OVERLAND in DPRK

“superior“ PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

“entering DPRK” by rail from China was still very much on my mind when I pressed my movie camera to the car window trying to find a stable position for shooting. Traveling from Beijing to Pyongyang by train had made a lasting impression on me. But moving overland by car through DPRK was different. Though my guides wouldn’t allow our driver to stop or even to slow down when I asked for, I still got in closer in contact to land, buildings and people.

On the Panmunjom – Pyongyang highway I got the permission from my two guides to shoot through the window. This highway is the direct access road to South Korea.

Like other highways we have passed, this one looked like an airstrip or a tank corridor too.

Fire wood - The man following on the side, the woman pulling...

Though the road was in poor condition, the car windows dirty and the circumstances very shaky, I was elated to get that chance. No cars were in sight. Sometimes people were walking on the highway.

Female farmworker

As it always happened day after day, the two guides discussed every move of us over lunch and talked daily to the main travel office in Pyongyang to get instruction.

tête-à-tête

After arrival in Pyongyang that evening, they must have discussed the filming with their superior because next day all shooting from the car window was forbidden…

more NO!…NO’s!… ways to look behind the curtain of DPRK

live PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

...only a few running cars

Highways like frontline airstrips

Highway roadside traffic

The NO!…NO’S! of our two guides are an everyday occurrence. I don’t work with hidden movie or photo cameras, my shooting activity is open but my focus I keep obscured by not looking through the finder.

Shooting from the hip

Since the guides don’t allow stops on the highway or in cities without prior permission from the central travel office in Pyongyang I shoot from the hip.

Army road block

I take photos or movie from all types of angles. My “luck“ is that roads and highways are often in poor condition and we roll by comfortably at 40-60 km, perfect to take snapshots.

Highway bikers - much more common than cars

Just as regular as pedestrians and bikes are oxen carts on the highway.

Man and ox - regular highway traffic

Broken down trucks on the roadside I see sometimes more often than cars driving.

Head transport on the highway

Driving overland on the highway from Pyongyang to Wonsan on the East coast, a distance of about 200 km, I count 25 oncoming cars while on our side I see 11 vehicles in need of repair.

The most modern trucks I have seen in North Korea

A NO! NO! shot. North Korean soldiers wait for the blow-out to be fixed

Hitch-hikers in the tunnels are a special experience.

Hitch-hikers are extremely rare

The NO!…NO’S! are an attempt to hide the harsh living conditions of the North Koreans and erase them from the travelers eye.

Crossing the railway tracks, our driver has to slow down... - In the background behind the biker people are walking on the tracks. This is very common specially in the morning and evening hours. Rail tracks offer the shortest link to the next destination. Trains ran not very often and when they approach the people on the tracks they honk early.

Our guides allowed the driver to make an unplanned stop only in a very remote area but even there Tung Hui followed me, stood in front of my camera to prevent me from taking pictures.

Woman transporting coal to the city

As a western tour operator, stationed in Beijing and in the North Korean tourist business for over 10 years, said to me: “We all know that the view KIM JONG IL’S dictatorship imposes on us does not reflect everyday life in DPRK.”

But there are ways…  …to look behind the curtain.

A moment to himself

Pushing uphill

Pulling wood along the highway

learn from BIG BROTHER

chinese PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

It pays off to walk behind a Chinese. This invaluable lesson I learned in DPRK. Chinese in groups are a friendly bunch, they laugh, are loud, say hello and often ask to make a photo with you. They care less about restrictions, take pictures we are told not to make and walk around more freely. Moving behind a Chinese or a Chinese group of travelers is like moving your boat behind an icebreaker in the Arctic Zone. Chinese seem to be “naturally“ hearing impaired, easy-going and not responsive to every whim of their guides.

I quickly understood that if I wanted to make contact with local North Koreans I had to hang behind my guides at least 20m – and behave like a Chinese.

The SNAKE in the GRASS

tricky PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

KIM IL SUNG at the Grand People's Study House

It’s NOT a lie! No, I don’t say they lie at me. It is a different frame of mind, sometimes it is an anxious state of mind that dictates them and their actions, other times it looks like utter confusion or just paranoia in hiding.

It is the dictum of “The Eternal President“ KIM IL SUNG – the only statesman on earth who remains President even  after his death in 1994 that is of utmost importance.

KIM IL SUNG at the Grand People's Study House

KIM IL SUNG – The Eternal President

He and his son KIM JONG IL, called “My Dear Leader“, are telling Right from Wrong, Good from Bad. They decide what is real and what has to be banned, who is sent to the university or to the work camp, to the labor camp or to the gulag. KIM IL SUNG and KIM JONG IL have a six-decade grip on power.

