was told he could photograph any persons who agreed to have their pictures taken, an attempt that proved futile.
“They don’t make eye contact with you,” said Shai. “I looked the Koreans in the eye and they looked down. They don’t want to engage and it was clear they would never give me permission to photograph them. Almost every frame I took in Pyongang was set up for the paparazzi.”
a famous satellite picture of North Korea at night and it is completely dark,” said Shai. “The North Koreans said they are conserving energy but that isn’t it. Darkness rules in north Korea. It is a life that is very bleak and filled with unhappiness.”
His ten days in North Korea left Shai with images of a giant paradox, a place where the government shows a face of prosperity to the public, while not far away many die of starvation.
“They live in a bubble of their own,” said Shai. “It is a different sphere, a parallel universe. We can’t possibly understand a place like this at all.”