The article below was published in Pinnable’s newsletter in . The exhibition D.P.R. Korea Grand Tour ended on 23 September.


Carl De Keyzer’s North Korea Grand Tour

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the world’s № 1 rotten country generally known for its massive and innumerable human rights violations, is extremely difficult to photograph. Visitors on state-authorized tours must follow strict guidelines when taking pictures and often have to ask permission first, and professional photographers are simply not allowed on these trips. Magnum photographer Carl De Keyzer is one of the very few to have been given access to the DPRK. In the years 2015 and 2017, he visited the majority of the 250 or so places that are part of the nation’s official ‘showroom’. Until 23 September, Kunsthal Helmond presents D.P.R. Korea Grand Tour, an exhibition of 89 of his 397 photos that passed the censor, showing the orderly architecture of tourist landmarks, state monuments and social spaces, schools, the intimacies of private homes, and the natural landscape of the country.

Teachers instruct kindergarten students in dance
Teachers instruct kindergarten students in dance

The problem with these photos is that all the image captions were provided by Carl’s Beijing-based travel agency Koryo Tours, whose livelihood obviously depends on staying friendly with the regime in Pyongyang. Take for instance the photo from the Chonsam-ri cooperative farm in Nampo, where ‘teachers instruct kindergarten students in dance’. The audio guide talks about the North Korean attitude towards the United States and the fact that children learn to fear & mistrust their arch-enemy America at an early age, but it doesn’t reveal what you are really looking at, which is a teacher telling children to shoot at Americans. Without these insights it’s all just propaganda. Here’s a similar story: Carl told me that when he visited the Changchung Catholic church in Pyongyang on Whit Sunday, the priest didn’t seem to be aware that it was Pentecost. This supports suggestions that the church is actually fake, set up to give foreign visitors the false impression that Christians in the hermit kingdom of North Korea enjoy religious freedom. To grasp what’s going on in the DPRK, you need more information than the propagandistic captions provide. That is why it’s a good idea to go to Helmond on 2 September at 2½ p.m. for the guided tour given by Carl himself, to hear the full story about his grand tour.

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Last March, Time magazine ran an article about photographers inside North Korea, showing De Keyzer’s photo of worshippers at Bongsu Church in Pyongyang, and printed its Magnum-provided caption without question: ‘Many of today’s Christians […] are allowed to continue their family traditions in the predominately atheist DPRK.’ According to Open Doors, this is not at all the case: if Christians are discovered, they are deported to labour camps as political criminals or killed on the spot; their families share their fate. Meeting for worship is almost impossible, so is done in utmost secrecy. The churches shown to visitors in Pyongyang merely serve propaganda purposes.