A surreal window into the ‘walled garden’ of North Korea

A surreal window into the ‘walled garden’ of North Korea

Tariq Zaidi’s 40 day journey around the secretive state are captured in his new photobook, ‘ North Korea: The People’s Paradise’.

In 2019, just one year before North Korea completely closed its borders, photographer Tariq Zaidi was huddled among a group of tourists at the Chongam Kindergarten in Chongjin, a city towards the northeast tip of the country. Accompanied by guides, the group were receiving a tightly-curated tour of the facilities, including a musical show performed by children of the school in its main auditorium. Ever the curious type, he decided that he wanted to see other parts of the kindergarten and slipped away from the group into its various corridors and classrooms, where a low-pitched string melody caught his attention.

“In one of the rooms, I stumbled upon a young girl engrossed in playing the cello,” Zaidi recalls. “Mesmerised by her talent, I paused to capture the moment with my camera [and] before long, an official guide approached, reminding me to rejoin the main group and avoid wandering alone.”

That portrait he took, featuring the young girl wearing a white dress while playing the instrument in a turquoise-walled room, is now published in Zaidi’s new photobook North Korea: The People’s Paradise. After first having the idea to visit the country in 2017, Zaidi spent 40 around days travelling across the length of North Korea, from Dandong on the Chinese border and Chongam in the north, to Kaesong and the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) in the south, via its capital Pyongyang and beyond.

The pictures are a revealing look behind North Korea’s iron curtain – a country where little is known about life inside. Governed by the Kim family since the Korean War (1950-53), there is a heavily restricted border and movement of citizens is controlled by the state. Leaving the country without permission is illegal. Information is also ring fenced, with a small handful of state-controlled terrestrial television channels available to watch, and the average North Korean only able to access the domestic “walled garden” intranet – the Kwangmyong.

The caution over the spread of media and information extended to Zaidi’s trip – where he followed an intricately detailed itinerary and was always accompanied by two guides, who kept a watchful eye on his work. “The guides consistently reviewed my images and requested specific deletions – prohibiting images related to the military, [which was] consistent with global norms,” he says. “When asked about deleting non-military content, they stressed a dedication to excellence: ‘We only want you to take the best pictures possible – please try to take only good pictures.’ [It] brought a smile to my face.”

Alongside the photographs are quotes taken from Aphorisms – published booklets by Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il – including “Loyalty to the leader is the highest expression of patriotism” and “Devotion to the country is precisely loyalty to the leader”. They’re a reminder of the state’s presence in daily life. “Central to its political ideology is the philosophy of Juche, credited to Kim Il Sung,” Zaidi says. “Juche emphasises self-sufficiency, independence, and the supremacy of the state over the individual. It permeates all aspects of society through propaganda, education, and cultural activities.”

Despite the propaganda and autocratic rule, Zaidi’s photographs aim to challenge and widen external perceptions surrounding life in the country. There’s a vibrancy to the shots – colourful buildings and outfits stand out against concrete grey, while rugged mountains present a beauty in the landscape away from the cities. Surreal images featuring giant statues and murals of leaders are plenty, but there’s also an examination of the lives of ordinary citizens. Joyful moments of children playing, or friends sharing food and drink by a rock pool are relatable and warming, and a reminder of shared humanity.

“North Korea is associated with its absolute rule under Kim Jong Un and state-controlled propaganda,” he says. “However, [the country] demands a more humanistic understanding of its culture beyond politics. While most information about the country offers a one-dimensional perspective, photography emerges as a vital medium to grasp and appreciate its complexities.

“I hope by looking at the images in the book [and] reading the text and captions – readers can decide for themselves.”

North Korea: A People’s Paradise by Tariq Zaidi is published by Kehrer Verlag

You can follow more of Tariq's work on Instagram (@tariqzaidiphoto), Facebook (@tariqzaidiphotography) and his website.

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