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Unveiling Pyongyang, North Korea – Atira Ariffyn

The Interview

When you think of a holiday destination, what do you think of? New York? Bahamas? Maybe Tokyo. But Atira Ariffyn had a different idea. She went where very few want to, and even fewer manage to. North Korea. More specifically, Pyongyang. During her trip there, Atira managed to capture some beautiful images of the ‘Hermit Kingdom’.

Curious to find out more about Atira’s trip there, Alan Lonergan took to interview her to find out more.


Where did your desire to visit North Korea stem from? 

I have always been very curious about North Korea. I guess it began when I came across photographs circulated on the internet a few years back and the portrayal of the Hermit Kingdom often painted by the western media. After watching the satire comedy film The Interview in late 2014, my curiosity escalated further. I was ecstatic when an opportunity came earlier this year for a two-week architectural programme organised by my school in collaboration with the Pyongyang University of Architecture.

Is North Korea actually similar to what the rest of the world sees it as? Is it in fact highly dystopian on an Orwellian scale?

I personally feel like North Korea is often misunderstood. To label it as “highly dystopian” would be an extreme exaggeration, at least in the context of today. From my own readings on several books of North Korean defectors who escaped the country, I could imagine the conditions were a lot worst in the previous regimes of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, where the whole nation’s economy collapsed with the fall of Soviet Union, and during the time of Great Famine which ended in 1998.

However, today, I saw the capital city was booming with developments. The people in Pyongyang live normally just like you and I. They go to theatres, eat ice creams in the park, commute on trams, eat out in restaurants, leave their offices at 6pm; pretty much normal everyday life.

I was fortunate to be there as a delegate as I got to experience North Korea in a slightly different way compared to those under tour agencies. I was allowed to take a walk (accompanied by my guide, of course) in the city in the morning or at night. I experienced the city from a closer perspective typically limited to other tourists. On normal conditions, foreigners are strictly prohibited from interacting with the locals. I was working closely together with a group of bright students from Pyongyang University of Architecture and just after a few days we became close friends. Everyday we would have lunch together, joked around, talked about relationships, the future, favourite foods and other random things. So no, it definitely was not a dystopia for me.

The country’s architecture and landscapes are recurring themes in your photos. What is it about them that you admire? 

As an architecture graduate, I couldn’t help being drawn to architecture wherever I go. When I first stepped into Pyongyang, I was impressed by the strong influence of Stalinist Neoclassical architecture from Soviet Russia. During the Korean war, Pyongyang was bombed and flattened to dust by the US. The government rebuilt the city from scratch. They sent out a lot of architects to be trained in Russia and some European countries, hence the adaptation of the Soviet-style architecture. One of the architects I was working with studied in Paris for eight years. The urban planning of the city was impressive. Large governmental buildings laid on perfect axes, perfectly symmetrical tree-lined boulevards and vast public squares ready to hold huge mass parades are among the strong elements making up the urban fabric. Though, in spite of my appreciation towards their urban planning,  deep inside, I also feel like architecture is also part of the government’s propaganda strategy. Architecture became a monument, an exhibition of wealth and a progressive nation in which they need to prove to North Koreans that being a socialist country is the best way to go.

Public transport, namely buses and trains, is another clear focus of your photos. Why did this interest you?

As a foreigner, my movement was restricted. I was escorted everywhere I went and was not allowed to wander on my own. Therefore I was constantly being transported from one place to another. I took this as an opportunity to record my daily commute as my personal reading of the people.

The streets in Pyongyang are a lot busier compared to the districts outside of the city. I noticed this as I traveled further out from Pyongyang to visit certain sites on some of the days. Car ownership is not very common in North Korea, thus the majority of the citizens rely on public transportation in conducting their daily lives. I was very intrigued by this. From my daily commute I observed the people in their rawest form. Long queues at the tram stops in the morning, night buses packed with people heading home after a long day of work, pedestrians walking in the rain, school children walking hand in hand, cyclists swarming the sides of the roads. These different layers of everyday lives collapsing onto different scenes fascinated me.

The Ryugyong Hotel stands tall in a black and white photo of yours. What is its significance in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital?

I believe that it was a symbol of power initiated by their first Supreme Leader, Kim Il-sung. Although it is incomplete, I feel like it was a message to the outside world to show us what North Korea is capable of. It became a superstructure icon of North Korea. It can be seen from most parts of Pyongyang, perhaps also as a constant reminder to the people of the power of their government. The power they need to bow down to.

Did it feel strange to be taking photographs in North Korea? An activity that is innately creative, yet is so politically controlled in North Korea? 

To be honest I was a bit nervous at first, but my guides assured me that it was perfectly fine to photograph as long as I abide by the guidelines to not photograph military activities, construction sites or the portraits of their leaders. After the first day, it already felt natural to photograph and document things around me. It is not as politically controlled as it used to be in the past.

Did your experience of North Korea feel constructed rather than authentic? Do you think you saw the true North Korea?

I feel like I was somewhat privileged to see unveiled more layers of the North Korean life which go unseen by most tourists on tours planned by agencies. Befriending the locals definitely allowed be to see through some of the ‘constructed facade’. In two weeks, I connected with them on an individual, closer level. They showed me personal photos on their smart phones: photos of their pets, families, a photo of a friend who fell asleep in class, of eating out, places they went, things like that. We were good friends.

Of course I was also shown the beautiful side of Pyongyang, the side they want the world to see. But I also saw glimpses of the people and their everyday life that is often overlooked in favour of the political propaganda images painted by the media. I am aware that there is a lot more that I did not see, things that are hidden behind those walls and political agendas that we often read about in books and such, but I guess I was fortunate enough to be able to see what I saw.

Finally, what was the most surprising or shocking thing that you saw during your time there?

I met Kim Jong-un in real life. THE Kim Jong-un. It was a once in a life time opportunity to be within a 50m distance from one of the world’s most controversial leaders.

Through his connections, my organiser managed to get my team and I invited to the 9th Congress of the Kim Ill-sung Youth League at Rungrado May Day Stadium, the world’s largest stadium. It was only for official guests and not open for tourists as it was a political event. I was seated at a special section next to the VIPs among other foreigners and diplomats. It was definitely one life-time opportunity as the previous, 8th Congress occurred 23 years ago, and the date of the next is unknown.

I have never witnessed such an impressive parade in my life. Almost 50,000 youth members were standing each with two torches and another large group were holding coloured cards and LED lights in their hands making precise rhythmic movements and formations in the large field. No words can describe it. Unfortunately cameras and phones were prohibited at the event but I’m glad I found the link of the event coverage on Youtube:

I guess the most shocking part would be the very moment when Kim Jong-un appeared. 150,000 people in the stadium sprang up on their seats, and a huge cheer echoed around the stadium as everyone applauded with great enthusiasm to welcome him. The standing ovation went on for over five minutes – the event marshal had to blow a whistle to stop everyone clapping and to inform them to sit down so that they could actually start the event. I’ve never witnessed such enthusiasm for a leader.

That was not all either. After one of the performances, hundreds of delegates started running across the field towards where Kim Jong-un was seated, cheering, crying, clapping, jumping and waving to him, desperately trying to be within his field of vision. It was like a mosh pit suddenly appeared. People on the seats started climbing over the fences and jumped onto the track and ran to join the hysterical crowd of people. It was chaos. I spotted one girl who had fainted and had to be taken away. From his seat, Kim Jong-un was looking at them through a pair of binoculars. It was like a cult. The whole scene that unfolded before me was surreal.


Imagery by Atira Ariffyn

Interviewed by Alan Lonergan

Edited by Daniel Hawksworth