In 2014 Hinton travelled to North Korea to document life inside the isolated nation. Welcome to Pyongyang presents his firsthand experiences and interpretations of society in the showcase capital, Pyongyang, affording a rare glimpse into the little known world of 'The Hermit Kingdom'. With a focus on the human experience of daily occurrences, the series of paintings and drawings seek to convey honest sentiments of living in repression under the totalitarian regime of the Kim dynasty.


"In a country where photography, beyond snapshots of monuments and mountainsides, is difficult, Hinton has applied his critical perspective to provide a view into what North Korea feels like. His pictures are uncomfortable as much as they intriguing and provide a raw perspective." - Barnaby Caddy, International Humanitarian Aid Specialist and former United Nations Monitor in North Korea



PaintingsDrawings

Gardeners of Pyongyang
oil on canvas
153 x 213 cm
2015

Kyonghung Bar
oil on canvas
180 x 240 cm
2015

Soldier at Demilitarized Zone
oil on canvas
120 x 90 cm
2015

The Dear Leader, Omnipresence and the Innocent
oil on canvas
182 x 303 cm
2015

Plantation
oil on canvas
153 x 213 cm
2015

Pyongyang Street Scene
oil on canvas
180 x 240 cm
2015

Construction Kids
oil on canvas
120 x 90 cm
2015

Kyonghung Bar
graphite on paper
41 x 61 cm
2015

Pyongyang City (The Spectacular Nightmare)
graphite on paper
41 x 61 cm
2015

Soldier at Demilitarized Zone
graphite on paper
41 x 61 cm
2015

Women on the Street
graphite on paper
61 x 41 cm
2015

Swimming Lessons
graphite on paper
41 x 61 cm
2015

Plantation
graphite on paper
41 x 61 cm
2015

Pyongyang Army Camp at Night
graphite on paper
41 c 61 cm
2015

Convoy of Army Trucks
graphite on paper
41 x 122 cm
2015

Citizen I
graphite on paper
61 x 41 cm
2015

Citizen II
graphite on paper
61 x 41 cm
2015

Citizen III
graphite on paper
61 x 41 cm
2015

Citizen IV
graphite on paper
61 x 41 cm
2015

Citizen V
graphite on paper
61 x 41 cm
2015

Welcome to Pyongyang

FOREWORD BY BARNABY CADDY
International Humanitarian Aid Specialist and former United Nations Monitor in North Korea

Secrecy breeds curiosity, and none more so than the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea. The outside world’s view of the hermit kingdom is often shaped by snippets of news reels with goose-stepping soldiers, military parades and perfectly made-up traffic ladies – all showing that the Socialist dream is alive and well in the DPRK. This is starkly juxtaposed by the West’s reporting of widespread starvation, gulags and nuclear facilities hidden in remote mountain valleys. And where people’s curiosity still hasn’t been satisfied, rumour fills those gaps. The three haircuts permitted by the regime must make easy work for the country’s barbers.

A genuine picture of what North Korea really feels like can be difficult to come by.

So what of the people of North Korea? Which image closer reflects the day to day reality of how North Koreans live? People can be overwhelmed by the strangeness of North Korea and overlook that the country, like any other country, is populated by people. Mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, public servants, bus drivers and so on. People struggling to make ends meet, to fall in love, to spend time with family and to lie in the sun on a still winter’s day.

As a monitor with the United Nations, I had the rare privilege to spend three months in the DPRK. My work brought me to distant corners of that remarkable country, and in contact with everyday North Koreans going about their lives. The faces and stories of the people I met left a deep and lasting impression on me. Faces do tell a thousand stories, and it was frustrating that I was limited by my work’s mandate and that I couldn’t spend longer with people to really understand what shaped their lives.

After returning back to Australia, I was asked countless questions by people fascinated with North Korea. Although I did my best to articulate what I saw, felt, etc., it was always difficult to accurately convey the mood of the country.

Hinton has managed through his drawings and paintings to capture a feeling of North Korea that resonated with me immediately. North Korea is surreal, sometimes pained, often grey, and a lot to take in. It’s full of people doing normal things in extraordinary circumstances. Hinton captures people learning to swim, gardeners tending their plants and ashen faced kinds laboring on a construction site. Blues and greys set the mood, asymmetrical faces look back at the viewer.

