North Korea: Bearable Darkness

Bearable darkness of living is a series which tries to depict psychic of a state that proclaims utopia to deliver poverty and repression. The pictures came out of my two trips to North Korea in 2008 and 2009 with an attempt to find the reality of life of ordinary people while being closely supervised in a state-organised visit.
Twenty four days in a country was long enough to convince me that the ordinary people retain their dignity and humanity. While the official face of North Korea is prosperous and content the ordinary people do their best to wrestle what joy they can from a life of restrictions, fears, power cuts and privation. What they truly think of a system is hard to say. Those I met showed none of the hostility to the outside world exhibited by their rulers, but an intense and polite curiosity. From what I saw they are regular people, trying to get by in the face of great hardship.
The series was shot at a time when Kim Jong-il, a son of the country’s founder and worshiped demi-god, Kim Il-sung, was poised to hand power to his own son, Kim Jong-un. Many of the problems still remain topical today and tensions with the outside world are still high. Pyongyang invests in developing nuclear potential while UN World Food Programme states it provides food to more than two million people. Welfare of ordinary people is raising slow despite recently introduced by Kim Jong-un liberalising reforms. North Korea still remains very isolated: internet connections are banned as well as foreign travels to all but the elite. The one party regime controls most aspects of life and is committed to a military-first policy. Discontent towards the leadership or trying to escape abroad are crimes, North Korean officials publicly acknowledged ‘reform through labour’ camps.
The hard reality of the ordinary people is juxtaposed with the triumphalism of the state. The lifestyle of the elite living in fine apartments, driving imported cars and buying designer clothes is impossible to reach for ordinary workers in a country run by people who are supposed to enforce equality for all.
The pictures may certainly not show the private thoughts of the people. They show people who are neither robots nor fanatical communist. This dream of a nation together with nightmares of its citizens can be compatible for how long.


About the photographer
Irina Kalashnikova is a Russian photographer based in Europe. She graduated with an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photographry from the London College of Communication in 2007. She releases her work through Getty Reportage and is the principle European photographer for Kommersant, Russia’s most respected and authoritative daily newspaper. Her work has appeared in publications including The Guardian, Times magazine, Newsweek and Days Japan.
This picture taken on August 2, 2008 shows third rank apartments located in a central district of Pyongyang. Party officials are allocated apartments according to seniority.



North Korean farmer Choe Myong-chan poses on August 4, 2008 at his home at the Haksan Cooperative Farm, 60 km away from Pyongyang. On his left is a kimjongilia in a glass, a specially bred begonia named after Kim Jong-Il.



A supervisor looks on a child at the Kim Jong Suk nursery. The centre was named after Kim Il-sung’s first wife who died during childbirth in 1949. The pictures of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il are displayed on the wall. August 4, 2008.



Party officials enter the tribunes of the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, a capital of North Korea, to watch Arirang festival on August 4, 2008.



North Koreans take public transport in a capital Pyongyang on August 4, 2009.

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