In August 2013, the British Council’s Visual Arts Director, Andrea Rose, along with photographer Nick Danziger and writer Rory MacLean, travelled to North Korea at the invitation of the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) authorities. They set out to provide a view of the people and the country with the aim of informing future discussion about this isolated state. Andrea Rose answers our questions about the visit.
How did the idea come about for a photography workshop in North Korea?
It began when Nick Danziger, whom I had worked with before on a project in Ethopia, talked to me about running a workshop in North Korea. He wanted to involve maybe 12 or 14 individuals from different walks of life -- a forester, a dancer, a teacher, a fisherman -- to tell a different story from the one we’re familiar with through the media. The idea was to invite them to take part in a workshop which would take place over three weeks. Nick would mentor them so they could tell the story of their own lives through photography.
In North Korea, as in other countries, photography is predominantly a tool to show you at your best. You put your best clothes on, you smile, and it’s all rather formal and controlled. The workshop was an attempt to get a view of a more ordinary, everyday life that North Koreans live. As well as Nick helping them tell their stories through photography, Rory MacLean would mentor the same North Koreans in writing down their stories. From these narratives, the two of them would then create an exhibition which would be shown in Pyongyang at the end of the visit, and then subsequently in London. It was an intriguing idea because it’s at the root of what the British Council does -- attempting to engage with people rather than governments and regimes.
North Korea is famously cautious about imagery that doesn’t conform to the view it wishes to project of itself as a happy, fortunate, communist state, where everything is provided for by the grace of the Kim family. It's a view which considers that people and ideology are one and the same thing. This is what makes it so difficult to see what the lives of individuals are like. Pluralism, diversity and individual determination naturally militate against the idea of a single state ideology where everyone acts in the interest of the party. Nick’s idea, therefore, was specially intriguing. Was there any distance between the expressions of the state and the individuals who live in it?
I called the North Korean Embassy in London and asked if we could meet to discuss the idea, and to my amazement, not only did they respond instantly, they were incredibly positive about the idea.
How successful were you in capturing the everyday life of North Koreans?
We never got to see life in North Korea without some form of monitoring. We were never allowed anywhere without our official guides. The North Korean Embassy had been very good about agreeing to our requests and we spent a lot of time in advance of the visit in negotiating the terms of the workshop -- who we wanted to see, the equipment we were going to take in with us (cameras, digital recorders, printers etc.), the way we wanted to conduct this workshop. But when we got to North Korea, all this went out of the window. We quickly learned that bringing together a group of 14 North Koreans, and keeping them together in one place for a prolonged workshop wasn’t going to be possible.
We were met at Pyongyang Central Station (we had taken the train in from Beijing -- a 24-hour journey) by the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. They were our official hosts and remained with us for the entire period we were there, including staying overnight in whichever hotel we were in). Our two guides seemed genuinely perplexed by the idea we’d proposed to their London Embassy. No, they told us, there was no way they could assemble a group of people in a room in Pyongyang for weeks. First of all, for anyone living and working outside Pyongyang, they couldn't get a permit to travel into the city. And secondly, no-one would be given permission to take three weeks off work.
So we had been, if not deluded, then a little naive. But in a way it didn’t matter because we did insist on meeting certain people and there was a lot of bargaining and manoeuvring, and trying to finesse with our minders our way out of visits to the usual tourist destinations. We really wanted to meet a fisherman, for example, because we'd heard about the parlous state of the fishing fleet, and wanted to see for ourselves the daily lives of those who work the seas for a living. The tragedy is that the UN has voted a considerable sum for the repair and renovation of the North Korean fishing fleet (the statistics about the numbers of deaths of fishermen are alarming) but they can't allocate it as there is no way of verifying that it will reach the fishing fleet rather than bolster the military.
I think the reason we were able to get as far as we did is because I made it clear to the North Korean Embassy before we set out that the purpose of the visit wasn't simply to have an exhibition but to test the potential for future cultural collaboration between the UK and North Korea. As the British Council has been running an English language teacher training programme in North Korea for the past 13 years, we already had some track record of working in the country, but both sides were keen to explore whether this could be expanded. I am sure this gave us greater access than we might otherwise have had.
How much contact is there between North Korea and the rest of the world? Do you think North Korea wants more contact, and if so, what sort of contact?
It’s sometimes said that anyone who tells you they know North Korea is either a fool or a liar, because nobody really knows the answers, even long-term Pyongyang watchers. From my limited experience -- and we were there longer than many people on a first-time visit -- it's unnerving to see how little contact with the outside world there is. No newspapers, no internet, no books, no films, no television or radio to speak of other than state broadcasting, which pumps out a continual paean of praise for the regime. In an otherwise interconnected world, it feels like a time warp -- feudal in many ways.