In a country where photography, beyond snapshots of monuments and mountainsides, is difficult, Hinton has applied his critical perspective to provide a view into what North Korea feels like. His pictures are uncomfortable as much as they intriguing, and provide a raw perspective. Hopefully Hinton’s work will provide a fresh perspective from the usual rhetoric of North Korea, and through his pictures make a more human connection with such a fascinating and isolated corner of the world.

Introduction

“Bat-shit crazy”, “criminally insane”, “reconsider your need to travel.” These are the phrases that invaded any conversation about my trip to North Korea. I was told that I would see nothing but superficiality, and that the prospect of undertaking an art project on Pyongyang was impossible. I travelled to North Korea to document life and culture through photography and art, an opportunity rare and delicate. It took eight months of compromising and negotiating to get the project off the ground, and I was refused entry several times before finally securing access. I sent a bunch of my drawings in before I departed to gauge public response, but in retrospect this was probably not a good move, as my expectation that they were likely to be rejected was realised. The North Koreans thought they were being lampooned and that the drawings were frankly rubbish. I was warned that because most North Koreans do not understand deviation from socialist realism as art, I would be hard pressed convincing them otherwise. I had no intention of lampooning anyone, but maybe the drawings were just rubbish.

The typical description that the Western media offered of North Korea was a prisoner of war camp type environment with ballistic missiles rolling down the streets. But how many of these media visionaries had actually been there to see it for themselves? While my tour was in fact very tight and tailored around only the most prestigious sights in the showcase capital of Pyongyang, throughout my four days in the country I saw things that were often overwhelmingly real. The tour experience was aimed at inundating me with the “greatness” of Pyongyang, but it had the opposite affect on my personal outcome. It was consistently strange and uncomfortable, with conversational barriers and a hasty persistence in presenting dry history lessons on the "Dear Leaders".

The consequence of this only created a bizarre impression of North Korean society in which there appeared to be more insecurity than anything else. In pursuit of unadulterated truth, I will try to speak only of what I understood to be valid representations of the country, avoiding artificial touristic experiences. While I believe that the only way to dissolve barriers with North Korea is through open interaction and dialogue, the state is unlikely to be content with my artistic dish of realism. But if the reality I seek to recreate is the reality they seek to conceal, I cannot offer any deterrence in my determination to illustrate it.

Getting to North Korea

Waiting in the departure lounge at Shenyang airport, I’m the only Westerner on a flight full of Chinese and North Koreans. They stare as if I’m the one who’s bat-shit crazy, and maybe they’re right, but I’m too fatigued to care. Four flights and forty-eight hours after leaving cool, rainy Sydney, I step off the plane into a sticky, dusty atmosphere. I wade through a cloud of flying ants that swarm the humid air. Feeling rather out of my comfort zone, my first impressions of North Korea are unnerving. Riding the shuttle bus from the plane to the airport, I pass a group of ten kids sweeping dust in the middle of a vast stretch of dirt road in the claustrophobic heat. They are dressed in army uniform; thick long-sleeve coats, pants and a hat. Who were they? Why were they sweeping? These questions remained unresolved, but a certainty of the matter involved madness. I was hardly looking forward to the frequent blackouts in Pyongyang; despite being well accustomed to cold showers in the pitch black during my time in Cuba last year. I hadn’t even technically entered the country before I experienced the first. Waiting to go through customs, it becomes apparent that half of the on-board luggage was actually made up of LED T.Vs and LED lights for a certain ‘Mr Chae’. The baggage conveyor belt breaks down half way through the delivery. Welcome to Pyongyang.

Pyongyang City (The Spectacular Nightmare)

Almost immediately I am struck at how much more developed Pyongyang is than the Fox, Skyy, BBC, CNN and Rupert Murdoch news reports about North Korea would have me believe. Where are all the starving, crying people? Are they hidden in the darkness? Where are the goose-stepping soldiers, rolling tanks and chanting masses? The misery and madness of this place was far subtler than I expected, but snowballed in severity as I began to wander the city. The environment that the regime had shaped was spectacularly nightmarish, as Stalinist architecture protruded with an imposing presence from bleak streets. A three-hundred-and-sixty degree pan of the city centre reveals monolithic structures looming in the horizon, their sharp, square edges slicing up the hazy sky. Between then, the city stretches flat and wide, with huge, ugly, brutalist concrete residential slabs.

