Seeing Toward Understanding – Review of “North Korea: The People’s Paradise” by Tariq Zaidi

Photography books often promise a view of something hidden or mysterious.

Especially those photography books that take on a documentarian style, the appeal is often the ability to see inside a community that is not our own. The photographer has gained some kind of access as well as the trust of people who are not usually in midday light. Think drug culture, gang culture, very poor or very rich neighborhoods, sports-training culture, or any community that is marginalized or private. The images are candid, street-style, and illuminating because of their ordinariness within that community. The images, for those of us not part of the in-crowd, are acts of revelation. They are important because they come from outside of our ability to imagine them in advance. We grow from the exposure.

“North Korea: The People’s Paradise” by Tariq Zaidi
Published by Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg, 2023
review by W. Scott Olsen

The goal of the images is not only education and information but, in the very best sense, a way to develop understanding and empathy.

To see is to believe, the saying goes. (A problematic saying at best these days, I know.) But perhaps it would be better to say, “To see is to begin to understand.”

I have on my desk today a book called North Korea: The People’s Paradise by Tariq Zaidi.

It is, in every sense of the word, a remarkable book that offers a step toward understanding.

Porter and woman in the lobby of Kumgangsan Hotel at Mt Kumgang. The Hotel is the site of reunion meetings between North and South Korean families. Mt Kumgang Tourist Resort. / © Tariq Zaidi

Zaidi has gained access to North Korea, a country we all know exists and about which, here in the West, we know very little more than cliches and generalities, political opinions, and animosity. Closed off from the rest of the world in nearly every way, North Korea is not a country where we are allowed to see the nuance, character, and feeling of everyday life. It’s difficult to develop empathy for someplace you cannot imagine.

North Korea plays a problematic role in world politics. And so the ability to understand your adversary, so to speak, is especially important.

“The People’s Paradise” contains more than 100 color photographs, many of them full page spreads across the book’s gutter. Some of the images go a long way toward affirming Western stereotypes of North Korea, and some completely shatter expectations.

A coat adorned with medals hangs in a farmer’s home at Migok Cooperative Farm, Sariwon. / @ Tariq Zaidi

The book begins with a primer on North Korea, which I suspect is necessary information for a great many people. Sometimes, the primer is written a bit like marketing copy. For example,

Visiting North Korea is a rare privilege afforded to only a few individuals outside the country. Those fortunate enough to enter its borders are met with strict rules and regulations that severely restrict and control the practice of photography…The book uncovers the true essence of North Korea, revealing untold stories hidden behind the headlines…Nevertheless, this remarkable collection of images painstakingly captured by Tariq Zaidi offers rare glimpses into the North Korean people’s daily struggles and ways of life. Through these visual narratives, the book sheds light on their experiences, providing a deeper understanding of the secret of the nation and pushing the boundaries of our knowledge beyond preconceived notions.

However, a great deal of the primer is wonderful at setting a context for the images that follow. There are subheadings such as “History and Politics,” “Ideology, Economy and Society,” “Workers, Agriculture and Housing,” “Women, Children and Education,” and more.

A private moment between the entrance guards at the Grand People’s Study House. The Grand People’s Study House is the central library located in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. / @ Tariq Zaidi

Each of these subsections is only a couple of paragraphs long, but each one helps establish an informed tone. For example, in the section about “Women, Children and Education” we learn,

The education system in North Korea is state regulated, starting from the age of five and continuing until sixteen. The curriculum includes extracurricular activities, like sports and arts. Social status, determined by a child’s songbun (system of ascribed status used in North Korea) based on their father’s position, influences their eligibility for party membership, educational opportunities, and employment prospects. Education is heavily influenced by the ideology of Juche, focusing on preparing students to become loyal citizens.

People have a picnic lunch near the Ulim Waterfalls. The Ulim Waterfalls are named after the Korean word for echo or vibration, appropriate as the rumbling sound of the falls extend over a four kilometres radius. / @ Tariq Zaidi

However, “North Korea: The People’s Paradise” is not a history or political science book. This is a photo book, and the photos, even though they had to be vetted and approved by Zaidi’s handlers in North Korea, are enlightening.

The book begins with a propaganda poster, a wrist and hand, forefinger pointed to the sky, superimposed over a map of both North and South Korea. The caption reads, “A propaganda poster with a focus on the idea of reunification features the slogan “Chosŏn is one! Chosŏn represents how North Koreans commonly refer to their nation. Near Panmunjom Village, Kaesong.” It is a bold beginning.

After the primer, we get urban landscapes, oversized bronze statues of President Kim Il Sung and General Kim Jong Il taken the day before Liberation Day, street scenes, country scenes, interiors and exteriors, portraits, and group shots. The images are all in color, and I have an acute understanding of scale and reference. Miniscule people are often presented near gargantuan statuary. Apartment complexes diminish the idea of the individual at all.

Street scene, Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province. / @ Tariq Zaidi

Quite often, the people in the pictures are military or police, but as the book goes on, it also becomes more sympathetic and individualized. There are images of a crowded subway car, children at school, ballerinas with hoops, and people working in a field.

You cannot escape the military aspect of North Korea, its emphasis on order and self-proclaimed strength, but you also cannot escape the occasional picnic by a riverside or a young girl learning to play the cello.

The book design puts all the captions at the end. So, going through the book, that little bit of help is not present when first reading an image, which I believe is an asset. We are asked to make sense of the images removed from explanatory content. We have an emotional reaction to the image before an intellectual one, and that makes all the difference.

People wash cars and collect gravel at a riverbank, on the road between Ulim Waterfalls and Hamhung. / @ Tariq Zaidi

Occasionally, throughout the book, a page is given over to an unattributed quote or saying. One reads, “One should imbibe the party’s ideas the way one breathes air.” That’s all it says. No explanation. No author. Another one reads, “A life dedicated to national defense is the most worthwhile patriotic life.” Yet another says, “Devotion to the country is precisely loyalty to the leader.” These are the ideas that hang in the air, and I’m quite certain each of these quotes provokes a certain kind of response in a Western mind.

Going through the book, you soon realize the title of “People’s Paradise” could be ironic. And it would be easy, even with approved images, to edit the book in such a way so that it becomes a political argument for or against the lived idea of North Korea.

Drawing class at the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace in Pyongyang. / @ Tariq Zaidi

I don’t believe that is the case here. “The People’s Paradise” is a documentary project with a variety of subjects, enabling a variety of reactions. The pages journey from intimate portraits to brutalist architecture with heavy doses of propaganda. While I’m not sure, at the end of this book, if I have learned any new facts about North Korea, what I have learned is a great deal about what North Korea feels like. My reading of this book is, of course, from a Western perspective, yet this book asks me to explore the corners of my own personal and political self to discover how I feel about all this.

When I am done, do I know anything new about North Korea other than what can be seen?

I don’t know.

Do I understand something new about North Korea and myself?


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