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I am the co-producer of the Enter Pyongyang timelapse video and am going back to North Korea on Monday - AMA!

Aug 15th 2014 by vickykoryo • 36 Questions • 848 Points

Enter Pyongyang Timelapse Video: http://vimeo.com/102051605

I manage cultural engagement projects for Koryo Tours, the World's leading DPRK (North Korea) travel specialist. www.koryogroup.com I help to coordinate international submissions to the Pyongyang International Film Festival and also lead tours to the DPRK.

Here's a photo of me with our North Korean guides during the filming of Enter Pyongyang: http://instagram.com/p/rdu9qxvEyd/?modal=true

Thanks for all your questions, if you have more please contact [email protected] and I will try to get back to you ASAP. I will be in DPRK Aug 18-25, you can follow my travels in extreme North East on my instagram (see above).

Q:

What do you think about the assertions from people like Sam Potts that your work is hugely disingenuous?

North Korea is fascinating because it is a brutal, horrific despotism. The government is committing atrocities. There are death camps. Isn't this the equivalent of going in to Nazi Germany in the 1940s and asking for the government's permission to film the nice bits?

A:

I think the reason most people have a fascination with North Korea is because there is relatively so little known about it. North Korea has isolationist policies and we believe the last thing it needs is further isolation. We don't pretend that this video shows all there is to see and know in the whole country - only a side of Pyongyang, but an authentic side nonetheless.


Q:

Did the government have to approve the video before you published it?

A:

Nope, no one from North Korea saw it in post-production- in fact they're only seeing it now. My colleague has it on his iPhone and he's in North Korea now. We had two tourism guides with us as we were filming, but that's the only interaction we had with any North Koreans in the filming of this.


Q:

How on earth did you get your job? Did you interview for it? Is the pay good?

A:

Ah, good question! I travelled to North Korea in 2008 as a tourist - I'd recently moved to Beijing from my native Scotland and had friends who recommended Koryo Tours. I went for the film festival (I studied film and worked previously as a video editor) and got to know Nick, Simon and Hannah who were the core team back then - they hired me as a video editor and social media manager and in 2013 I started tour leading. The pay is enough to get by ;)


Q:

Have you spoken with any defectors from the regime? If so, what did they contribute and ask you to show in the film, along with their thoughts on the finished work?

A:

No, I haven't spoken with any defectors. There was a very interesting AMA with a defector - you can see it here: http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/18umza/i_am_a_recent_defector_from_north_korea_joined_by/?sort=confidence


Q:

This question might be very specified but the skaters in your video made me curious, but is there such a thing like subcultures or youth cultures in North Korea?

A:

There are no subcultures, that would be considered against the ideology. There is an element of youth culture in Pyongyang where young people will skate, bowl, and enjoy other pursuits in their free time.


Q:

Thanks for the response. Maybe as a follow-up question: do they have popular musicians? Is there such a thing as a music scene, with a band (or orchestra) touring the country? Or are those sort of activities limited to the mass games?

A:

There are pop bands like the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble - all the music is very revolutionary in theme, you can check out our soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/koryotours Their is also a chamber orchestra which does concerts, a lot of the same songs that the pop bands do actually!


Q:

Thanks for the links and thanks for the AMA.

A lot of people are giving you a hard time during this AMA and that's a pity. I completely agree that further isolation isn't the solution for this troubled country.

If it doesn't bother I have another question: How much does a group travel to North Korea cost for your average western citizen? What are some weird precautions you need to take before going there?

A:

The price changes depending on when you go and for how long - have a look at our group tours page: http://koryogroup.com/travel_groupTours.php

You really just need to make sure you are well-informed about what they consider appropriate behaviour, we will brief you before you go and provide you with pre tour info also. Have a look at our FAQs: http://koryogroup.com/travel_travelAdvice_faq.php


Q:

You ever get out of the cities with Koyro? What's the North Korean wilderness like? Is it well preserved due to lack of development? Or does the government not care and is it polluted and messed?

A:

Yes many of our tours leave Pyongyang, it is common to travel on one of the four 'tourist highways' built specifically to take people South to the DMZ, West to Nampo, East to Wonsan and North to Mt Myohyang but in recent years we have been able to travel further and through villages and small towns. In May this year I was lucky enough to join our train tour where we travelled all the way from Chongjin in the far North East to Pyongyang by rail we managed to see a huge amount of the rural country this way. Rural North Korea, that I've seen (and again there are many parts of the country we still can't go to) are very well maintained - and very cultivated. North Korea is still extremely undeveloped in North East Asian terms, and you'll see a lot of very people-heavy farming happening. You'll also see many animals being used and every square inch that can be used to grow food, is. It is a country of exceptional beauty - extremely mountainous and forested with beautiful coasts. Something few people are aware of as the media focus in North Korea is very narrow.