The sheer physical weight of the statues and monuments of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il-Sung throughout the city is intimidating. The entire infrastructure of a typical developing city is there; freeways, traffic lights, a somewhat functioning electricity grid, parks, bridges and even a metro system. The strangely empty feeling of Pyongyang stems from the lack of cars that are swallowed up by the vacant, pothole ridden, 6 and 8 lane highways dicing the city, but despite the empty streets, the city bustles with people walking and cycling. Then the five o’clock peak-hour hits, and my driver mutters something in Korean as he pulls to a halt in a traffic jam. A traffic jam in North Korea? Pyongyang stumps me again.

The Omnipresent Dear Leader


After only a few minutes in North Korea, it’s clear that this country is indebted to two people only; Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-Sung. Their chubby, golden portraits infiltrate streets, buildings, offices, parks, restaurants, bars, hotels, and just about any other form of development I come across. It’s also clear that they are the only figures sporting excess body fat, as I did not see a single overweight person during my trip. It didn’t take me long to conclude that Pyongyang was in fact the most surreal place I had ever been. Once I began to feel as though I was part of the crowd, bound by the social rules and structures imposed upon the common citizen, I experienced a feeling that was not possible no matter how hard I tried to imagine what life would be like in the most isolated country on Earth.

Having been led through the city centre of Pyongyang, the horror of a ravaging of my most basic freedoms sunk in. I couldn’t act or speak freely. Just about the only thing I could do was to think freely, a precarious activity in North Korea. I was subjugated by the extreme social oppression, and having a privileged upbringing in suburban Sydney, I find it difficult to comprehend what living with this suffocating inhibition must be like for the North Koreans. Do they know the feeling? Or can they grasp no point of reference in the permanent choke-hold of the regime? More questions go unresolved.

KIm Badge Country

In the streets of Pyongyang, men, women and children are abundant in uniforms. No matter where I go, there is always a soldier just around the corner. I vigilantly take in as much as I can on my DSLR camera. There are school kids all over the place, all dressed in the same attire of blue pants, white shirts and red scarfs. Walking in the humid afternoon heat, and I am met with stern, wiry faces from overcrowded, soviet buses, bustling sidewalks or construction sites around the city. There is little comic relief here, little laughter, and the atmosphere is heavy. I photograph Kwangbok Street and the city centre. People don’t seem to be socialising or entertaining each other, where the only glimpses of joy seem to come from schoolkids playing around as they walk home after school. Without much freedom of any kind, there is near absolute obedience to the state, and if not obedience, punishment.

I am surprised at how many women are impeccably dressed. They wear tight, long dresses, short heels and elegant garments. Some are incredibly beautiful. I capture a stylish woman with a red umbrella walking amongst a backdrop of propaganda and construction. The contrast is striking. Brightly coloured clothes are a rare sight amongst khaki, white or blue shirts with brown trousers, almost military-like in appearance but more bland. I pass a group of kids, no older than fifteen, undertaking heavy construction work on the side of the road. I raise my camera, but my guide orders, “No photo!” The kids looked fatigued and bothered, and by the reaction from my guide I question whether they are working by choice. Teams of workers in light blue hats, pants and white shirts groom the gardens around political structures, cutting vast lawns with shearers or small scythes; a gruelling, slow and arduous task. Everyone over the age of sixteen is required to wear a Kim Badge, a small, red, metallic lapel depicting the faces of a member of the Kim family.

The sense of uniformity on the streets of Pyangyang is colossal. I have a strange and ironic moment with a young kid walking down the street. He notices me hanging out the minivan window, and as we make eye contact he raises his hand in the shape of a pistol, aims and shoots me as I drive past. I wonder whether the propaganda on the streets around him or a trip to the sadistic and indoctrinating War Museum had played a part in his childish signal to gun down a foreigner. Either way, I shoot him back.

