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IN PHOTOS

Views from behind the curtain in North Korea

Visitors to this isolated country who are willing to look may come across some surprising sights, as Austin Andrews discovered, that don't fit the prevailing narratives of the country

Commuters angle for a view of the day’s state newspaper while they wait for their subway train in Puhung Station. Though smartphones with access to North Korea’s self-contained intranet do exist, their cost puts them out of reach to all but a privileged few, and newspapers are the most common way of staying connected.

I travelled to North Korea for 10 days in December full of questions about what the last country-sized bubble in a globalized world might look like.

Three generations into its hardline isolationist experiment, what could North Korean society tell us about our own? Would it reveal how much of our behaviour is truly from our own nature, rather than just societal norms? What would its norms look like and would they feel confrontational to someone who hadn't grown up with them? And, more directly, what clues might the rhythms and routines of its people provide in calibrating our own diplomatic approach?

But diplomacy can't come before understanding and there are profound barriers to even just observing the daily lives of North Korea's 25 million people, much less understanding them. Restrictions on travel in the country are well known, with tightly controlled itineraries limiting interaction between foreigners and locals to a respectful minimum.

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However, peeks behind the curtain exist everywhere for those willing to look. Many reveal surprising sights that don't fit in with the prevailing narratives about North Korea, filling in a picture that's too often presented in black and white with a complex spectrum of greys. This isn't a country populated by the unquestioning automatons that exist in rhetoric and lore. Nor is it all the rigid, austere right angles of its military bluster and grand parades. From the aspirational dreams of Pyongyang's rising middle class to the hardscrabble family life in the rural hinterland, perhaps what confronts a visitor most is a familiar normality.

The last stages of a pool game play out against a soundtrack of strikes, spares and gutter balls at a bowling alley in East Pyongyang. With a standard six-day work week in North Korea, Sunday is the day for relaxation.

Locals, including a soldier, catch some sleep on their evening train ride home. North Korean law requires that matching portraits of former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il hang at the end of every metro car, as well as in every home, school and workplace in the country. The ever-present personality cult has a sedating effect on city streets, with noise rarely rising above a low thrum.

Schoolgirls buy hot dogs on a stick from a street vendor outside a skating rink. Teenaged social life plays out here in much the same way as anywhere, with cliques converging en masse on Pyongyang’s leisure centres and its few department stores every day after school gets out.

A gaggle of teenaged girls jostle for position and balance on a lace-up bench during a school outing to a skating rink. Though the ice surface itself is in dire need of a Zamboni, the students are good sports, and boys and girls stick to separate corners of the ice.

Crowds stream across Pyongyang’s Okryu Bridge from a medal ceremony held to fete the nuclear scientists responsible for engineering North Korea’s internationally condemned Nov. 29 intercontinental ballistic missile launch.

Children play an organized game of soccer after school. In this sports-mad society, pitches such as this one with artificial grass and bleachers aren’t an uncommon sight.

Cyclists and pedestrians share a pathway during the peak morning commute in Kaesong, a city of 200,000 near the border with South Korea.

Boys take a break from their snow-removal tasks to stage a snowball fight in Kim Il-sung Square. Ringed with loudspeakers playing a constant loop of nationalist anthems and announcements, the plaza is anchored by the country’s largest library: the 600-room Grand People’s Study House.

Winter sun low on the horizon, a mother and daughter walk to school through an inner-city neighbourhood as schoolchildren play basketball in the distance. Although the skeletons of stalled construction projects are a common sight throughout Pyongyang, true urban blight here is rare, with pride of presentation an important part of city life.

State news beams out across a public square on a subzero December night. Though photography generally isn’t allowed outside the specific sights vetted for foreign visitors, in practice restrictions are somewhat looser, with enforcement at the guides’ discretion.

After an overnight snowfall, families and residents take to the streets on a Sunday morning with improvised shovels. North Koreans take their civic duty seriously – everyone pitches in – lending streets like this the air of a city-wide social gathering. Despite few snowplows, major roadways and public spaces are always clear by noon.


Austin Andrews is a Vancouver-based photographer and filmmaker. His debut photo book, Shadow Hymns, is in stores now. Follow more from his North Korea project on Instagram @wordslikepuzzls.

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