North korea in pictures

Melbourne photograph­er matt kulesza captured his time spent living in the east asian country.


I worked in North Korea as a tour guide from 2016 to 2019, where I led more than 70 tours to eight of the nine provinces. I’d been fascinated by and studying what is generally thought of as the world’s most closed-off country for years. The first time I visited as a tourist, I expected a very serious, strict, military state. Documentar­ies tend to depict North Korean residents as brainwashe­d automatons, but travelling in North Korea was surprising­ly open, and the people, while certainly very dedicated to their system and leadership, were a lot more approachab­le, warm and welcoming than I’d expected.

When you arrive in North Korea – usually by overnight train through China – it’s like stepping back in time, from China’s never-ending sprawl to North Korea’s rural countrysid­e, with rice fields and oxen and carts. You’re also completely off the grid, as there’s no internet easily available in North Korea. But the atmosphere in the capital, Pyongyang, is unlike any city in the world. After being completely obliterate­d by bombings during the Korean War in the ’50s, it was meticulous­ly rebuilt and designed.

The new style of architectu­re is like a 1960s or ’80s version of the future, while the older buildings are straight-up Soviet-style, with imposing, boxy apartment blocks and overly opulent museums and monuments. The city is absolutely spotless, and kind of like walking through a movie set. North Korean design can be very kitsch, with restaurant­s and museums featuring a lot of gold, marble, fake plants, chandelier­s and mosaic murals – and of course, countless propaganda slogans. It’s very pastel, too – from the top of the Juche Tower in the centre of Pyongyang, the multi-coloured apartments in the city’s east are reminiscen­t of faded LEGO.

Generally speaking, North Koreans are quite shy, particular­ly with strangers and foreigners, however a friendly “annyeong hashimnikk­a” (‘hello!’) and a smile can really work wonders. They have a great sense of humour – though one thing they don’t joke about under any circumstan­ce is their leaders, past or present. During national holidays, I’d visit Moran Hill (the central park of Pyongyang), where local people would be out with their friends and families, drinking and having picnics and barbeques. It was almost impossible to navigate through the park without being called over (or sometimes pulled over) by dancing grandmas or overly enthused, inebriated gentlemen.

Music is a big deal in North Korea. There’s revolution­ary propaganda music playing everywhere, constantly – seemingly the same 10 to 15 songs on a loop. North Korean pop music sounds something like ABBA at a Soviet disco. Almost every restaurant has a TV with a karaoke machine hooked up, playing karaoke versions of those same songs in the background. After dinner, the waitresses will usually perform. I never met a North Korean who wasn’t overly enthusiast­ic to get up and belt out their favourite revolution­ary anthems on the mic.

Mornings in Pyongyang feature a particular­ly eerie ‘wake-up call’ song called “Where Are You, Dear General?” that plays from speakers throughout the city. It features a theremin heavily and sounds like something from the Blade Runner soundtrack. Apart from the music, though, Pyongyang is an extremely quiet city. You won’t hear traffic or cars beeping their horns, or people shouting on the street, or neighbours making noise.

Most people think you can’t take photos in North Korea, but you very much can, with a few exceptions: there should be no pictures

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