What do we know about North Korea? Not much, and not surprisingly so. With the country being one of the most secluded places on Earth, it is also home to a despicable and outright bizarre dictatorship, which doesn’t exactly secure the country a top spot as a tourist attraction. In fact, most people probably wouldn’t know that it actually is possible for Westerners to visit North Korea: You apply four weeks in advance and provide a CV and a reference letter - requirements that might deter not just last-minute tourists. And once you’re accepted, just like in any other Communist dictatorship, you end up in a tour group, with a tour guide who’ll make sure that you basically can’t go anywhere on your own.
People who have never done this kind of trip will probably find this quite unappealing, and it is not hard to think of vacation trips that might be more entertaining. But then visiting a Communist dictatorship is actually quite a bit more interesting than you’d imagine. Twenty years ago, my high school gave me the choice of either going to Nürnberg (then West Germany) for a week or to Potsdam/Dresden (then East Germany). For me, picking the latter was an obvious choice, especially since the most engaging and capable political-science teacher was coming along. It was quite the experience. It’s one thing to hear about blatant propaganda, but it’s quite another one to be subjected to it, especially since it was so obvious that many things were just that, namely propaganda, with reality simply being so vastly different. But even more interesting was to interact with people, and I remember it didn’t take very long for our tour guide to drop her official persona and become what she really was: A young woman with dreams and hopes, none of which were likely to be fulfilled in the country whose propaganda she was supposed to feed us. I remember when our bus left to travel back to West Germany, leaving her behind, she started crying.
The thing you learn when you travel to places like that is not that all that propaganda is just bogus. You don’t have to travel to North Korea to learn that. What you go to places like that for is to experience the place and, ideally, to interact with the people who live there, and typically this often means people who have to live there, because they are not allowed to leave. Of course, in North Korea things get quite complicated, because you’d have to be able to speak Korean to interact with people. Otherwise, you have to rely on your tour guide.
Charlie Crane’s Welcome to Pyongyang opens with an essay about what it is like to visit North Korea, which is quite fascinating because it describes some of the things that aren’t quite what one would naively expect: “In 2002, one of our tourists came across a platoon of soldiers marching down a broad avenue. Fearing a telling off, he kept his camera in his bag and backed away from what appeared to be the entire Korean People’s Army. From a safe distance he braved a little wave, and without breaking step the entire platoon waved back for a picture.”
Welcome to Pyongyang features Charlie Crane’s large-format photography of places and people, with the former being what one is allowed to see and the latter being people he asked to take a photo of. Each photo comes with description provided by an official tour guide. I think apart from the photography this combination is one of the strengths of the book. Of course, there is a lot of propaganda in those descriptions, but it’s very easy to see through that (and because it is so easy, one learns a lot). But I also seem to detect something genuinely personal in these descriptions, and since the portraits are often of fairly regular people - a waitress, say - I can’t help but wonder what the dreams and hopes of those people are, having learned about those of the East German tour guide twenty years ago. It is easy and convenient to see countries like North Korea as monolithic blocs of evil, but reality is always much more complicated and, ultimately, impossible to avoid.
With our choices of what we can learn about North Korea so severely limited, Welcome to Pyongyang provides a very nice glimpse into a strange world, a world that most of us will probably never be able to see in person.