In North Korea, one of the most oppressive countries in the modern global landscape, dictator Kim Jong-un employs unusual and outright creative methods for maintaining his regime.

Crafty and carefully managed propaganda documents attempt to convince Mr. Kim’s target audience that his authoritarian territory is a rather charming locale. Strictly censored photographs, meticulously manicured metropolises, and hand-picked female pop-groups all work in conjunction to manipulate perceptions of the secretive country ruled by an unpredictable despot.

Swedish photographer Bjorn Bergman had the rare opportunity to enter North Korea. After a cryptic email exchange, he agreed to speak with BTR about his bazaar experience traveling throughout the draconian territory.

Bergman initially applied for a visa as a photographer, but was denied entry. Later, he reapplied as a private citizen and was allowed to visit only under strict conditions: He must be accompanied by government appointed guides at all times, he could not to talk to individual citizens or take photographs of them, and he must ask permission before snapping each and every picture.

North Korean citizens were forbidden from interacting with Bergman during his visit.

“They didn’t even look at us, they ignored us 100 percent,” says Bergman “…because they can be very strongly punished if they contact Western people.”

Bergman experienced an obvious air of duplicity throughout his tour. He witnessed, firsthand, aspects of life in North Korea that didn’t match up with what he was being informed of by his escorts.

Bergman saw citizens intimidated by constant monitoring by plain-clothes policemen. He viewed destitute landscapes, stricken by famine. These tableaus stood in direct contrast to the narrative of contentment and splendor his guides insisted to be true.

“Every time you asked the guides about anything you know about, they constantly lied… ‘No, no, you are wrong. You are totally wrong, it’s a perfect country,'” explains Bergman. “They constantly lied all the time. It’s their job.”

The extraordinarily strict oversight and eery dishonesty didn’t stop Bergman from following his own artistic truth. He explains that the guards expected him only to take and disseminate photographs that demonstrated the country’s enviable qualities.

“They wanted me to take pictures of the nice things in North Korea—nice buildings, the nature, military troops,” Bergman continues. “It was very important that I could never take one single photo without asking the guides, but I didn’t care about that, so I took a lot of photos.”

Bergman’s camera was ultimately searched, and he was reprimanded for disobeying orders. Approximately 600 unapproved photographs were deleted from his camera.

Bergman was able to recover the deleted photographs through a process he opted not share publicly (for fear of exposing and jeopardizing the ability for future journalists to use the photo-retrieval method in lieu of being censored).

He graciously gave BTR permission to publish both photos, the ones approved by the North Korean government, and those that were confiscated and deemed illegal.


City of Pyongyang, North Korean government approved photo courtesy of Bjorn Bergman.

One of the locales that officials seemed to encourage Bergman’s documentation of is the country’s cosmopolitan capital, Pyongyang. The city is employed as a symbol of affluence–it is maintained with the utmost care to project a facade of national prosperity.

“Pyongyang is a very clean city with rather nice houses,” explains Bergman. “It’s very clean and [has] very fresh air.”


Crowds enthusiastically greeting government officials. North Korean government approved photo courtesy of Bjorn Bergman.

Though, despite his overseers best efforts, Bergman wasn’t fooled.

“When you look between certain places, you see the real North Korea,” he emphasizes. “You see poor people in the fields looking for worms, snakes, bugs—anything to eat because they don’t have food.”

“That’s a reality…they don’t have food,” he reiterates, shocked by the visibility of poverty and starvation. “They die because they don’t have food.”

As Pyongyang demonstrates, when it comes to North Korea, what you see is often not what you get.


Photo deleted from Bergman’s camera by North Korean officials, courtesy of Bjorn Bergman.


Photo deleted from Bergman’s camera by North Korean officials, courtesy of Bjorn Bergman.

Another salient example of North Korea’s constructed identity is Mr. Kim’s beloved female musical pop-group Moranbong Band, based in the capital city. In many ways, the group functions as a personification of Pyongyang’s shining metropolis; happy, flourishing, beautiful and clean cut–but void of substance and truth.

The female supergroup consists of about twenty young musicians, allegedly hand-selected by the ruler himself. The beautiful, young women, clad in matching outfits, parade across elaborate stages; executing choreographed motions, chilling in their precision. In one recorded performance, a computer rendered video of a missile shooting to outer-space plays on a screen behind them: a camera pans, following its trajectory into the atmosphere and then back towards the image of the earth; a digital globe which promptly explodes into a million pixel smithereens. The crowd goes wild.

In their songs, the women espouse messages of patriotism, sporting song titles like “My Country Is The Best!”, featuring lyrics about Kim Jong-un himself: “How can he be so kind, his smile is so warm and sweet. I have no choice but to be taken by him and his warm heart.” All this amongst reports of the dictator’s ruthless, violent, whims.

They also perform Frank Sinatra, and the theme from popular American movie franchise, Rocky.

The stylings of Moranbong Band largely emulate that of successful K-Pop groups from neighboring South Korea, as well as those that are classically American. Interestingly, Kim Jong-un’s pet project appropriates trends from cultures that North Korea has deemed evil, and utilizes them to promote a fiercely nationalistic agenda.

Fubing Su, a professor of political science at Vassar College specializing in East Asian security, explains to BTR why the dictator might have chosen to employ a seemingly antithetical medium.

“Kim must have recognized the power of this art form in attracting the young people” says Su. “We should not read too much into this superficial change. He is only using the modern and western and sexist form to deliver the same old message.”

Though they might seem to fall on opposite ends of the spectrum, art and violent totalitarianism in fact go hand-in-hand. Hitler’s Third Reich famously launched an extensive propaganda campaign: burning texts which did not fit their agenda, and banning “Degenerate Art” that The Fuhrer deemed unsuitable.

Fubing Su also points to China as another country that solicited artists for nationalistic propaganda.

“During China’s civil war, Mao rectified the communist party and demanded all artists to serve the goal of the party and the nation,” Su elaborates. “Instead of pursuing artistry and truth, artists and art must facilitate the national independence and the war against the rival party. In his words, pens, paint brushes, and music scores are weapons firing at the enemies.”

Creative arts are ineffable, flexible, and have a virtually limitless reach. It is precisely this uncontrollable and indefinable quality which lend them power, and interest.

“Art is a power tool in persuasion mainly because human beings are largely defined by what we see, hear, touch, and feel,” explains Su. “Art opens the door to our heart and shapes who we are and what we believe.”

The ability of art to subvert power, in ways often subtle and untraceable, ties into what makes it such an alluring tool for those in powerful positions.

“Pure propaganda can be easily detected and resisted, but art can disarm skeptical people and get the message across,” says Su.

For Kim Jong Un, photography and music are integral puzzle pieces for crafting a collective consciousness.

“Certain images, sounds, stories, [and] beliefs hold people together. Various arts will reinforce this imagination and elicit certain emotion,” concludes Su. “In a way, power and control are a kind of art.”

Whether it be through deliberate pictures, affected cities, or sugary pop songs, Kim Jong-un is certainly getting creative with fascism.

Check out more of Bjorn Bergman’s photos here.