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Inside North Korea:
A conversation with the Canadian photojournalist
who snuck photos out of highly secretive country

In recent years tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world have risen as the country has ramped up efforts to assert itself as a nuclear power. Despite its repeated missile tests and anti-American rhetoric, very little is known about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)). Determined to get a better understanding of this highly secretive country Canadian photojournalist Gavin John visited North Korea as part of a government-sponsored tour in 2014. At the end of the weeklong tour he was accused of trying to make the government look bad and he had to hand over all his files in order to avoid arrest. Luckily he was able to sneak out a handful of images on an SD card. Here for the first time, Gavin offers an account of his time in North Korea.

True North: In 2014 you visited North Korea as part of a weeklong government sponsored tour of the country? How did this opportunity come about?

Gavin John: Oddly enough, the process is pretty straight forward. There are a couple government run tours that facilitate entry into the country. I went with one that was through the official webpage of the DPRK. There are limited spots, so it took me a couple tries for one of the two slots a year. It was pretty last minute, as I got my approval email at the end of February saying that I would be leaving in the beginning of April. I would be going for the birthday of the DPRK founder Kim Ill Sung’s birthday, which is a national holiday. This event is marked by celebrations across Pyongyang, which all are quite impressive. It is worth pointing out that I had applied to the tour as a tourist, as journalists are banned from entering unless explicit given an invitation from the government. This omission on my application would definitely come back and bite me in the ass.

TNPJ: Why did you want to travel to North Korea?

GJ: The DPRK is an enigma that is shrouded in half-truths and political agendas from both sides, and it was primarily that reason that drew me in as a journalist. At the time, the movie “The Interview” had been announced and the subsequent drama that was caused due to it further intrigued me to go. Practically everyone knows about North Korea, but how much of what they know is true? It’s a rare opportunity to enter one of the most isolated countries in the world, even if it was under the guise of a state sponsored tour.

TNPJ: How was the tour structured? Did you get to see a lot of the country?

GJ: To say it was highly structured is an understatement! Everything was on a schedule that was planned down to the minute. I can understand why, given that many of us repeatedly asked to explore other parts of the city. This was always answered with a polite “We’ll try but we’re so busy”. Even if that “busy” was sitting in a park for an hour.

I can’t really say I saw the country as six of the seven days were in Pyongyang, and the last one was spent down at the border in Kaesong and the DMZ. Pyongyang itself represents but a small percentage of the North Korean population, with many living in agrarian villages or small industrial cities. My only glimpses of the countryside were from a bus window from Pyongyang to Kaesong on the second last day. Our phones and cameras were confiscated during this drive, and I can understand why. Much of the land in-between was run down rural villages that had animal pulled carts, people collecting sticks for wood, and sparse infrastructure. Hardly something worth promoting on a tour.

TNPJ: North Korea has very limited freedom of the press. What was it like taking pictures while you were there?

GJ: My week was tense to say the least. Our guides frequently flaunted the fact that they did not allow journalists in the country unless they knew they were not “tools of the imperialists”, and other rhetoric. The consistent barrage of heavy handed propaganda from the guides, in addition to their denial of the existence of any form of inhumane work camps, were a reminder that I was not in friendly territory. As mentioned before, I omitted the fact that I was a freelancer for this very reason. I managed to maintain a level of discretion in my photo taking until the last day where they finally called my bluff. I was pulled aside the last night to be informed that I had been reported to the Ministry of the Interior on suspicion of taking “harmful photographs”. Specifically it was a photo of a child collecting sticks in Kaesong that drew their ire. I was pressured to sign a confession in exchange for my “safe return” to Canada, which I naturally repeatedly declined. I was no fool in that sense. They would then go on to imply that my photos of soldiers could be seen as “acts of espionage”, which carried the threat of being “sent to the camps”. I would eventually talk my way out of probably the most terrifying moment of my life by handing over all my memory cards and hard drives to them. I managed to sneak out a SD card with a tiny fraction of the photos I took, a selection of which are attached. Long story short, taking pictures almost wound me up in a North Korean labour camp.

TNPJ: Did you have much time to get away on your own, or were you closely watched 24/7?

GJ: We were always watched and always with someone. Even our time in the hotel was limited as they would lock the doors to the hotel at night and when we were out and about there was a minder no more than 10m away from you at all times. The minders were polite yet very firm when it came to deviations from the group. You were always on an incredibly short leash. It took everything I had not to go through my room and try and find bugs, which wouldn’t look too great from their end and would needlessly put me at risk.

TNPJ: What can you tell us about daily life in North Korea?

GJ: From what I saw, not a whole lot different than us. People seem to go to work, drive their cars, eat at restaurants, ride their bikes and other mundane activities of any large city. One of the most frequent questions I am asked is “Did you see any fake things?” which in itself a leading question. Going into that country with that idea in my head it’s almost like a self fulfilling prophecy, and you start seeing staged events everywhere. Sure there were things that seemed a bit odd, but the country itself is a bit odd. I was on an organized tour so I can’t say with any degree of honesty that I could tell for certain some people were staged or not. We have this idea that the entire country is a sham, and that’s a particularly concerning misconception from our side. I have no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of North Koreans have their day-to-day lives, regardless of the irrationality of their leader and brutality of their government. The separation of the everyday citizens and their lives with the government and their actions is very important if we hope to peacefully resolve current events. I tried to convey this with my photos by focusing on the mundane and normal, rather than the often repeated and promoted idea of the DPRK. Aside from government officials, I have a soft spot for the everyday North Koreans. They are a kind, gentle and shy people who in the end are just like us.

TNPJ: How did shooting in North Korea compare to working in Iraq?

