Glimpses: NKNews Photo Album with Defector Comment

December 15, 2016 9:00 AM

This blog has long had a feature called Glimpses that highlights good photojournalism on North Korea (for example, here). But the genre is surprisingly rare, as many efforts to get the country right lapse into one of a number of tiresome tropes: a new Orientalism; feel-good “the North Koreans are human too”; or—worst of all—monumentalist testimonies such as Aram Pan’s DPRK 360 Project, which we pan here.

NKNews came up with an interesting idea: to get comment on the work of photographer Chris Petersen-Clausen from a group of defectors and Fyodor Tertitskiy, a Russian expert on North Korea. The result is a reminder why you need a keen eye to see what photos are really telling us. Some examples of the gallery, which includes almost 100 photos:

  • One ordinary-looking picture shows a bus that goes to the Munsu Water Park. As one defector notes, the entry fee to the park in 2014 was about 80,000 won, three years of an average worker’s salary.
  • One portrait shows a "Daehaksaeng gyuchaldae", or a university student disciplinary officer. Their job: to regulate women who are wearing pants or clothes that are too colorful.
  • There are great photos of the nouveau-riche donju class taking their children horseback riding.
  • One striking photo shows a piece of Hyundai earth-moving equipment, English-language logo intact.
  • There are striking pictures of the boom in construction in Pyongyang, yet with some caveats introduced by the defectors. One shows workers on extraordinarily flimsy scaffolding around a Tower of Eternal Life dedicated to the Kim family. Another notes that one complex of buildings around Chang-jon St. appears continually in North Korean propaganda but went up so quickly in one of the speed campaigns that residents are actually nervous. But in striking departure from the past, the apartment buildings on the Mirae Future Scientists Street are brightly lit at night, an indicator of the “shock and awe” strategy of the regime in investing in the Pyongyang elite. 

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