In North Korea, an Israeli photographer aims his lens beyond the facade
search
Photo essay'They know there is Israel but they don’t have any idea what it is'

In North Korea, an Israeli photographer aims his lens beyond the facade

Moshe Shai takes photos of exhibition put on for visitors by repressive government, and when possible, daily life of the people

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

  • The North Koreans routinely distort the facts of history, Shai said, such as minimizing the United States' role in defeating Japan in World War II. (Moshe Shai)
    The North Koreans routinely distort the facts of history, Shai said, such as minimizing the United States' role in defeating Japan in World War II. (Moshe Shai)
  • A family of North Koreans. Shai's itinerary was strictly controlled but he photographed people's daily life when possible. (Moshe Shai)
    A family of North Koreans. Shai's itinerary was strictly controlled but he photographed people's daily life when possible. (Moshe Shai)
  • Shai did not know what would happen if he was caught taking photos without permission, but was not concerned about severe consequences. (Moshe Shai)
    Shai did not know what would happen if he was caught taking photos without permission, but was not concerned about severe consequences. (Moshe Shai)
  • North Korean children. "It was an old dream of mine to travel there," Shai said. "I went to photograph and learn."
    North Korean children. "It was an old dream of mine to travel there," Shai said. "I went to photograph and learn."
  • A North Korean traffic officer. (Moshe Shai)
    A North Korean traffic officer. (Moshe Shai)
  • North Koreans on their daily commute. (Moshe Shai)
    North Koreans on their daily commute. (Moshe Shai)
  • April 15, Kim Il-sung's birthday, is the country's most important public holiday. (Moshe Shai)
    April 15, Kim Il-sung's birthday, is the country's most important public holiday. (Moshe Shai)
  • The Arch of Reunification straddles the Reunification Highway, which connects Pyongyang with the DMZ. The two women symbolize North and South Korea. (Moshe Shai)
    The Arch of Reunification straddles the Reunification Highway, which connects Pyongyang with the DMZ. The two women symbolize North and South Korea. (Moshe Shai)
  • The skyline of Pyongyang. (Moshe Shai)
    The skyline of Pyongyang. (Moshe Shai)
  • North Korean women in traditional attire. (Moshe Shai)
    North Korean women in traditional attire. (Moshe Shai)
  • Despite the government festivities, the tension was palpable. "You see it in the faces of people," Shai said. (Moshe Shai)
    Despite the government festivities, the tension was palpable. "You see it in the faces of people," Shai said. (Moshe Shai)
  • The tourists were accompanied by at least two guards at all times. (Moshe Shai)
    The tourists were accompanied by at least two guards at all times. (Moshe Shai)
  • Shai's travel group was always accompanied by police escort. (Moshe Shai)
    Shai's travel group was always accompanied by police escort. (Moshe Shai)
  • "You know they're going to show you an exhibition and that’s part of the idea," Shai said. (Moshe Shai)
    "You know they're going to show you an exhibition and that’s part of the idea," Shai said. (Moshe Shai)
  • Bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, part of the Mansu Hill Grand Monument in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. (Moshe Shai)
    Bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, part of the Mansu Hill Grand Monument in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. (Moshe Shai)
  • North Korean women at work. Ordinary people "simply don’t know anything. You don’t have any option in what to believe or not to believe," Shai said. (Moshe Shai)
    North Korean women at work. Ordinary people "simply don’t know anything. You don’t have any option in what to believe or not to believe," Shai said. (Moshe Shai)
  • Costumed children perform in North Korea. The government wants tourists to visit the country for income, Shai said. (Moshe Shai)
    Costumed children perform in North Korea. The government wants tourists to visit the country for income, Shai said. (Moshe Shai)

For years, Moshe Shai longed to visit North Korea. Last month, he got his chance, traveling to the hermit kingdom as a tourist. The veteran photographer did not have permission to take photos at will, but set out to document the show the government puts on for visitors and, whenever possible, the other side of the repressed country.

“They go to places where they want you to photograph, to exhibitions. I knew that I would see a show there, of paradise, how much fun it is to be there,” Shai said. “I knew it was like that and I looked for places where it wasn’t like that.”

He was in North Korea for eight days last month with a small group of tourists. The group witnessed parades and celebrations in the streets, but the tension was palpable, Shai said, and their movements were closely monitored and controlled.

“You can’t walk in the street, can’t meet people, can’t go out for pizza or a beer. It was really one of the strangest trips I’ve done, but it was fascinating,” Shai said. “You know they’re going to show you an exhibition and that’s part of the idea.”

A performance Shai witnessed put on by the North Korean government. (Moshe Shai)
A performance Shai witnessed put on by the North Korean government. (Moshe Shai)

 

The government wants tourists to visit for income, Shai said, and Israelis are allowed to visit the country, albeit with a tightly controlled itinerary.

“Even if you go to the bathroom they follow you,” Shai said. “Two people, so they can keep an eye on each other. Everyone watches everyone else.”

The tour was conducted in English, which the handlers spoke very well.

“You ask them hard questions and they answer everything. They really believe in what they do,” he said. “They said, ‘We don’t have anything to hide.’ I ask them if they can travel outside the country, they say, ‘Of course I can travel, but I don’t have time.'”

A family of North Koreans. Shai's itinerary was strictly controlled but he photographed people's daily life when possible. (Moshe Shai)
A family of North Koreans. Shai’s itinerary was strictly controlled but he photographed people’s daily life when possible. (Moshe Shai)

Shai, who did not have specific approval to visit as a photographer, traveled with a typical tourist’s camera unlike the larger, professional models he usually uses.

He saw the festivities put on by the government to mark a national holiday in honor of Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea. The streets were thronged with people, albeit with a heavy police presence.

“It was a free day, everyone was happy, but you see. You see it in the faces of the people,” Shai said.

Shai said he knew what he was getting into, and was not surprised by what he saw there, except for a few signs of normalcy, including taxi cabs driving through the streets and the large, fancy restaurants set up for tourists and foreign dignitaries.

Moshe Shai during his visit to North Korea. (Courtesy)
Moshe Shai during his visit to North Korea. (Courtesy)

Shai wrapped up his trip before Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s spat with the North Korean leadership last week, and said that the North Koreans he came in contact with were clueless about the Jewish state, and Judaism in general.

“They know there is Israel but they don’t have any idea what it is; they know there is Judaism, but they don’t have any idea what Judaism is, where it comes from, how long ago,” Shai said. “They simply don’t know anything. They don’t have any choice in what to believe or not to believe.”

read more:
comments