GJ: It’s a different kind of dangerous. I want to stress that working in Iraq is highly dangerous and the consequences of misjudgments are dire. Iraq’s danger lies in very visible and graphic forms of violence, whether that be IEDs, gunfire, suicide bombings or any manner of warfare. For the most part there are places where you can point to and effectively say “That’s where the bad people are, let’s stay away from there”. My last time in Iraq was during the battle for Mosul in November 2016, and for all my time on the frontlines, we always were able to return to the relative safety of the city of Erbil and potentially a flight home if the need arose. This is where North Korea differs. North Korea’s danger lies in the complete control you give a hostile government over your safety and access to the outside world, you are effectively in the belly of the beast. Once in Pyongyang I was cut off from any forms of help and communication, where my nearest friendly government would be across the most heavily defended and mined border in the world. One false move and you disappear; likely to a labor camp for the rest of your life. The death of Otto Warmbier is a perfect example of how one small mistake lead to a horrible death, thousands of miles from your family and country. There is no escape from Pyongyang, hell I couldn’t even get out of my hotel let alone the city. When I was threatened with arrest the last night, this point was driven home to a terrifying degree. No one is coming to save you, no one is coming to help. You are alone. There’s something visceral about that kind of fear.

TNPJ: Access to the Internet is notoriously restricted and controlled in North Korea, with most websites being operated by the government. Did you get the chance to talk to regular people about how their perception of the world?

GJ: I actually had a surprising number of opportunities to talk with regular people, and one interaction still sticks out in my mind. I was able to get a rare opportunity to spend some one on one time with someone who wasn’t a minder. She seemed very inquisitive about, not only my country but others. I described to the best of my ability what Canada was like; endless prairies, grand mountains, a stunning north, and worldly cities. When I mentioned the United States, her interest perked up and she asked what Americans were like. I told her that a vast majority of Americans I know are kind people, just like in her country, and that America is a wonderful country to visit regardless of the politics of their leadership. It’s quite hard to describe a country to someone who, I believe, genuinely knew nothing about them. There was an almost childlike innocence in her probing questions that weighs on me to this day as there was no malice in her questions, only a inquisitive curiosity. I  can understand the shy and at times defensive reaction I got from many North Koreans, as if you’re told for generations that people who look just like me want nothing but to harm them. I don’t blame them either, as it’s not their fault. As I mentioned before, everyday North Koreans were kind, gentle and polite people who are just as curious and misinformed about my country as I am with theirs. There are half truths in both of our perspectives of each other that feed into this never ending loop of misinformation.

TNPJ: Based on your week in the country, what do you think is the biggest misconception about North Korea?

GN: Well, there are more than 12 haircuts allowed in the country for starters. I think we need to first understand that half of what we hear is hyperbolic third-hand information, from both sides. We portray the DPRK as a movie set of lies and a brainwashed population willing to die for their leader. On the other hand they portray the United States as an antagonistic imperialistic power which seeks to destroy anyone who stands in their way of world domination. Both of these are dangerous narratives to believe in their entirety and we need to make sure we understand that the very lack of information on the DPRK is a two way street. Based on my experience, North Korea is a strange and dangerous place, yet it’s still just a country like any other. The more we try and group the entire country as a single monolithic mass, the further we drift from truly understanding it. Be critical of stories coming from North Korea, but also separate the people from the government. Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump don’t represent every Canadian or American, so why should Kim Jong Un represent all North Koreans?

TNPJ: Do you have any thoughts about the current nuclear standoff?

GN: There are no good solutions to this crisis, and I fear that the reality of a Second Korean War is becoming manifest. I’m also torn as well, as on one hand I believe that the DPRK has the right to self defense and the right to nuclear weapons, yet on the other, they don’t have the right to threaten their neighbors and enemies with nuclear war. From the perspective of Kim Jong Un, they truly have their backs against the wall and against the world. Nuclear disarmament spelled disaster for both the Saddam regime in Iraq and Ghadaffi regime in Libya, so it only makes sense that Kim Jong Un won’t disarm. There is little doubt in my mind that the government of the DPRK under Kim Jong Un is a brutal totalitarian regime that is guilty of crimes against humanity, yet we need to look at this from his perspective as well. Kim Jong Un is acting in the best interest for his regime and I don’t see many paths to de-escalation. On the other side of the coin, it shouldn’t take a mushroom cloud over Seoul or Tokyo for the United States to jump to action and the DPRK shows no sign of slowing down it’s nuclear provocations.

The Second Korean War would be arguably one of the most devastating we’ve ever seen in our lifetime. Some figures of potential casualties range upwards of a million people on both sides with the near complete destruction of both Seoul and Pyongyang. It’s easy to say that it’s justified to react with a “massive military response” should North Korea launch a nuclear strike. Yet I’m constantly reminded of a kind and gentle young North Korean woman in a hotel restaurant in Pyongyang asking me to describe to her what the ocean looks like in my country. Her prospects of surviving the war are bleak. She’ll be the one that will pay the price of a high stakes game of nuclear chicken. That will weigh on me forever, and it breaks my heart.

Editor’s note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Written By
Gavin John

Gavin John

Gavin John is an Alberta-based photojournalist currently living in Calgary. He graduated from SAIT Polytechnic in 2014 with a Diploma of Journalism with a major in Photojournalism. Gavin has worked in countries like Iraq and North Korea, in addition to covering Canadian Forces operations in the Philippines and the Canadian Arctic. He is currently a student of the University of Calgary studying International Relations with a focus on Middle Eastern Security and Strategy with a minor of Arabic Language and Muslim Culture. His work has been featured in PostMedia publications in Canada, Macleans Magazine, FoxNews, The Guardian, and CBC."