Q:

Do you believe tourism in North Korea is ethical? How do you respond to those who argue that giving money to the North Korean regime through tourism is further promoting their oppression of citizens, prison camps and nuclear program?

A:

Firstly, we believe that person to person engagement through tourism is beneficial to all - the tourists and the North Korean locals, it helps change perceptions, and humanises each side to the other. In terms of finances, the amount of money from the tour fee you pay that ends up going to the government is relatively little - after paying for services (hotels, flights, tour guides) a small portion is paid to the government - just as tax is levied in all countries around the world. While undoubtedly some money from tourism does go to the government, given that at most 6000 western tourists visit Pyongyang every year - we believe this number is too small to justify the positive effects engagement through tourism can have.


Q:

This is going to be a weird question, but is the country really different if you're a tourist? Are you always afraid when you're there? Is it worth traveling for tourism there versus any other country in the world?

A:

I'm not afraid at all when I'm there, some of our tourists do feel apprehensive before they go but I have been many times so no that it's not scary or dangerous. Most people feel like it is a once in a lifetime opportunity - North Korea is unlike anywhere in the world, the landscape is beautiful and the people very friendly - it's the least known and least understood country in the world and many people find that going behind the very one-sided media depiction of the place is worth it


Q:

I heard its unsafe for american tourists. being american and all.

A:

I wouldn't agree with that statement. There have been some cases of Americans being arrested recently but in all cases they acted in ways that are known to risk arrest in DPRK - as long as you don't break the law as an American you are very safe - and very welcome.


Q:

I am an American, I went there in 2007, and the only time I felt unsafe was when I ate the awful lunch they served on Air Koryo. However, I was not trying to distribute Bibles or slip away from my tour group, which is the sort of stuff that actually gets Americans in trouble.

The people there (at least the ones I interacted with) are able to distinguish between US government policy, which they hate, and a random US tourist, who they might find interesting to talk to.

A:

I am serious. I've been to North Korea with Americans. They were safe - and given that there is an enormous amount of very violent anti-American propaganda it's actually a very positive thing having American tourists travel there and show North Koreans that they are human too.


Q:

First off, I'm confused as to why you conflate ethics with money; one really has no bearing on the other, and when they do collide, it's often to the detriment of morality. To be sure, the North Korean government would hardly notice if Westerners stopped visiting, in part because there are roughly five times as many Chinese tourists as Western ones, but the point of a boycott is not simply to starve a company (or country) financially.

Secondly, why do you think that Western tourists visiting North Korea will improve the lives of the people there? If you look at places like the Phillipines and Thailand, tourism has manifestly not improved the life of the average person, and in fact has actually made the place worse in ways; for example, endemic prostitution and environmental destruction are just two very grave issues that face these countries. Further, it can be argued that tourism has actively harmed these countries, as people seek a way out by marriage or hope to make easy money from gullible tourists (this is particularly the case in Bangkok with the tuk-tuk drivers). As well as that, doesn't tourism to North Korea validate the existence of the government? They can point to the people visiting and claim that they have come to see the working of "this great country".

A:

I feel like I've answered this question already somewhat, but I'll adress your points.

On the financial question - that was a direct answer to the question. Secondly I would say that I'm not sure it's helpful to discuss North Korea in comparison to other countries as it's based on so much hypothesis and North Korea is really unlike anywhere else in the world. In 1993 when Koryo Tours started doing tourism and engagement we couldn't have imagined projects like this, or the feature film Comrade Goes Flying, would or could ever happen. We believe that 21 years of engagement have opened the doors for us to do this, that there are small moves in DPRK opening up to foreign exchange and interaction - and that that is better than isolation and the status quo.


Q:

All these questions about NK are great, but I'd also like to know about the hyperlapse techniques you used for this. Particularly for bits where the camera moves along a curved path (down into the subways for example):

  1. Do you have a way of measuring the increments between shutter releases so the motion is consistent?
  2. Aside from the brief video portions, I assume the shutter is being controlled via intervalometer?
  3. Since it'd be almost impossible to get the edges of each frame lined up from shot to shot, what's your workflow for stabilizing the image?

