Thursday’s Picture of the Week: North Korea

Photo of Kim Jong Il Banner in Pyongyang, North Korea

Behind the Scenes: It’s 1991 and Jeffrey is working on assignment for Time Magazine in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Excerpt from my upcoming book, The Art of an Improbable Life

The stadium is brimming with over 100,000 people, all here to celebrate his birthday. It’s not exactly Jeffrey’s style, being the low-key-birthday-kind-of-guy that he is, but he indulges on this particular April day. First comes music, followed by a parade of synchronized dancers and gymnasts, then flags swirl and paper cards flash into vibrant scenes as they’re turned over by participants. Jeffrey is stunned by the scale of it all.

It’s the most surreal birthday of his thirty-six years.

As luck would have it, not only is it Jeffrey’s birthday, but it’s also Kim Il-Sung’s birthday, which means it’s North Korea’s most important national holiday. The preparations for this grand event have been under way for months and its participants are worked up into a frenzy as they celebrate the birth of their “Great Leader.”

Photo of North Korean Kids during Kim Il Sung birthday celebrationAs Jeffrey stands at the top of the stadium stairs, looking out at the sea of North Korean humanity and trying to absorb the magnitude of this patriotic extravaganza, he obediently asks his guide, Mr. Kim, if he can take a picture of the children. He has been told that he must ask permission to take any photograph while in North Korea. When Mr. Kim nods at his request, Jeffrey lifts his camera to his eye and begins capturing the exuberance of Young Pioneers as they shake bright pink pom-pom flowers in rhythm to the booming music.

Photo of North Korea, Kim Il Sung birthday celebration in PyongyangThen he asks if he can photograph the dancers twirling flags and the workers marching with Communist banners. As he does, a thunderous applause suddenly erupts and Jeffrey turns to see what’s happening. Two 1940’s Russian convertible cars emerge onto the stadium track carrying a larger-than-life banner of Kim Il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il. Jeffrey instinctively lifts his camera and starts shooting again.

The next thing Jeffrey knows, two powerful hands grip his shoulders and launch him down the concrete steps of the stadium. He sees and feels a cascading swirl of music, pom-poms, faces, sky, and cement. His knee hits first, then his elbow and shoulder, followed by his head, as he tries to cradle his camera to protect it from the fall.

Pain engulfs him. As he looks up, dazed, all he sees are two shiny black shoes standing next to his face like sentinels. After shaking off his confusion, fury rips through him, especially when he realizes his 80-200mm zoom lens is damaged. Knowing he must keep his composure in this Orwellian-like country though, he asks Mr. Kim without an ounce of expression, “Why did you just do that?”

Two black marble eyes blaze through Jeffrey. “You didn’t ask permission.”


…After wrapping up one of the strangest and most stressful projects of his life, Jeffrey boards a rickety train heading back to Beijing. His guide, Mr. Kim, looks at him with a cardboard smile and says, “Mr. Jeffrey, I hope to warmly welcome you back to Korea.” Then without blinking, he says, “If the pictures you took are ever used for negative propaganda, you will regret this for the rest of your life. Have a safe journey, my friend.”

Photo of children saluting Kim Il Sung Statue in Pyongyang, North KoreaPhoto of a Kim Jong Il billboard in Pyongyang, North KoreaPhoto of a North Korean maternity ward in Pyongyang, North KoreaPhoto of a typical North Korean home with portraits of Kim il Sung and Kim Jong IlPhoto of a North Korean highway with a propaganda billboard

The cult surrounding North Korea’s leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, is like other place in the world. Every person wears a Kim pin over his or her chest, and every family has portraits of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader in their home. Statues, billboards and paintings are everywhere–from the airport to stores, factories, metros, schools, kareoke clubs and amusement parks. And every child is born under the watchful eye of the Kims, as seen in the photo above of a North Korean maternity ward.

Jeffrey is one of only a handful of American photojournalists to have gained access into North Korea. Not only did he go for Time, but several years later, he manged to get back in for Vanity Fair, a story I will share another time. It only gets more bizarre!

Photo of a North Korean amusement Park in Pyongyang, North KoreaPhoto of a North Korean beauty salon in Pyongyang

34 thoughts on “Thursday’s Picture of the Week: North Korea

  1. A gripping piece! Jeffery’s fortunate that only his lens was cracked, it could have been his head. And they could done much worse. I am surprised they let him keep the film. Excellent writing . . .

    Your book will be complete by the end of the year! You must be excited! Now on to the next phase . . . which can be crazy and intimidating. I know, that’s why I haven’t been networking lately.

    Happy New Year and may our books live a long life! lol

  2. Becky, absolutely fascinating story! So amazing the things he has photographed. Your writing is spot-on as well. I love photo-journalism, and I’m so excited that your book will be a reality. Peace and success to you and Jeffrey, and may your Improbable Life thrive!

    • Thank you, MJ. I’m glad you were intrigued by this post. Now you know one of the reasons I feel compelled to write this book. Each time Jeffrey would come home from an assignment like this, I would be bowled over by his experiences.

  3. As always great story Becky. :)
    I can assure you that your book “An improbable Life” is going to be a huge success. Just finish it as quickly as possible, so that i can get a copy of that book autographed by you. :)

  4. Again, I want to tell you how excited I am about your writing–these stories are just mesmerizing! What incredible experiences Jeffrey has had, and you’re so adept at telling them in a way that grabs the reader. So get working, my friend–I want to read this book!

  5. I am fascinated by North Korea and it’s Stepford wife mentality. They are like creepily, happy zombies over there. I can’t imagine living like that. It is like a lifetime prison sentence. To have such control over a people must be a powerful aphrodisiac. Thank you for telling this story. Once again, Jeffrey’s pictures are amazing!

    • North Korea is like no other place in the world. When Jeffrey was in his hotel room, the radio dials were welded to the state run propaganda station. It will be interesting to see what transpires with the new 20-something son of the Dear Leader running the show.

  6. Wow! I just love your blog. Your writing, combined with your husband’s photography is just my cup of tea. I have many nice things to say, but I will save some ooh-ing and aah-ing for other posts. I always enjoy them and love the photography. You are both so talented!

      • I read your blog all the time! I’m actually a subscriber and get them on my email. This is just the first time I’ve made a comment. I agree with Cindy – the combination of Jeffery’s photos and your writing is just fabulous!

      • I knew you were a subscriber. I just figured with how busy you are with work and life that you might not have time to squeeze in time to read it. It’s nice to know you are out there (when you’re not running on top of the world in SB).

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