Have we ever seen the true face of North Koreans?

한겨레 입력 2021. 1. 22. 18:16
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Photojournalist reveals side of N. Korean life we almost never see
The cover of “A Photo Journey toward Peace”

“Have we ever really seen the face of North Koreans? As Ri-sol said, haven’t we only ever seen people struggling, hardened expressions, and the faces of people grimacing because of poverty?”

“A Photo Journey toward Peace” starts with these questions. Writer Im Jong-jin, who visited North Korea six times as a photojournalist between 1998 and 2003, shares pictures with the reader — and with his own 10-year-old daughter Ri-sol — to show the “real faces” of North Korea, a side that has not often been presented in the past.

North Korean school children eating ice cream. (photos provided by Im Jong-jin)

Im’s camera offers tender glimpses of the lives and daily experiences of North Koreans, from a newborn baby at Pyongyang Maternity Hospital (the capital’s premier general hospital for women) to impish youths from their daycare center’s “nursing, weaning, and eating groups” frolicking on a picnic, a beaming young girl eating ice cream, a couple lovingly gazing at each other at a riverside park, and a middle-aged resident flushed with autumn leaves and tipsiness.

Things become more beautiful and different the closer we look. During his first visit, Im “negotiated” a deal with the North Koreans to be allowed to take photos of ordinary people. As a result, he was able to freely approach and speak to his photographic subjects, joking and drinking with them as he captured their faces and all the life in their expressions.

A North Korean university student

“Ri-sol, do you remember that time I talked about having a narrow mind when it comes to North Koreas?”

“Yes, it’s another word for prejudice.”

“When you see people who seem pitiful, you feel bad for them. But as you keep looking at them, you get the sneaking feeling that they’re somehow ‘different’ from you.”

A young couple on a date in a park

For any readers who had remained closed-minded as they turned the pages — fearing that showing the smiling faces of North Koreans might conceal the irrationalities of the regime — Im’s calm explanation and humanistic perspective is enough to bring the smile back to their face as they look at the pictures.

By Choi Yoon-ah, staff reporter


Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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