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Originals

Exclusive Look Inside North Korea With Eric Testroete

By Joseph Cha on August 15th 2013

Inside North Korea

Eric Testroete is a Vancouver based Photographer who travelled to North Korea twice, once in September of 2011 and again when Kim Jong Ill passed away in February of 2012. Testroete documented his entire trip, and his photographs give a great insight into one of the most secretive countries in the world.

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Monument to Worker’s Party Foundation. The brush represents the working intellectual, while the hammer and sickle represent industrial and agricultural workers.

Monument to the Founding of the North Korean Workers' Party

Interior of the Monument to the Founding of the North Korean Workers’ Party.

Kimjongilia Flower Exhibition

The Kimjongilia flower exhibition is an annual event every Feburary. Various state departments grow the flowers to present at this event. The Kimjongilia was cultivated by Japanese botanist Kamo Mototeru and was presented as a “token of friendship between Korea and Japan”.

Bhuddist monk

A Bhuddist monk at a temple in Hyangsan. This man certainly lives a unique life as freedom of religion doesn’t really exist in North Korea. The temperature was about -10c (14f) here.

International Friendship Exhibition

A tourist tests out a metal door as a soldier stands guard at the International Friendship Exhibition, north of Pyongyang. The buildings which tunnel into the surrounding mountains showcase gifts given to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il. Some gifts include a basketball signed by Michael Jordan from Madeleine Albright and a bulletproof limousine from Joseph Stalin.

Kim Il-sung at the Three Revolution Exhibition

Kim Il-sung at the Three Revolution Exhibition. This type of monument is very important to the regime with over 500 statues of his likeness scattered throughout the country.

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Boys carrying woven blankets at Ch’ongsan-ni Cooperative Farm.

Women work in a Green House

Women plant seedlings in a greenhouse at Ch’ongsan-ni Cooperative Farm. Since North Korea is a Communist, Socialist state, all food production is done by the state. These women are assigned to live and work on the farm.

Reading the news

Locals read the “Rodong Sinmun”, the most widely read newspaper in North Korea. Rodong Sinmun translates to Newspaper of the Workers. The headline says “A message from the the Leader of the Korean People’s Army, Kim Jong-un” with the subheading stating that he toured an armament factory.

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Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War.

Pyongyang Embroidery Institute

Pyongyang Embroidery Institute. The room really felt alive walking into it. All the girls were talking to each other quietly.

Incubator

A baby lies in an incubator at the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital. According to the CIA factbook, 20 percent of children under the age of 5 in North Korea are underweight. For comparison, this number is 1.3 percent in America, 3.9 percent in Cuba and 33 percent in Afghanistan.

So this eqipment definitely wasn't working. Reports from other t

At the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital. The power went off soon after we entered. According to other tourists even when the power is on the equipment is still switched off the these scenes are setup for the tourists.

Transport

On the train out of Pyongyang. This is a really interesting trip because you see Korea a little more uncensored than usual and since the guides aren’t there you can take photos.

Yalu River

The Yalu river divides China and North Korea. The bright lights of Dandong, China on the right, and Sinuiju, North Korea on the left.

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Women perform at the Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang. We were told that there were over 150,000 people performing in the Mass Games, which was more than the number of spectators.

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The North Korean flag displayed by the “Human LCD”.

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A portrait of Kim Il-sung appears on Kim Chaek University of Technology. Kim Il-sung’s portrait is a very common sight in North Korea. Many rooms had portraits of him and his son, Kim Jong-il.

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A man cycles past Juche Tower in Pyongyang. The local guide here was fairly interesting as she was fluent in English and Russian. Her English was better than our guides (and probably mine). After talking about the tower she seemed quite interested in my girlfriend and I, asking questions about Canada.

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This painting featured the Battle of Taejon. It is 360 degree painting blended in with real props. The stage in the center slowly rotates around allowing you to view the painting while sitting.

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A cowering American soldier featured in the painting.

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The whole interaction with the kids was slightly setup. They knew we were coming, and as we walked into the courtyard, the children were already singing with the teachers playing the accordion.

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The ox and cart is a very common in North Korea. I was really surprised the first time I saw it. Visiting North Korea is like taking a time machine in many ways. I didn’t get any pictures, but on the east coast we saw a lot of trucks that had been converted to run on wood gas. They appeared to be very unreliable.

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The local guide leads us to a statue of Kim Il-sung in Hamhung. All the big cities have some sort of monument to him and we were often asked to bow at them.

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Choir practice. Although impressive, the experience was a bit awkward as we were paraded from room to room to see the students perform. It was definitely tourist day and there must have been a few hundred of us coming through. Some of the kids definitely didn’t look too comfortable with us coming through.

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Since it was National day a lot of the locals were dressed up in their best. We saw these girls and had to take a photo.

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Passengers at Kaeson station.

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A Band playing in Pyongyang for National Day. We asked our guides if we could go see the band. Reply: “They are not an official band.”

