These days, unless you're Dennis Rodman, there's a slim chance you'd be able to experience North Korea to its fullest. The Hermit Kingdom is notoriously closed-off to foreigners, keeping its secrets under tight control of the totalitarian state.
In the October issue of National Geographic, reporter Tim Sullivan and photographer David Guttenfelder break down at least a few of these barriers, capturing moments as spontaneous as possible when under strict supervision by a government official. It is these instances that offer a glimpse into the real North Korea, beyond the carefully crafted image put forth by the regime of Kim Jong Un.
The North Korean government, of course, works relentlessly to present a view of life in which schools are filled with happy, well-fed children, stores are filled with goods, and loyalty to the Kim family is universal. People know to speak to reporters in surreal, mechanical hyperbole, spouting praise for their leaders. “Thanks to the warm love of the ‘Respected General,’ Kim Jong Un, even rural people like us can come here and enjoy mini-golf,” Kim Jong Hui, a 51-year-old housewife from the country’s remote northeast, tells me one day at the country’s first putt-putt golf course, in Pyongyang. Overwhelmed by this benevolence, she says, “I have made up my mind to do my duty to help build a prosperous, powerful state.”
It is easy, after many such encounters, to believe in the caricature of North Koreans as Stalinist robots. The challenge is to find the far more elusive—and more prosaic—reality. Sometimes that takes stumbling onto a subject that gets North Koreans to open up a bit.
Like Gone With the Wind.
You read that right: The nation in which you'd be hard-pressed to find any piece of non-propagandistic media happens to love the classic novel of the American south, just one of the anti-narrative tidbits Sullivan and Guttenfelder relay. To North Koreans, it's a window to the West, a story of a proud people and a source of inspiration for those who may not be so different from us.
"We are normal," a former North Korean black marketeer who now lives in Seoul once told Sullivan. "Please don’t forget this. People live, people compete to get jobs, people fight. There are the basic elements of life like there are in South Korea or the United States."
Read more about what life under Kim rule is really like in the October 125th anniversary issue of National Geographic magazine.
Take a peek at these rare images by David Guttenfelder from inside North Korea. You can find the entire slideshow on the National Geographic website.