The Instagram Account That Shows Life Inside North Korea

A post from Siegfried Chu's instagram account, taken in Wonsan, Kangwon-Do, North Korea
A post from Siegfried Chu's instagram account, taken in Wonsan, Kangwon-Do, North Korea
Photo of India Doyle
29 June 2017

Global audiences are rarely given insight into the daily life of North Korea. Yet one photojournalist is using Instagram to document the hermit kingdom, providing unusual insight into daily style and culture.

Siegfried Chu is a Chinese photojournalist who has been living in Pyongyang for two years. His account provides a combination of seemingly candid photographs alongside formal press images of military ceremonies and processions.

The images reflect the state’s omniscient role; photographs capture the interplay between the official uniforms worn for public events and the standardised models of coats, trousers and boots worn on more casual occasions. To enforce the homogeneity, citizens of North Korea are monitored by a fashion police, usually members of Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League. They can issue punishments that range from public shaming to sentences at labour camps.

While formality and regulation pervades, in recent years there has been some slight relaxation of the rules, with the introduction of brighter colours and slightly shorter hems. This illustrates how external influences, from the South Korean TV dramas to Chinese fashion, are seeping through. In a state where there are strict aesthetic rules, fashion and style can be viewed as powerful expressions of self.

Indeed, amongst this standardised aesthetic are moments of distinguishing personal expression. In Siegfried Chu’s photographs, bright colours and floral prints worn by individuals provide contrast to the otherwise neutral palette. In a country where Western style is categorically forbidden (wearing blue denim and having your ears pierced is a crime) these small details become powerful emblems of individual choice. Chinese fashion has also influenced North Korea, with the introduction of a wider selection of shapes and styles, especially when it comes to shoes. Any glaring aesthetic anomalies though must still be worn with caution:“Fashion is the easiest and most conspicuous way to mark the political affiliations of the wearer”, Suk-young Kim, an expert on North Korean culture at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told The Guardian.

While outsiders will, for the time being, never gain full access to the regime in North Korea, this Instagram account allows for a snapshot into this secretive world, and its inhabitants.

A worker of the Pyongyang Vegetable Science Institute, Dec.10, 2015. #NorthKorea #documentaryphotography

A post shared by 森川 (@siegfried_chu) on

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