Black Out Hotel

My accommodation for three nights in Pyongyang is a three star hotel, seemingly empty apart from a few Chinese businessmen. Nonetheless, my guides assure me this is one of the most popular hotels in the city, supposedly brimming with tourists and delegates. My room is on the fifth floor, and on my arrival the elevator doors open ominously to reveal complete darkness. I'm forced to withdraw my phone, which luckily has a few percent of battery life left to produce a flashlight to help me navigate pitch black hallways to find my room. My heart is thumping with force by the time I find my number and jam the key into the door lock. If blackouts are occurring in tourist hotels, what kind of access to electricity do local residents have? What of the elderly living on high floors when the elevator ceases to operate? The blackouts would continue, and the ramifications of this for regular citizens become alarmingly clear. I ask my guide about it, and despite his solid understanding of the English language he pretends he doesn’t know what I’m talking about.

Just down the road from my hotel is some sort of army camp. It’s mostly fenced off with young boys and girls guarding all entrances with automatic rifles, but inside they perform strenuous aerobic training and drills with their weapons, marching in formation around the basic dirt-floor housing. At times I drive past late into the night, and they are still working, carrying large, severed tree logs or digging holes in the sidewalk. None of it is clear in purpose. I want to ask them, but I am not allowed to talk to soldiers. When night falls, Pyongyang is largely devoid of artificial lighting. As I drive back to my hotel, the car headlights expose people on the sidewalk walking and cycling in the darkness.

Symphony of Encouragement

There are larger construction sites around the city that have characteristics of army camps. North Korean and communist party flags line rickety, bamboo infrastructure, where soldiers walk atop a publicly concealed pit as the workers toil inside, late into the night. Nationalistic music blares from speakers around the building zone, providing a symphony of encouragement for even the most fatigued or hungry worker. On many occasions I presume that I am seeing child soldiers or workers due to their height and figure, however after longer observation I realise that they are often fully grown men and women. The lack of adequate food and nutrition for the population over the last several decades has undoubtedly taken its toll in the human underdevelopment that I see.

The physical tax of hard labour is particularly evident in the older generation of Pyongyang citizens. Whether cultivating fields without technologically advanced machinery or cultivating the lawns around political monuments with a scissor-sized scythe, workers throughout the city wear expressions of strain and discomfort. Many are severely hunchbacked, and even still they carry large packs or supplies around the streets on their back.

Sketching Kim Il-Sung Square

After pestering my guides for a couple of days, I am able to get some brief sketching from life done in Kim Il-Sung Square. It is a slightly surreal moment, pressing the graphite into the paper in the hazy afternoon sky whilst looking over the square. I made some rough drawings of the imposing monuments and figures slowly cutting their way across the sparse concrete block. It felt good to have made it this far. My guide doesn’t seem to make much sense of my drawings, but asks if he can draw the Juche Tower in my sketchbook.

Way Down the Vacant Highway

Driving along the highway from Pyongyang to Kaesong presents a new kind of lifestyle that is much less promising than that of the capital. People crouch and hunch in rice fields beyond decaying, mud-brick housing. The landscape is inspiring as mountains jut out from valleys and grasslands. My driver spends the entire length of the highway swerving from left to right, avoiding potholes and ruptures in the road. The median strip is dotted with men and women cutting grass with scythes, and when I ask my guide what they are doing, she informs me that they are “maintaining the highway”. Beginning to feel woozy from the continuous thrusts left and right, I question the priorities of the state in keeping pristine grass edges along an axel-jarring, major transport route. But then I realise that there are more gardeners than there are cars, as the highway spans onward without another vehicle in sight. Citizens may not be able to afford cars, or leave Pyongyang without a permit, but to work alongside the vacant highway was a means of providing food to live. Like the flawlessly groomed gardens of political monuments at one end of the street juxtaposing decrepit apartment blocks at the other, it was a strange contradiction that could found in many facets of North Korean society. It seemed as though the socialist system of compulsory state employment for every last citizen was often at odds with the economic growth of the country.

We pass four checkpoints with guards armed with semi-automatic weapons en-route to Kaesong. Each requires the vehicle to stop and an exchange of words and details is given before we are allowed to continue. Many soldiers look young, maybe sixteen or seventeen. Reaching the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border between North and South Korea, I see both country's national flags flying high at either end of the same horizon. The air is tense. To my surprise, there are no South Korean soldiers at the DMZ but a number of North Korean soldiers. I ask my guides where they are, to which she replies, “hiding”. After questioning my nationality, one of the soldiers tries to sternly intimidate me on the basis of Australia’s involvement in the Korean War. I respond with “No hard feelings”, which doesn’t seem to lighten his mood. But suddenly he snaps into a humourous spirit and gestures me to take a photo with him, secretly contesting my strength in a knuckle-crushing handshake. I am still unsure whether he was seriously joking or jokingly serious.

