Traveling to North Korea: rare photos from inside the DPRK

Today we will see some rare photos from inside North Korea (DPRK) from Viktor Nemeth (blogflickr, see also his previous post on Chernobyl):

Tourists are, while quite a rarity in the DPRK are actually not that entirely uncommon. Numerous companies organise trips in and some of those trips last as long as twenty-something days. I was taking part in one of the shorter ones – this was a 5-day trip (3, really, the other 2 were mostly about getting to and fro’ the airport) during which we’ve been shown around the sights of Pyongyang, the DMZ and various locations, some more odd than the others (e.g. a water bottling plant, hence the image with the bottles in a factory). As part of the tour one can take the train or fly in from Beijing, then once in Pyongyang we had our items checked, I was asked about the GPS on the camera and my laptop has been looked at if I had any videos on it (I didn’t). We were then driven to the hotel, which is located centrally and has 47 floors. Even though Pyongyang has probably more night-time lights than the rest of the DPRK it’s still pretty dark. Buses and trams are unlit, and so are most of the streets and buildings, save for the monuments of course.

Snow started around midnight and continued well into the first day so visibility was quite low for photography, which wasn’t helped by the constantly fogged-up windows either. I eventually set the camera to shutter priority around 1/1200ish and allowed the camera to figure out the rest. The active VR mode on the 70-200 came handy.

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The first day’s sights were mostly focused around the idea of reunification (of the two Koreas), so we’ve seen various monuments and the DMZ, where we’ve got a short introduction on the DPRK’s version of the Korean War (according to which the Americans invaded the North, not the other way around). We’ve passed by a number of towns and large empty highways that offered some glimpse into the locals’ lives. On the way back we stopped by for lunch at Kaesong city, a major local town. Once again, vast empty spaces, large monuments of the leaders but generally speaking under-developed infrastructure. We were allowed to wander around a little here, albeit not too much. Tourists are requested not to walk around by themselves while in the country.

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Most of the locals react to foreigners with a distant curiosity. As long as there’s some physical barrier between, they often try to catch a glimpse – otherwise the locals shy away. Some good shots have come out of this curiosity.

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The 2nd day revolved mostly around the leaders and monuments, as we went to the mausoleum of the to deceased Kims (the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun), where no photos were allowed but it’s an impressive place nonetheless, mostly granite and marble. Since it’s a big privilege for Koreans to be invited to this place in the first instance all of the locals were dressed very nicely. We looked a lot more touristy.
After the Palace we moved on to other monuments, and checked out the main statue(s) of the leaders, where we observed a number of wedding couples paying their respects to the Kims. This is normal there but interesting for us.

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Part of the afternoon was spent on the local subway. Tourists are allowed to board as a group, then get off at a specified station, get back on, ride some stations (but not get off) and then eventually get off at the Arch of Triumph station. The stops we visited were probably the more fancy-looking ones as throughout the windows it appeared the rest were just ‘normal’ stations. It was also interesting that probably both the locals and us felt a bit like being in a museum/zoo. Lots of stares being exchanged. Dimly lit places. The 50/1.4 was useful here, although I think a D810 would have topped the quality. D800E’s Hi2 ISO is indeed a little (too) noisy.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in the War Museum, another place where photos aren’t allowed – the place pays homage to the DPRK’s version on the Korean War, and how the imperialist Americans attacked the North, how the brave KPA soldiers killed a one and half million Americans and so on. It’s marginally amusing, but we all stood quiet trying not to make odd expressions.

The last day was quite interesting. The morning was spent visiting the West Sea Barrage, a man-made dam of sorts, and then a water bottling plant. We (those that paid the optional activity) then hopped onto a helicopter and took a ride above Pyongyang – which was quite interesting, not only for that we were the first tourists doing this (ever) but just in general it’s nice to do some photos from up above. In terms of photography, the 70-200 was the chosen tool for the task and I set the camera to S-priority once again – given the distance the F2.8 didn’t have much of an influence over bokeh and it did a good service. Shooting in RAW was absolutely essential because not only the Pyongyang air quality is dire (as they still use a lot of coal ++ industry is present in-town) but also because the windows of the helicopter got fogged-up, plus double (triple?) glazed old Soviet helicopter windows haven’t quite helped in getting the quality right either…thus in general the original pictures came out quite bad in terms of colour. I doubt most of the others onboard with their phones etc got decent photos out of the flight. ACR was useful for sorting out some the colour problems to a large extent in Split Toning.


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The rest of the trip was getting back to London…(hence the “ou” in colour etc…) – if anyone is interested in the long take of the trip, see above….

Thanks for reading/posting 😉

Gear: Nikon D800E, Nikkor 16-35/4, 50/1.4G, 70-200/2.8 VR2, GPS (if that counts).

A much more detailed post on Viktor’s trip to North Korea can be found here.  More pictures are available on flickr.

This post was originally published here. If you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.

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