Summer is over. If you haven’t already, you and your co-workers will gather around the break room and attempt to one-up each other with vacation stories. But few can compare with the tales from writer Debbie Pappyn and photographer David de Vleeschauwer’s own summer getaway: Pyongyang, North Korea. The pair are the founders of travel blog Classe Touriste, where they’ve posted the stunning photos of their trip to the DPRK.
Pappyn and de Vleeschauwer first made the jaunt in 2009. They recently returned from their second trip, and advise anyone interested in a socialist sojourn to travel to North Korea . If you’re wondering how they managed to enter the notoriously inaccessible country, it was pretty easy: “Just book a trip with the English, Beijing-based tour operator Koryo Tours,” the veteran travelers tell Co.Design. “Anybody can do it.”
Koryo Tours arranged all of the visas, as well as air, rail, and lodging for the Class Touriste couple. And they’ll do the same for you, too, also securing a liaison and vehicle–a bus for groups, a vintage Mercedes for individuals–that accompany you throughout Pyongyang. Unscheduled stops are rarely tolerated, though requests can be made. By and large, however, you cannot go wandering off on your own.
“The program is so tightly organized that you are kind of restricted as a tourist,” Pappyn and de Vleeschauwer write. “You get to see the North Korea that the government wants you to see.”
That sanctioned viewpoint is interesting in itself. The agenda includes an extensive architectural tour of the capital’s state buildings and monuments. These are ostensibly governed by the aesthetics of Juche, the DPRK’s official doctrine. The country’s late leader, Kim Jong-il, who in 1991 published his thoughts on architecture, claimed that the style was derived from the will of the people, the “true critics of architecture.” One look at the concrete structures of Pyongyang, however, and it’s easy to divine their symbolic and architectural formulae to the Stalinist architecture of the Soviet Union and its transnational permutations that still haunt post-Maoist Beijing.
Grand civic buildings saddle up to huge boulevards, which appear empty in de Vleeschauwer’s photographs. They’re dutifully patrolled by female guards dressed in blue and white and seated under umbrellas at the foot of intersections. (They essentially replace traffic lights; fortunately there’s not much traffic to handle.) Windswept public plazas are largely unoccupied, and the muted exteriors of apartment high-rises give little indication that they contain any life or individuality. Small military bands perform drills for an audience of none.
These are hallmarks of North Korean photography, which, like ruin porn, is a category all its own. See the work of Berlin-based architect and publisher Philipp Meuser, whose images revel in the capital’s emptiness and tragic, almost forlorn buildings.
De Vleeschauwer’s photography, on the other hand, also examines the day-to-day life of many North Koreans, and does so as accurately as possible. There are pictures of families and friends lounging in parks on Liberation Day, laughing over a small picnic spread. People huddle in wood-paneled subway trains (overseen by twin portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il). Rows of bowlers glide up and down the timber floors of a quietly dignified bowling alley. These scenes offer much-needed humanity and levity, a counterpoint to what we’ve come to expect to see.
The duo were determined “[t]o see the human face of a country that is always sketched out as a very evil and dangerous place.” Indeed, the intensity of DPRK state propaganda (“you cannot escape it”) is nearly matched by its complement, the anti-North Korean stance perpetuated by the U.S. and other western nations. “If you judge a country by its politics then there are many that should be blacklisted,” the travelers reason.
Irrespective of divergences in ideology and government, there’s a lot to like about North Korea, apparently. Pappyn and de Vleeschauwer liked it so much they went back last month, arriving just in time for August 15, Jogukhaebangui nal or Liberation Day. Their favorite part of the festivities? Hands down, the Mass Games, a spectacle that you really can’t find anywhere else.