In a world where globalism is the norm, North Korea seems to pride itself on its seclusion. And, of course, maintaining secrecy is part of that illusion. Nevertheless, photographer Xiaolu Chu managed to document a small part of rural life in the country. His is a story of danger and deception in a place that few of us are ever likely to visit.
Strangely enough, the photographs he managed to capture on his cell phone happened almost by accident. It’s another bizarre aspect of a story that’s both eye-opening and sad, and it gives us a glimpse into one of the poorest places in the world.
North Korea is a country where almost any public official has the right to delete images from your camera or mobile device. Yet, without getting censored, Chu managed to document life there in its most raw and poignant aspects. In fact, the photos almost speak for themselves.
Chu’s story starts on a train between Moscow and Pyongyang in August 2015. He was headed to the North Korean capital, but tensions between North and South Korea meant that the train made an unexpected stop in the small village of Tumangang near the Russian border.
As a result, Chu had a full day to interact with people in the North Korean village and learn about their lives. And what he found was far removed from the state-approved images that we typically see. Curiously, his pictures seem both sad and strange in equal measure.
The adventurous photographer was born in Heifi, China, in 1985, and his portfolio of images documents life mainly in his home country. Indeed, Chu has captured many a portrait of rural existence in China, taking in everything from steam trains to fishing villages. But his work in North Korea is probably his most startling.
It came about because when the train stopped Chu reached for his phone, a Lenovo Z90-7, rather than his professional camera equipment. He later told The WorldPost that this would have been “too obvious,” and he knew that he needed to be discreet.
Bear in mind that North Korea is a country that, earlier in the year, sentenced American student Otto Warmbler to a decade and a half of hard labor. The reason? He allegedly tried to steal a propaganda sign from Pyongyang.
Despite Chu’s discretion, though, at one point the local police did ask him for his phone, deleted some pictures and then handed the device back to the photographer. Thankfully, however, Chu had been especially vigilant, saving images in different ways. But particularly telling about North Korean culture is just how the police learned that Chu had been taking photos in the first place.
Indeed, it seems that it was the locals in the village who tipped the officials off. Perhaps this was because in many countries taking an unsolicited photo of a stranger, especially someone’s child, is considered beyond rude. Or, perhaps, as this is North Korea, the impoverished villagers had other, more self-preserving reasons for speaking up.
In any case, when the train moved on to Pyongyang, Chu again stepped into a different world. Three million people live in the nation’s capital, and there’s a strict set of rules for everyone – including anyone wanting to take photographs.
For starters, only the government’s most loyal citizens are allowed to live on Pyongyang. Yes, to claim residency in the city, a person must be considered part of the elite “core class.” This includes, for example, those who have not offended the state by being Christian or landowners. Meanwhile, armed guards patrol the streets, and part of their job is to keep any undesirables from entering the city.
Now in terms of what pictures a tourist can take, it’s very much controlled by the obligatory tour guides who accompany them. Basically, photos of daily living are off limits, but snaps of monuments, anti-American propaganda and cultural performances are encouraged.
Obviously, by being surreptitious Chu was able to portray a more intimate feel of normal life in North Korea. And, curiously, one of the points that struck him is something that’s never claimed about, say, the United States.
“There are nearly no fat people in North Korea. Everyone was thin,” Chu told The Worldpost. And while he saw many people performing exercise and everyone appeared strong, there is a real concern about the underlying cause.
According to a 2015 report by the United Nations, over 40 percent of North Koreans are undernourished. To put that into perspective, this means that at least 10 million people in the country are not getting enough food on a daily basis.
And that’s not even the saddest statistic coming out of North Korea. It’s estimated that nearly 200,000 people are currently imprisoned within the country’s some 16 forced labor camps. Moreover, that’s in part thanks to a three-generation punishment system.
That system punishes not just the perpetrator of a crime, but his or her descendants as well. If convicted, then, as a citizen you, your children and your grandchildren are all essentially found guilty of the same crime.
Such factors make what Chu did even more remarkable. He literally risked life, limb and liberty to show the struggles of everyday people in a country that isn’t afraid to control every aspect of its citizens’ lives. And, if anything, the photos are even more unsettling because of that fact.
It seems unlikely that things are going to get better in North Korea any time soon. But Chu’s images document just how different life is for the people who live there. Moreover, his experience shows what daily existence in the country is really like.