Philiippe Chancel's NORTH KOREA is a collection of 129 beautiful photographs taken inside the little-touristed authoritarian state. It begins with the arrivals lounge at the Pyongyang airport, continues through the sterile hotels and communist monuments of the capital city, and displays some of the scenes of the southern border with South Korea. There are numerous photographs of the Arirang festival, where tens of thousands of schoolchildren form great pictures of patriotic scenes by holding up cards. There are a few snapshots from the Pyongyang metro, my favourite part of the Pyongyang tour because no one is really sure if the people in it are passengers on a working transit system, or actors giving foreigners the impression that the line is still in use.
Of course, travel in North Korea is limited to what the government wants you to see. As a result, one will get little information here about the ordinary lives of Koreans outside of the government-organized spectacles. The only photographs of common Pyongyang residents on the street are where they are headed towards those spectacles. Nonetheless, one does get a vague idea of the privation in North Korea, from the eerily empty coffee bar in the airport to the squalid VIP areas for tourists.
Chancel's photograph are impressive achievements, all the more so since tourists in North Korea often find it difficult to take decent pictures outside a small handful of sights on the tour. In fact, the incongruity between the elegant composition of the photographs and the barbarity of Kim Jong-il's regime will soon stand out for the reader. The book also features a short introductory text by Michel Poivert and Jonathan Fenby which raises the question of the ethics of the aestheticization of horror.