The Digital Journalist
North Korea:
The Hermit Kingdom
November 2006

by Yannis Kontos

The most isolated country on the planet, well hidden behind the walls of a totalitarian Stalinist regime based on the total subjugation of its people, is revealed through my photographic documentary that managed to "escape" from censorship. These images are rare since they have managed not to pass through the filtering sieve of the regime. Fugitives, the images provide their own answers to the "major riddle" of Asia and shed some light on this country that now has successfully carried out its first nuclear test and is the focus of publicity.

The Monument to Party Foundation, 1,165-foot high monument commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Korean Worker’s Party, is visible through a curtain in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Yannis Kontos/Polaris
Introverted, North Korea lives in an absolutely singular world where time has frozen. To the eyes of the foreign visitor the whole country lives within an anachronism that is exactly the opposite from the image that its Stalinist leadership strives to project. The show of North Korean power gives the impression of a warrior pounding one's own chest: from declarations to the outside world that the country possesses nuclear weapons to trucks equipped with loudspeakers blaring marshal music all over the capital, Pyongyang, within the insular country.

From the time the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was formed in 1948, the Stalinist-type regime has imposed an authoritarian ideological structure upon the people. The Korean War, the final and most deadly conflict in the Cold War, ended in 1953. The armistice between North and South that followed remains very fragile.

North Koreans visit Mansudae Grand Monument on Mansu Hill to pay their respects to the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung.

Yannis Kontos/Polaris
Kim Il Sung's country forces citizens to live under the dictations of "Ju-che," the social dogma that replaced Marxist ideology and orders the people to be self-sufficient.

North Korea, the only country of actually existing socialism on the planet today, is a forbidden destination for foreign reporters. It is visited every year by only 1,000 westerners, chosen from different countries. I visited the Democratic People's Republic of Korea two times as a member of a small group of "global" tourists and I stayed in the country for 17 days. On my trip, I had the opportunity to travel in the countryside. I hadn't seen any pictures of this part of the country and I found it very important to document real-life scenes. It took me more than three years to find a way to visit North Korea--all my attempts to get a journalistic visa failed several times.

North Koreans use Pyongyang Metro for their transportation.

Yannis Kontos/Polaris
The shooting of these pictures was conducted under the strict supervision of three people designated by the regime, who maintained total control of my attempts to photograph the aspects of everyday life in North Korea.

Almost 80 percent of my pictures were taken in secret using several different methods to avoid the attention of my minders. Frequently acting and feeling like a spy using my camera's self-timer, most of the time I was shooting without looking at the viewfinder, even from inside a bus or a train. I managed to catch the mood of the country and little by little I collected enough material for a story. Every night, I was downloading my pictures in secret to my mp3 player, unbeknownst to my roommate.

North Koreans celebrate the 61st anniversary of Liberation Day—freedom from the Japanese—in a park in Pyongyang. North Korea’s nuclear test on Oct. 9, 2006 came a day before the anniversary.

Yannis Kontos/Polaris
In the DPRK use of cameras causes the major problems. Photographic and video equipment are strictly monitored. Professional cameras, lenses over 150mm, video cameras, computers and mobile phones are not allowed. For that reason, I had two small, very silent cameras with me: one digital and one analog. Most of the time they were hidden in my bag and I was able to take them out freely only when I was in a sightseeing location. Although, even in front of the Great Leader statue, where we were obliged to bow, a North Korean guide declared how the monument had to be photographed: "When you take photographs of the statue of Kim Il Sung you must include it all in the picture, no side pictures, no pictures from behind."

From the very first moment I arrived in North Korea I had the strong feeling that I was watching a huge performance and that all the controlled citizens I saw were part of it.

In conclusion, I would say that my story reveals how a country, which recently announced to the world that it has a nuclear arsenal, presents itself to the camera through staged events based on a propaganda scenario using carefully chosen leading performers.

© Yannis Kontos

Yannis Kontos was born in Greece where he studied photography and has gained international recognition in the field of photojournalism. He is a freelance photojournalist represented by the American agency Polaris Images. Over the last decade, Kontos has covered the recent wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as all the major stories around the globe. He has won 17 international awards for his work and his photographs have been published in the world's most well-known publications. Early next year The Digital Journalist will present a large number of images by Yannis Kontos.

To see more dramatic photographs, please visit: and his Web site:

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