Young women prepare to perform a synchronized swimming routine in Pyongyang, North Korea. The event was part of a celebration for the 75th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
The world’s eyes have long been on North Korea—but rarely in North Korea. The “hermit kingdom” is a perpetual flashpoint of global tension, yet it remains more difficult to get a look inside North Korea than any country on Earth.
Glimpses of everyday North Korean life are fleeting and highly sanitized, often coming courtesy of state-sanctioned photos of major political events.
Other glimpses are entirely artificial. Guided tours near the DMZ offer foreign tourists views of Kijŏng-dong, or Peace Town, a village built in the 1950s that features brightly colored homes—and no inhabitants. Widely believed to be a blatant display of propaganda, the town is fascinating in its own right, but hardly representative of real life behind the North Korean curtain.
Ed Jones, based in Seoul, South Korea, is one of the few photographers with regular access to North Korea. When the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, made global headlines in February, Jones was in the capital city of Pyongyang. He was photographing the celebration of a major national holiday: the 75th anniversary of the birth of deceased leader Kim Jong Il—the victim’s father.
The photos are striking. They feature grand pomp and circumstance but little open jubilance. In many ways, it’s North Korea as we expect to see it: Austere, orderly, melancholy. But amid the rigid solemnity, there are candid cracks of life: Women huddle together in conversation. People film fireworks on their smartphones. A young boy flails his arms as he roller-skates in a public square.
This is a glimpse into a small portion of the country—people who are relatively privileged in comparison with countless others who remain entirely hidden from view, in labor camps or far from the capital, deprived of their most basic needs.
This is North Korea—one side of it—in winter.