KIM IL SUNG with local guide in the entrance of the Grand People's Study House

All in the Family - KIM IL SUNG “The Eternal President" and his son KIM YONG IL, called “My Dear Leader"

Our two “permanent“ guides work under the spell of this government-mind-set, they tell me that the local shops are closed when they are open, that people don’t like to make contact with a foreigner when in fact they wish just that. They change our itinerary every day but if we want to make an additional stop, it’s impossible.

This gentle local guide liked my questions, Agricultural University, Wonsan area

They make me feel like a disobedient child who doesn’t quite get it when I keep asking questions or like a snake in the grass when I make photos of simple life events.

Fear is guiding the system. The world of DPRK is under a delusion.

The hinge joint is the personality cult.

My guess is that “Big Brother“ will tell them. China holds the key to the future of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“entering DPRK” by rail

UNCENSORED PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

On my upper bunk bed of Sleeper Car Nr.12 I kept my camera rolling from the Chinese-North Korean border to the capital Pyongyang.

DPRK Railway, from the Chinese border to Pyongyang

These are some shots from my film “entering North Korea”.

Photo from my upper bunk bed in Sleeper Car Nr.12

We are traveling at 30-50km/h, the railcar window is dirty and locked but the landscape is fascinating.

My eyes are glued to the window

Huge rivers, bridges, rice fields. My eyes glued to the window, oxen pass by pulling carts and ploughs, people with shovels cultivating  the field right up to the rail tracks and roadside preparing for the planting season. I see no mechanized help beside one tractor. I keep to myself while I’m filming, the two Chinese business brothers in our compartment are sleeping.
“entering DPRK” was shot on DPRK Railway Sleeper Car Nr.12 from my upper bunk bed and shows uncensored footage from the Chinese border to the capital Pyongyang of North Korea.

He is tilling the soil with his ox close to the rail tracks

It is a train journey full of thought-provoking “Langsamkeit”.

Dry riverbed - view from my upper bunk bed

When TOILETS are SOLEMN PLACES…

SOUR PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

FAR MORE I resented the political system of the KIMS for having effectively established a paranoid, all encompassing power structure with the purpose  to dehumanise contact and treat emotional exchange and empathy as forbidden acts. This state of mind obliged our guides to twist contact making and enforce restrictions on us.

Toilets were solemn places...

Whenever this got to me and threatened my well-being and my mood turned dark, I asked for the toilet.

Toilet at Mount Kuhol...space to myself...

Not so much because I wanted to vomit but for the sake of  having space to myself. Though the stench often was unbearable  the reality of the system was far worse.

...the reality outside was far worse...

Under circumstances like  these toilets were solemn places and offered a rest for my agitated and angry mind in turmoil.

KIMILSUNGIA – CURIOSITY NEVER DIES

BLOSSOM-PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11. – 21. April 2011

WHEREVER we move, the system tries to infect relations with the virus of distrust. Our two guides, who have the job to separate us from any spontaneous contact with people, are especially under pressure in the capital Pyongyang where the state travel agency is located and they feel under observation.

DPRK army soldiers pose with Ursula for a fellow army soldier

But people are not molecules. Whenever I manage to have more than 15 to 20 meters between me and our two guides I manage to establish spoken contact. Three girls on a park bench giggle when I pass by. “How do you do?“ they ask me and we exchange a few words till the guide is back on my side. I make this experience many times, a laugh, an eye contact…curiosity never dies.

Three children want a photo with Ursula

Two female soldiers take Ursula in their midst

KIMILSUNGIA – Flower of Reverence. In 1965, President Sukarno of Indonesia offered this Orchid to President Kim Il Sung as a present and proposed the name "KIMILSUNGIA".

At the National Flower Exhibition for the 99th birthday of KIM IL SUNG, The Eternal President, emotional contacts are flooding us. Control and separation tactics don’t work any more and we mix freely with children, couples, military personnel. We make photos and they ask us to make photos with them: soldiers, children, couples.

Ursula with Chinese student studying North Korean for 9 months in the capital Pyongyang

“Our North Korean teachers are very strict with us“

They look like from a different star...

We also meet a group of Chinese students, they study Korean at the local university for 9 months. They look like a bunch of extraterrestrials from a different star: well dressed, laughing and joking, talking to us as if we were sisters and brothers, taking us into their midst. My questions: “And how is life in Pyongyang?“ they answer with: “Living conditions are very poor.“ I follow up with: „How are your teachers?“ Their mood darkens: “They are very hard on us, the professors are very strict.“ (Imagine what it takes till a Chinese student complains about “discipline“ after all the exams she or he had to pass in his hometown to get selected by the Chinese government for studying abroad).

The Chinese student said: "Living conditions at the University in Pyongyang are very poor"