But putting geopolitics aside, what does one see on a visit to North Korea?
That’s what British photographer Tariq Zaidi was eager to uncover. “I have wanted to go to North Korea for years,” Zaidi says by email. Having visited over 100 countries, Zaidi was determined to make his way into one of the most secretive countries in the world. On his journey, Zaidi traveled with two North Korean minders, deleting photos as they requested and getting “well-rehearsed answers” to the questions he asked. “Overall, if you put politics aside, it is a scenic beautiful country, probably one of the cleanest you will ever visit with remarkably hospitable people who will go out of their way to help you,” Zaidi says.
The scenes he captured offer a tantalizing, albeit sanitized, glimpse of life in a country that’s now inaccessible to nearly all Americans. On September 1, the U.S. State Department enacted a travel ban for U.S. citizens, citing the risk of detention and the recent death of Otto Warmbier, 22, a University of Virginia student who was detained for 17 months and returned home in a coma. Since 1995, at least 18 foreigners have been detained in North Korea, 16 of them Americans; three Americans are still in North Korean custody. The State Department had previously warned tourists eager to visit the “Hermit Kingdom” to consider what their dollars went towards.
“The DPRK funnels revenue from a variety of sources to its nuclear and weapons programs, which it prioritizes above everything else, often at the expense of the well-being of its own people,” the State Department states. In fact, the most recent population census from North Korea, released in 2008, showed that only 58 percent of households have flush toilets, while a 2002 nutrition study revealed that 39 percent of North Koreans exhibited symptoms of chronic malnutrition.
“North Korea from the outside looked just like any other place, but very different at the same time,” Zaidi says. “The only question I can’t answer is whether that is all staged or real.”