Hard Korea
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Hard Korea

/// Few people consider North Korea a tourist destination, even fewer would ever consider actually visiting such a seemingly dangerous and volatile pariah state, but it does, in fact, welcome most foreigners who are willing to undergo a complex visa application process and pay hundreds of dollars a day to join tightly controlled, government-guided tours. Fortunately, APG correspondents managed to bypass the usually tedious visa process and high cost by joining a discount Chinese tour group; they could not, however, avoid the suffocating presence of government minders who shadowed their every move. Despite North Korea’s well earned image as a grim, paranoid, totalitarian dictatorship, it is a uniquely bizarre and fascinating travel destination. This set of photographs offers a general overview of what it’s like to travel in the most reclusive and least understood country in the world; the images, themselves, inspire curiosity and wonderment: enormous thoroughfares literally devoid of traffic; the clean and orderly show-case capital, Pyongyang, with large, brightly painted apartment blocks and an ostensible population of 2 million, yet few signs of life; ornately decorated subway stations with sparkling chandeliers and subway trains with windows covered in “scratchitti” (a form of hard-to-remove graffiti caused by graffiti artists who etch their tags in glass with diamond-tipped tool bits); a heavily militarized border with South Korea, except in one section - the Joint Security Area - where North Korean soldiers on sentry duty can literally enter South Korea with a single step. Unable to travel freely, APG correspondents were naturally unable to gain an unvarnished view of North Korea’s unflattering underbelly (consisting of widespread poverty, malnutrition, economic decay, and severe political repression and corruption), but access to the country by train allowed them to capture rare images of a barren, impoverished countryside dotted with dilapidated villages. Government minders tried to restrict photography to designated tourist sites, while strictly forbidding it from the train for instance, but our correspondents managed to shoot photos surreptitiously nonetheless, often by pretending that the cameras were off while shooting “from the hip” (the reason some photos are shot from a low angle and are crooked). Finally, on leaving the country, border guards with assault rifles and German Shepherds diligently inspected the photos of each camera; APG correspondents circumvented this attempt at censorship by leaving decoy memory cards with mundane tourist site photos in them, while smuggling memory cards containing illicit photos out of the country by hiding them in their socks.

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