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We were lucky enough to see the military parade for National day. In this photo, Kim Il-sung’s portrait drives past on a car. Kim Jong-il and his son Kim Jong-un were watching the same parade.

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Soldiers ride past in a Korean war era truck during the military parade.

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A girl walks into the street after the parade passes.

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Statue of Kim Il-sung as seen from Moranbong Park.

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A Korean woman waves after the mass dance.

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We stopped at various stations on the way out; all of which were quite interesting.

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A woman walks along a road.

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Children play as a man cycles over a bridge.

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People who were affected by the famine in the 90’s really stand out. There is a certain age group that is a head shorter than everybody else.

Transport

A woman walks through the North Korean countryside in February 2012. North Korea is a very mountainous country with only 14% of the land being used for farming. The country has trouble feeding its people and relies on food aid from other countries.

SLRLounge: Why did you decide to go to North Korea? And what made you decide to go back?
Testroete: I think my curiosity started on Wikipedia. There were so many unusual stories that have come out of the country in the past, particularly around Kim Jong Il and his life style. The more I read into it, the more amazing and unusual the place became.
I decided to go back because Kim Jong Il had died soon after the first trip. I wanted to see what the country was like in its time of mourning. It ended up being quite a different trip from the first, mostly because of the time of year (February).

SLRLounge: What were the most striking cultural differences?
Testroete: It’s a bit difficult to get a sense of culture within the people, because you don’t get to interact with the locals that much. The guides are often very guarded about what they say and usually only want to repeat the state message.

SLRLounge: Where there certain things you were not allowed to shoot?
Testroete: Shooting was more flexible than I thought it would be, but I still exercised caution. They don’t really want you to shoot out of the car windows, but I was able to get away with it on a few occasions. The guides get a little uncomfortable when you shoot ox and carts and similar, but they never stopped us. Only on one occasion my friend was scolded for taking a photo of a fisherman without asking the fisherman before hand. If you ask people to take their photo, they will always say no. It’s usually easier to shoot first and ask for forgiveness after. I recommend giving your guides respect as they’re the ones who will get in trouble, not you.

SLRLounge: What did you eat? Was it enough?
Testroete: We ate mostly Korean food. Lots of Kimchi, fish, fried potatoes. The food isn’t bad, but not a whole lot of spice. We did have dog soup at one point, which was alright aside from the stigma. We always had enough food, in fact we were overfed and actually gained weight while we where there. In February the food as often cold as the electricity was often out, especially outside of Pyongyang.

SLRLounge: How do the public react to foreigners?
Testroete: Extremely curious. I’ve never been stared at so much in life. The kids are the same as any other, they’re a little nervous about you, but they’re happy. We’d wave at them and they would run and hide just to come out again soon after. They would wave back and run away. There are lots of little moments like that. I waved and smiled at a one of the famous traffic women and she laughed and waved back.

SLRLounge: What is the general opinion towards Americans? South Koreans?
Testroete: The general message was that the citizens of America and South Korea were generally good people, the problem is their governments. I once asked our guide if he could safely and legally visit the south, would he go? He said he would.

SLRLounge: What do they do for fun? Movies? Music? Sports?
Testroete: In Pyongyang you see a fair amount of kids on roller blades rolling about Kim Il Sung square. We visited a bowling alley as well which was full. Our guide once mentioned the theater where they had their film festival. I asked what movies she had seen but couldn’t list any.
Koreans love to sing, so when we were in Mount Kumgang and had some time to kill, they played the piano and sang. I think its pretty common for the more affluent people to have learnt a musical instrument.

SLRLounge: How educated are the public with International Current Events?
Testroete: I think most people get their information from the state media, often about negative things happening around the world. There are reports that people have radios to listen to South Korean channels though.
In February the Americans and South Koreans where doing war exercises, so the North was on high alert. We had access to the BBC and NHK in the hotel and our guide would ask us what the latest news was.

SLRLounge: Is the public as “brainwashed” as our media portrays them to be?
Testroete: I think they’re a bit more in the know than they used to be. With black market dvd’s and radios they must have a decent idea of whats going on outside of the country. The famine in the 90’s left everybody a bit more jaded, but I think the general feeling is that the older generation is much more devout than the younger generation. Our first set of guides was and older woman and her student. I think she really believed in the leaders, but she did have her moments of reality. Our second set of guides were younger and were more realistic, but more guarded.

Eric Testroete’s final words
North Korea is an extremely intellectually stimulating place to visit. In many cases it is like a time machine, with the ox carts and wood gas powered trucks. It can be quite stressful at times, but I always feel nostalgic about it. It left a big impression on me. I will definitely go back one day.

To see Eric Testroete’s full set of images from his trips click here for his September 2011 trip and here for his February 2012 trip.

About

I’m a photographer and cinematographer based in Southern California. When I don’t have a camera in my face I enjoy going to the movies and dissecting the story telling and visual aesthetics.

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