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.
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.