TOKYO — North Korea, according to the North Korean regime, is a “socialist paradise” where well-dressed citizens take to the streets to celebrate their spectacular advances in missile and nuclear technology.
This was the message that North Korea’s propagandists conveyed after a hydrogen bomb test in September and again last week, after leader Kim Jong Un supervised the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile technically capable of reaching every corner of the United States.
The official Korean Central News Agency reported that “dancing parties” had broken out in the capital and that there was “great joy and excitement” among government employees and civilians over the launch. It sent out pictures of impressive fireworks displays and soldiers so happy they were hugging each other.
But a very different picture of life in North Korea emerged from a British photographer who was permitted to travel along the country’s east coast at the end of last month.
Ed Jones, a Seoul-based photographer for Agence France-Presse, has been traveling to the country since the French news agency opened a bureau in Pyongyang in September 2016.
AFP and the Associated Press are the only Western news agencies with bureaus in the North Korean capital, and they are subject to strict conditions about where they can go and what they can capture. North Korean authorities also like to take journalists around during the summer, when the skies are bright and the rice paddies lush.
This makes Jones’s Nov. 20-25 trip all the more surprising. He traveled from Wonsan up through Hamhung and Chongjin, to the Chinese border area of Rajin-Sonbong, which is supposed to be a trade frontier.
The North Korea he found was a very different place from the North Korea of the regime’s propaganda photos. It also presents a very different picture of Kim’s “byungjin” policy, which he has promised will deliver both economic growth and nuclear weapons at the same time.
Jung Pak, a former Korea analyst at the CIA who is now at the Brookings Institution, wondered if these North Koreans had seen any of this promised economic growth.
Jones did not find the gleaming high rises and paved boulevards of the capital when he arrived in Hamhung, North Korea’s second-largest city, which used to be an industrial hub. Instead, his photos show people bundled up in winter coats pushing bicycles over rutted dirt roads between buildings with the paint peeling off. Others show women pulling carts of cabbages.
Along the coast, where simple wooden boats line the beach, there is not a whisper of smoke to be seen from the factories.
This is a very different picture from the most recent KCNA report from Hamhung.
When the Moranbong Band, an all-female musical group, performed in Hamhung in October, the state news agency said that it performed songs for the local audience that “impressively show the delight and optimism of the Korean people who are glorifying their dignity as independent people enjoying a worthwhile life under the care of the [communist Workers’] Party.”
As he moved up the coast, Jones saw men carrying huge bundles of straw on their backs or walking alongside carts pulled by cattle.
In Kimchaek, once known for its port and its ironworks, Jones’s photos show the smokestacks again idle, and not a single vehicle is seen on the roads. In one apartment building, the windows are covered with plastic and the tiles are loose on the roof.
In other photos, children, teenagers at the oldest, pull carts along dirt roads.
As Jones approaches Chongjin in the north, North Korea’s third largest city, he finds the occasional car or truck. But mostly the photos show people pushing bikes or cycling down dirt roads or past propaganda billboards, including one celebrating Kim Jong Suk, the current leader’s grandmother.
After seeing schoolchildren walking alongside a frozen stream, Jones then finds women standing in a flowing stream, washing cabbages in the frigid water.
When he makes it to Rajin-Sonbong, or “Rason” as it is known, Jones finds some uncompleted high-rises, a crane still in place, and more cars and trucks. Still, it is a long way from the bustling special economic zone that the Kim regime has envisaged.