In 2015, Michal Huniewicz, professional photographer for periodicals such as National Geographic, took a journey from China to North Korea. The two countries are pals, both communist, but what Huniewicz discovered was how stark the difference between them. Whereas China models a country slowly loosening its grip in favor of capitalism, North Korea remains stuck in the 1950s, an echo of Communist Russian architecture and Stalinist intimidation.
For the few who can tour the country, the North Koreans put a steering wheel on the experience. Oh yeah, and taking pictures is forbidden. Huniewicz risks it all once he crosses into North Korea, bringing us revealing images depicting what the heck goes on north of the 38th parallel. What this writer finds most interesting is how pristine the countryside appears in contrast to the city. There is beauty in North Korea, but you will have to search for it.
Dandong, China – Mao Statue
A man for whom the Chinese erected more than one golden statue, Mao was a Chinese communist revolutionary. He was also the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. Here, he stands pointing to Dangdong, the most humane city in China.
North Korea vs. China
On the right you have the rising structures of a country thriving faster than ever in history, China. On the left you have a country stuck in the ’50s, North Korea. Crank the time machine back fifty years and these banks of the Yalu River Delta might have looked about the same.
North Korean Side Of Yalu
Touring the delta on a boat from China, Huniewicz captures the underdeveloped shores of Ryongampo, North Korea. It has its own beauty, raw, undeveloped, but demonstrates a country with fewer resources.
Dandong High Rises
Up close the differences only elevate. Dandong builds condominiums like skyscrapers on the delta. They look like Ceasar’s Palace in Las Vegas.
The Friendship Bridge
The light from the bridge, illuminated from the Chinese side, shines light on the undeveloped North Korean side. Both sides have access to the same trade routes, but China is clearly leveraging their opportunities better.
One more of North Korea. The tower in the distance houses military posted to keep an eye on things. This, as we will see, is the state of affairs in North Korea.
Dandong Train Depot
There are two ways into North Korea from the Chinese side, train or plane. A plane would miss all the action, so Huniewicz boarded here. The train will take him over the delta, into the fields on the northern part of North Korea, then into the city.
No Visa, No Entry
Huniewicz is ready with his visa, something not everyone can get. South Koreans, for example, are not issued visas into North Korea.
Officially in North Korea
This is where Huniewicz’s images ger dangerous. His first shot is this unflattering apartment building. There are no bright colors, no signs of individuality in North Korea.
The biggest risk, admits Huniewicz, is the guards on train. “…if they do catch you, they will probably just get upset and have you delete the photo,” he says. Then he points out that you can hack the firmware of your camera to not actually delete the photo.
Similar to traveling parts of Latin America, the untouched countryside preserves a simpler time. Few people own cars, so roads remain unpaved this far from the cities.
Murals On A Building
These are not murals of great scientists or explorers. It’s Kim Il-sung, the Eternal President of North Korea, his son Kim Jong-il, the Eternal Secretary of North Korea, and Kim Jong-suk, the wife of Il-sung. North Koreans are expected to love these leaders more than anyone else.
Finally, something that isn’t depressing or open country, Huniewicz passes semi-normal looking condos and developed roads. The people still do not drive cars.
Without confirmation, Huniewicz assumes this is a place of work, a factory. What depressing images might he capture inside there, if he could?
Again, the supreme leaders adorn a building in North Korea.
Once again the land of North Korea is most beautiful when undeveloped. Huniewicz contemplates the assertion that North Koreans believe the world marvels at their accomplishments.
One would find no drugs on this bus, nor hippies or happiness. In North Korea, one mostly travels on foot or bicycle. Busses and trains facilitate longer trips, but only when authorized.
Huniewicz guides admit that the country struggles. The North Korean government insists that the country is self-sustaining, but everything he sees demonstrates otherwise.
Otherwise known as a truck carrying soldiers, this pictures captures the impoverished state of the North Korean Army. Taking this picture could get him in more trouble than just a warning.
Everywhere Huniewicz goes, the presence of police or military is everywhere. One is constantly watched.
People Of North Korea
The potential is there, just beyond the crumbling walls and unsightly structures.
Where The Sidewalk Ends
Hardly the destination Shel Silverstein had in mind when he penned his famous children’s book, this road may one day shuttle cars, but it’s merely a bike path in today’s North Korea.
Finally to his destination, Huniewicz finds an bizarre, orchestrated scene of hubbub. These people are not really bustling about this city center. They are there as a show, actors on a set for anyone on the train who might be visiting. In this case, it’s Huniewicz.