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Digital Cameras Bring To Life The Real North Korea

Interesting piece by Martyn Williams for IDG news service about how digital technology is allowing the world to see another side of North Korea -- beyond the heavily orchestrated parades and handholding around the Potemkin capital Pyongyang:

AsiaPress works with six North Koreans they've trained as journalists. They're given instruction in operating cameras, using PCs and how to use cell phones so they don't attract the attention of authorities. Then, every few months, they meet with AsiaPress representatives just over the border in China to hand over their images.

"When we started training journalists in 2003 or 2004, getting cameras into North Korea was a real problem," said Jiro Ishimaru, chief editor of the news agency, at a Tokyo news conference on Monday. "Nowadays, within North Korea you are able to have your pick of Sony, Panasonic or Samsung cameras."

The material they produce is often startling and documents a side of the country the government doesn't want the world to see.

The piece only has a couple of images (which look like video stills) but the first, of a young woman, is particularly haunting. Her face dirty, she looks like she's 12, but in fact she's 23. She survives by "foraging for grass to sell to wealthier families for their rabbits."

It's light years away from the sanitized images North Korea usually allows foreign journalists to capture: smiling assistants in bountiful shops, immaculately dressed soldiers somber in their uniforms, or girls playing in a gleaming bowling alley. (A good example of this is from "Time" magazine. The photos are apparently "unfiltered," but they look pretty filtered to me.)

Barbara Demick's excellent "Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea," which follows the lives of six people who eventually defected, really brings home the sense of abject desolation in the countryside outside the (relative) privilege of the showcase capital. And the feeling of utter helplessness people feel in the regions outside Pyongyang.

The photos are only a brief glimpse, but remarkable given that the North Korean authorities confiscate journalists' mobile phones at the airport and place heavy restrictions on who can use a mobile inside the country.