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Saturday 29 June 2019

Photo Essay

Our friends in the North

A journey through North Korea captures the dignity of its people

By Xiomara Bender

If there were such a thing as a “true picture of reality” in North Korea, it would need to be taken from many different perspectives. At best only a few facets of this reality are offered in our media, and they mainly paint a picture of a drab, bleak society trapped somewhere between nuclear madness and mass psychotic monotony.

This is all true, but it is not the whole truth. What we “know” about the strange country dubbed part of the “Axis of Evil” reduces to a few stereotypes patched over our basic lack of knowledge. Following the Korean War, systematic disinformation there and chronic indifference here have combined to divert our gaze away from the suffering of the ordinary people.

To note that today’s North Korea owes its alienation to the same clash of political systems that once divided Germany, and, indeed, much of Europe, is not to mitigate the situation, but honesty requires it be acknowledged. It is so easy to point the finger at this country in the dark, to make fun of the bizarre staging of North Korean identity in the shape of this regime that has developed isolation to perfection. We may laugh at the bizarre personality cult, but it seems to bring a foothold to the 25 million North Koreans swimming in their information vacuum. These individuals live with dignity and survive through the power of their dreams, which they let me glimpse with my camera.

Their faces tell stories that bring us closer to this country whose people deserve our full attention and, more, our unprejudiced sympathy.


Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, has a population of more than three million.

In the city of Keasong,  trams and trolleybuses are popular because of fuel shortages.

The road to the ski resort of Masik-Ryong.

Pyongyang boasts new high-rise apartments, amusement parks and swimming pools.

Near Mangyongdae Funfair, Pyongyang, which Kim Jong Un ordered to be renovated.

 A worker at the Hamhung Fertiliser Factory, the largest in the country. 

Over the plains to Hamhung, North Korea’s second largest city.

The military parade for the 70th Anniversary of the Democratic People’s Republic.

A young boy taking a rest from celebrations for International Children’s Day. 

View of Pyongyang from the Juche Tower, built by Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s first leader.

Children’s Palace, Pyongyang, is dedicated to children’s afterschool activities.

A view of the Taedong River in Pyongyang from the Juche Tower. 

A group of schoolgirls enjoy a ride at the Mangyongdae Funfair, Pyongyang.

Female attendants monitor escalators and platforms at a Pyongyang Tube station.

Children take part in contests to celebrate International Children’s Day

A group of elderly spectators watch celebrations. In 2016 the average life expectancy in North Korea was 71

Red neckerchiefs are part of the uniform for the Korean Children’s Union. All children are automatically members

A little girl in Pyongyang enjoys the summer weather

Cars are a status symbol in Pyongyang. Commuters tend to use the trolleybus system.

At the Hamhung Fertiliser Factory, which employs 7,500 people.

The road to Hamhung has no lights, other than from the occasional car.

A boy fishing in Wonsan, a port city and naval base on the Sea of Japan.

A group of women perform in Pyongyang with flags of the national colour.

City workers cross an empty road in Pyongyang.

Workers at the Hamhung Fertiliser Factory, the oldest in the country.    

A female guard stands outside the Hamhung Fertiliser Factory.

A Hamhung Fertiliser Factory worker in uniform takes a break.

Just under 40 per cent of North Korea’s population live in rural communities

Celebrations at the 1st May Stadium, Pyongyang, for the DPRK 70th anniversary

Rice and potatoes are major farming crops in North Korea

A group of young girls wait in line before national celebrations

Hamhung is six hours by car from Pyongyang.

The Mangyongdae mountains, just outside the capital, Pyongyang



Xiomara Bender was born in 1987 in Basel and now lives in Berlin. During her travels, she documents people in everyday situations. Her book North Korea: The Power of Dreams, published by Kehrer, is the result of numerous journeys into an enigmatic world, searching for answers in a country where the individual seems to leave no trace, while the people means everything. Bender leaves prescribed routes to reach ordinary people.

All Photographs Xiomara Bender/Institute