Uneasy Relations

As welcoming as they are, my impatience with the North Korean guides grows as the days go by. I ask about the “Songbun” system of categorizing citizens in order of their allegiance of the government, a risky move that had to potential to bring the tour to a bitter end. According to the Songbun, the better the citizen’s history with the party, the better career and lifestyle they are allocated. After an awkward exchange of little words amid silence, my guide again pretends he doesn’t know what I’m talking about. While extracting answers to sensitive questions was a challenge, he was more than happy to persistently seek my confirmation that I was enjoying the tour.

I conclude that my guides rigid sense of humour was the root of my uneasy relationship with them, which seemed to echo the joyless atmosphere of the country. How can North Koreans make fun of themselves, others, their government, society or culture with a fear that this may be interpreted as a defiance of communist party authority and integrity? The sadness of the matter lies in the asphyxiated corpse of satire and irony, buried beneath the solemn discourse of “hammer and sickle” politics. I feel this is an unfortunate and inevitable consequence of dictatorship governments, where a fear that happiness and humour is a threat to the state is quashed with fear itself.

I was given ground rules by the guides for photography when I landed in Pyongyang, and I pushed them as far as I could throughout the tour. I snapped away constantly, hanging out the back window of the mini van. On the last day my guide took my camera and deleted several photos to “help me stay out of trouble at the border” while I ducked off to a less than desirable bathroom, but apart from that they didn’t seem to mind who and what I was photographing.

Cabin Fever (Exit Route)

My exit route of North Korea is a twenty-four hour train from Pyongyang to Beijing. I share a room with two North Korean men, who claim to be travelling to Beijing for business. They speak better English than both my tour guides, and seem eager to disclose their pride of the state. One informed me he had been to England, France, Switzerland and Russia, and his knowledge of these places indicated he was being truthful. He was a relatively open-minded man, and having access to news and information outside of North Korea I assumed outlets other than ‘The Pyongyang Times’ had educated him. Whether or not he could really express himself truthfully is another issue, as all but privileged and delegated citizens are restricted from leaving North Korea, and those who do know the ramifications for their family if they do not return.

I learned more about North Korean society and culture from these two men on this overnight journey than I did from my date-rambling tour guides, who didn’t want to discuss anything other than when Kim Jong-il did this and Kim Il-Sung did that. However, it wasn’t long before their drawn out defense of North Korean politics felt more indoctrinating than informative. Escaping for some drop-toilet scented air along the carriage way I begin to wonder who these men were. I didn’t find another passenger who could speak English along the entire carriage, and even dialogue with the train guards disintegrated into an exchange of universal hand signals. I question the role of coincidence in my train ride out of North Korea being saturated by unrelenting affirmation of the Dear Leaders’ greatness.

Rather than impose my perspective on these men, I let them impose their perspective on me, to get a better insight into their minds. The indoctrination of communist party rule was as clear as their bitterness toward the American “imperialists” and their “puppet governments” in Japan and South Korea. But I learned of the vigour and passion they had for their country to be independent and free of any influence from outside forces, known to them as Juche ideology. They outlined the sad situation of not being able to travel between North and South Korea, and they assured me that it is the will of all Koreans to unite again as a whole country. Somehow I can’t see the South Koreans jumping on the Kim Jong-Un bandwagon, but the sentiment was there.

They told me unlikely anecdotes about how funny and wise their Dear Leaders were in dealings with previous American presidents. One involved Lyndon Johnson meeting Kim Jong Il and telling him that he was greater than Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and James Carter combined. Another fable had Kim Il-Sung poking Richard Nixon in the side while they were eating noodles, to which Nixon kept jumping up and accusing Kim Il Sung, who would subsequently act innocent. Apparently this occurred three times before Nixon lost his cool, to which Kim Il Sung replied, “you don’t like it when I provoke you, so please don’t provoke my country!” We all laughed, as in ways that I was no longer comfortable disclosing, it was rather amusing.