You have to know the history of North Korea to understand why they’ve adopted this insular policy. They don’t trust Japan, which brutally occupied the Korean peninsula for the first 40 years of the 20th century, suppressing the Korean language, stripping people of their family names etc. They don’t trust the Chinese, their enormously powerful neighbour to the west, which has periodically seen Korea as a tributary state; they don't trust Russia, on their northern borders, another all-powerful neighbour which, having been an ally during the Soviet period, let them down after the end of the Soviet Union, no longer providing them with raw materials on friendly terms; and they least of all trust South Korea, which they see as being a puppet of the USA, and yet which they feel should be united (under the red flag) to create a single Korean nation. So they see themselves as surrounded by hostile forces. Protectionism, in the form of holding onto the one thing which distinguishes them from all their neighbours -- their belief in communism and in the Kim dynasty to lead it -- therefore spells independence. Independence and self-reliance are their watchwords. They don't see globalisation as a positive way to build the economy of the country. Yet South Korea, with the same history as North Korea until the establishment of the two states in l948, has become one of the most prosperous nations in the world, without any of the mineral wealth of North Korea -- coal, rare earth, bauxite, gold etc. South Korea is largely composed of agricultural land, yet it has traded itself into becoming a global player through its emphasis on innovation.
Everything the regime does is aimed at control -- control of the people, control of the economy -- control in order to maintain the status quo. At first we were surprised we could take our mobile phones in, but of course that’s because there’s no network connection, so it’s meaningless anyway. We had laptops too but there’s no internet. Television monitors are in many public places (hotels, restaurants) etc., but it broadcasts a diet of propaganda messages, and nothing from any other country. Lack of knowledge of any alternatives keeps the population in ignorance, and ignorance breeds fear.
Given that it’s so controlled, and so cut off, it’s surprising they let you in. What’s the main interest for them?
The British Council has been in North Korea now for 14 years, it’s worth reminding ourselves of that. We’ve had teachers based there over that period, training teachers of English. North Koreans know -- the educated elite certainly know -- that they have to be able to deal with the outside world. Food security is critical -- they can’t produce enough to feed themselves, and are dependent on outside aid (28 per cent of North Korean children under the age of five are malnourished). They don’t publicly acknowledge external aid, of course, but that is the case.
They do know they need better connections. It surprised me that, as well as business English, they have asked for materials in certain subjects such as market economics. It shows awareness of the way the rest of the world has gone. Whether it will lead to a gradual move towards economic liberalisation or not is an open question. The failure of the command economy however is not in question.
The British Council is often criticised for engaging with regimes such as North Korea but takes the view that engagement is better than isolation. Do you feel this more keenly since your visit?
While I was there, I did feel that the benefits the British Council could offer were access to knowledge; to awaken people basically. We talk about the difficulty getting in to North Korea but North Koreans also can’t get out. They don’t have passports, most of them can’t travel between cities, so they’re very closed off from any forms of understanding about how other systems work, or how other people live and think. I think that the more one can encourage the idea that there are alternatives, the better. That was certainly the case with the former Eastern bloc, when the British Council kept channels open between the former countries of the Eastern bloc and the west. It helped many people to know that the west could provide a different perspective, and that western know-how helped Eastern bloc countries develop from failed command economies towards more liberal market economics, with all the benefits in basic living standards for their populations that these were able to provide.
It's important because North Koreans live in a state of both intellectual and physical poverty. Their traditional allies -- the countries of the former Soviet bloc, Libya etc. -- have all overthrown their despotic regimes, so it is less and less able to trade on 'friendly' terms for commodities such as oil -- vital necessities to ensure industry remains active. Just on a human level, people shouldn’t have to be living in those sorts of circumstances.
You went to deliver a photography workshop – what did you find out about the visual arts in North Korea?
Well, like everything else in North Korea, the visual arts are completely state-controlled. There is nothing private at all. I made the foolish mistake of asking someone involved in the Korean film industry if there were any independent production companies and he laughed at me and said, ‘You know our system, don’t you?’ It’s the same with art.
North Korea has four major art studios, and one of the biggest, Mansudae, features in the exhibition. Mansudae has 4,000 people working in it. What they largely produce are images that promote the idea of North Korea as demi-gods -- in posters, murals, paintings, statues and badges. Every public building you go into has a portrait or statue -- usually monumental -- of one or other of the two deceased Kims (Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il) -- sometimes both. And every citizen over the age of about 16 wears an enamel badge showing one of the Kim family. They are given out to citizens by work units, or the army, and are all made in these art studios.
How do you see arts initiatives working compared to hard diplomacy?
