A porter and a woman in the lobby of Kumgangsan Hotel at Mount Kumgang on Sept. 15, 2018. The hotel is the site of reunion meetings between North and South Korean families, which were most recently held in August 2018. (Tariq Zaidi for Foreign Policy)
A porter and a woman in the lobby of Kumgangsan Hotel at Mount Kumgang on Sept. 15, 2018. The hotel is the site of reunion meetings between North and South Korean families, which were most recently held in August 2018. (Tariq Zaidi for Foreign Policy)

Photo Essay

The Changing Face of North Korea

As Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump prepare for their second summit, is the country shedding its “Hermit Kingdom” image?

Change seems to be coming quickly and all at once for North Korea. This is most visible as the country moves toward peace and rapprochement with South Korea and the United States. However, the most significant developments are occurring within the country at a pace never before seen. Kim Jong Un has shifted the focus of the government from national security to economic development.

In a declaration in April 2018, Kim proclaimed a “new strategic line” for the ruling Workers’ Party, heralding an age of “socialist economic construction.” The greatest change has occurred in Pyongyang, where the country’s famous Mass Games were held in September 2018 after a five-year break. As foreign tourists and media entered the city, repeat visitors pointed out how the city itself had been given a face-lift, with gray Brutalist buildings now painted bright colors.

New shopping malls, water parks, cultural centers, and sports facilities have altered life for the city’s residents, creating a nascent consumer culture fueled by the country’s growing donju (moneyed class). Construction work is strikingly quick. Mirae Scientists Street, a residential area for North Korea’s scientists—which features a 53-story high-rise and 2,500 apartments along with tennis courts, schools, and shopping centers—was built in under a year.

A girl in traditional Korean dress plays the piano at Chongnam Kindergarten in Chongjin, North Hamgyong province, on Sept. 19, 2018. (Tariq Zaidi for Foreign Policy)

Pyongyang residents board a tram on Sept. 11, 2018. (Tariq Zaidi for Foreign Policy)

A woman tends to the reception at a seaside hotel near Wonsan on Sept. 16, 2018. (Tariq Zaidi for Foreign Policy)

The impact is deep in a country where the state largely runs the economy. The outcome is noticeable. New airports, particularly in Pyongyang and Wonsan (the city in the heart of the proposed tourist area on the east coast), have been built in an ultramodern style, with duty-free shops and restaurants. Kim is hoping for 2 million tourist arrivals by 2020 and is quickly developing tourist facilities, such as winter resorts, five-star hotels, and white-sand beaches.

In many ways, North Korea is now joining the rest of the world community. This was seen most symbolically in April 2018, when Kim declared that the country would change its time zone from “Pyongyang Time” back to the time zone of South Korea and Japan. But this is happening in more everyday ways too, and it is directly affecting the lives of North Koreans. For instance, fashion has recently become a meaningful terrain of self-expression. Here, too, change is coming from both the people—through incomes that continue to rise despite sanctions—and the leadership; Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, is seen as a fashion icon for women. Kim’s love for sports has meant much state investment into sports infrastructure and training and more recognition for successful athletes.

A man squats by a car next to the Kwangbok Department Store in central Pyongyang on Sept. 21, 2018. (Tariq Zaidi for Foreign Policy)

A drawing class at the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace in Pyongyang on Sept. 11, 2018. (Tariq Zaidi for Foreign Policy)

A uniformed North Korean soldier looks through binoculars toward the official border between North and South Korea at Kaesong on Sept. 5, 2018. (Tariq Zaidi for Foreign Policy)

During South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s unprecedented trip to the North in September, the two countries announced plans to launch a bid to jointly host the 2032 Summer Olympics. Entertainment in the country, traditionally conservative and reserved for the elites, has also opened up. Moranbong Band, an all-female music group, first made its debut in 2012 and has toured both within and outside the country.

As a result, the country is slowly losing its “Hermit Kingdom” moniker, but it is unclear what kind of impact this will have in the long run. The changes that are occurring are largely in Pyongyang, and the majority of state investment is focused there. It will take time for the rest of the country, particularly the rural north, to catch up.

A woman arranges display food at a fast-food restaurant in Pyongyang on Sept. 2, 2018. (Tariq Zaidi for Foreign Policy)

A street scene in Hoeryong on Sept. 20, 2018. (Tariq Zaidi for Foreign Policy)

A trolley bus driver in Chongjin on Sept. 19, 2018. (Tariq Zaidi for Foreign Policy)

Not many outsiders get a chance to visit North Korea. For those who make it inside the North’s borders, photography is highly restricted and controlled. The photographer Tariq Zaidi traveled across eight of the country’s nine provinces—from Dandong on the Chinese border in the north to the Demilitarized Zone in the south, across the country from Pyongyang to Wonsan on the east coast, and north toward Chongjin and Hoeryong near the Chinese-Russian border—to take a closer look at this country. Here are just a few images (that were not deleted by his North Korean minders and guides) showing a glimpse of what one rarely sees of North Korean life.

Schoolgirls talk outside the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace in Pyongyang on Sept. 11, 2018. (Tariq Zaidi for Foreign Policy)

Farmers tend to the land in South Hwanghae province on Sept. 4, 2018. (Tariq Zaidi for Foreign Policy)

People ride the metro in Pyongyang on Sept. 10, 2018. Portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are seen in the back. (Tariq Zaidi for Foreign Policy)

A man paints the wall of a house while a child looks on in Kaesong on Sept. 6, 2018. (Tariq Zaidi for Foreign Policy)

A man bows to the statues of former North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang on Sept. 16, 2018. Behind him is a group of sculptures dedicated to the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle. (Tariq Zaidi for Foreign Policy)

Tariq Zaidi is a freelance photographer based in London. Zaidi’s photography focuses on inequality, endangered communities, and social change. He aims to capture the spirit and dignity of people in connection with the environment that they inhabit. Instagram: @tariqzaidiphoto