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.”
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.'”
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.
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.”