I think you have to define art in broad terms. In North Korea, the ultimate artistic expression is where individuals perform in the service of state ideology, and there is no better example of it than in the Arirang Games. This huge gymnastic display, where more than 100,000 performers are choreographed into performing astonishingly precise tableaux with their bodies is an amazing thing to witness -- people so synchronised that it perfectly replicates the idea of individuals subservient to a single state message,¨people as pixels in effect. For us, where pluralism and diversity contribute to the full expression of who we are, it's hard to appreciate a country where art is seen only as a vehicle for an ideology that has been discredited everywhere else in the world. But if we can find the forms of expression that will allow each side to explore a little of who we really are, or might be, then it is definitely worth pursuing.
For example, the exhibition we’re putting on is of images made by a photo-journalist. They are not 'fine art' in the traditional sense. Nonetheless it’s image-making, and many of those images, it seems to me, convey something of the individuals we met, and the contexts in which they live; something which hard diplomacy -- the business of economics, politics and military discourse -- cannot, and doesn't aim, to do. Perhaps it’s no surprise that there are ‘individuals’ in this country, but it’s not something which North Korea itself promotes or which the western world, or the rest of the world, can easily see. I think people are rather amazed when they see in these photographs people who have in common with us human desires such as the betterment of their children and pleasures like swimming. There is a commonality there after all. And that surely makes us feel more interest in them than we might otherwise do.
How do you see the future of the relationship between the UK and North Korea?
Whatever happens, it’ll be a slow process -- and it’s a process rather than an event. The exhibition is a small contribution to a view of North Korea, but I think we’ve added something a little bit different on this occasion. What I think it will do is help gain the trust of the North Koreans we met. We have brought them over twice since we went there, and we’re bringing them over a third time in July 2014 to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on cultural collaboration. We will be the first western country to do that, and it will open up the possibility for the British Council to explore the possibilities for future cultural engagement. It could be in sport, or film or in other areas in which we know there to be an interest. It could certainly be in education.
I’m not going to predict what’s going to happen in North Korea, but I can’t believe that a society that sees other possibilities can fail to be affected by them. Just as I was affected by going to North Korea in that it made me sympathetic to the people who live there -- not the regime but to the people that live there -- I would hope they felt sympathy towards us. And when you feel sympathy towards people, even if you don’t speak the same language, and don’t have the same political views, it makes you a little bit closer.
The British Council has a unique platform to be able to do this, and I think we should make use of it. It’s a very privileged position. Interestingly enough, in answer to all those people who ask why we’re dealing with a regime with human rights issues second to none in their brutality, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights issued a report about six weeks ago. It was very dispiriting in terms of revealing the terrible things that go on, but what the report recommended was that nations increase people-to-people engagement as a means of combating these. I feel that we’ve started that process and we need to continue and deepen it.
Who else is involved in the people-to-people engagement?
One of my recommendations when I came out was to suggest that we explore with other European countries where there was scope for collaboration. I’ve been talking to the Goethe Institute who have done quite a lot of cultural work in North Korea. Germany has a unique contribution to make. Having been a divided state in the 20th century, they have a very particular experience to share.
How did the experience of visiting North Korea change you, if it did?
It’s difficult. It’s a shock to go to a county where control is so absolute. I anticipated that it might have been rather like the China I first visited in the early l980s, but it wasn't. The ceaseless exhortation to fulfil the commands of the communist regime was one thing, but the omnipresence of the Kims -- not only in images but in the words of those we spoke to -- makes you feel you're inside a cult.
I’d never really had any dealings with North Korea before. But within this one peninsula, to find people of the same ethnic group, with the same language, and same historic and cultural roots behaving so differently depending on whether they live north or south of the demilitarised zone makes this tremendously poignant.
Throughout my career at the British Council, I’ve been very conscious of the tensions implicit in countries defining themselves through cultural identity -- often expressed through traditions -- and the pressures of globalisation. Can you modernise without westernising, in a nutshell? Where art plays a role is in mediating between the two: allowing individuals to question, to explore, to invent, to innovate, and institutions to celebrate those freedoms by respecting and promoting them.
There seemed to me a deep -- and misplaced -- sense of anxiety in North Korea that their identity will be eroded if allowed to touch or be touched by others. It's almost a laboratory case. You have this open, innovative, and experimental country in the south of the Korean peninsula, and a restrictive, closed-off country in the north. It’s like having two identical seedboxes, one with the top open to the atmosphere, the other with the top permanently sealed. Inside the open-lidded box, the plants can grow and thrive, fed by sunlight and weather. In the closed box, the plants distort.
So I was affected by the way politics can create a group of people who struggle to assert their human dignity. How could you not be affected by that?
See photos from North Korea [link expired] taken by Andrea Rose in 2013.
Above the Line: People and Places in the DPRK, an exhibition of 80 large-scale colour photographs by Nick Danziger, is at the British Council’s headquarters in London until 25 July. The exhibition is accompanied by a 210-page catalogue with 150 full-colour plates, and interviews with 12 individuals living in North Korea.