Like most in this thread, I'm feel conflicted about the positive image this video presents of a state we know to be so corrupt, but I appreciate your comments and perspectives here as well as the sheer technical and aestheitc prowess on display in this video. I'm truly amazed that so much amazing timelapse could be produced in only 5 days!

A:

Hi - well all credit goes to Rob Whitworth. His Barcelona video is truly amazing: http://vimeo.com/98123388

I can't answer any technical questions I'm afraid - I would contact him direct via vimeo. We scouted locations for one day and shot for four - early starts and finishing at sunset. Rob edited the whole thing - he's basically a video genius.


Q:

Was it difficult getting permission to stay recording in a particular area, such as the subway? Did anyone get suspicious of you?

Also here's a link to the video for the lazy.

A:

First - thanks for the reminder, I've put the link in the description!

Secondly - we applied for permission before we went to the country so once we were there things went relatively smoothly. We were accompanied by our own guides from the tourism industry and when we shot the subway section we also had an official Pyongyang Metro guide. We did get some funny looks and had to re-explain what we were doing in most places but as we had gone through all the proper procedures (eg. we had North Korean press armbands) we managed to spend the time we needed to get the shots for the film.


Q:

How strict are the North Koreans with tourist photography? I.e taking photos of public/military buildings/personnel.

A:

Apart from when you are at the DMZ photography of the military is strictly prohibited, they also don't like you taking pictures of construction. Essentially they would prefer you don't take pictures of anything that makes the country look poor. In some cities like Hamhung or Chongjin they are extremely sensitive about any photography, somewhere like Pyongyang which is much more open, you can take pictures of almost anything - or anyone. Do check out my instagram www.instagram.com/vickyinam - I took all those pictures in the presence of North Korean guides


Q:

Have you ever been or felt threatened by the government or military there?

A:

Nope. We don't come into contact with the government, and some of my warmest memories of being in Pyongyang are when I have been at the DMZ, the soldiers down there are very good fun and extremely friendly - in this video you can see a soldier wishing my sister a happy birthday https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SL2jvm7lQGU


Q:

Will you consider working with Dennis Rodman on your next N.Korea project?

A:

I work primarily in art and film so I don't think so. I think in essence what the Dennis Rodman project was trying to do was very admirable - bringing North Koreans and Americans together under the common banner of sport - but it perhaps slightly got away from the goals with the focus being more on the leader and less on the people. There's a great article about that by my colleague here: http://online.thatsmags.com/post/i-spent-a-week-with-dennis-rodman-in-north-korea


Q:

Was the video provided by North Korea or did you actually go to North Korea to film? If so did they tell you what to film?

A:

We filmed the video in North Korea. We were given the same guidelines as all other foreigners who visit the country - asked not to film military and also construction sites. We edited the video outside of North Korea - my colleague has taken it in this week and will be showing it to some of the North Korean tour guides we work with - it will be the first time they have seen it.


Q:

What will your next project in North Korea be?

A:

I spent ten days earlier this year producing a photography project which is currently in post-production and we hope the exhibition will be ready to launch at the beginning of next year. Blatant self promo but keep an eye on our facebook page for the official announcement of that project.

When I go in on Monday it's to the far North East, leading a tour group to Hoeryong, Rason, Chilbosan and Chingjin.

I will be heading back to Pyongyang on Sep 16th for the Pyongyang International Film Festival (www.pyongyanginternationalfilmfestival.com) for which I have been coordinating international submissions.


Q:

Are the films that are submitted for the Pyongyang International Film Festival heavily censored (if so, what material is seen as unacceptable)? Also, what sort of film genres have been screened for past Festivals?

A:

We never get any feedback about why films are rejected, but anything with graphic violence or explicit sex won't be selected. Nor will anything with a strong religious message.

In the past they've screened Bend It Like Beckham, Mr Bean, an episode from the BBC series Sherlock, a Thai murder mystery, romantic comedies, Hong Kong thrillers and they seem to have a particular interest in sports documentaries and fiction films.


Q:

Do you ever get to talk to the NK citizens? What's that like?

How do you feel safe going there? Do a lot of foreigners go into NK?

A:

I feel very safe in North Korea, safer than anywhere else actually. You are accompanied by two guides whose job it is to keep you safe so unless you do something that is very clearly illegal there is almost no chance you will get in trouble. We give our tourists very thorough pre-tour briefings and information so that they know the dos and don'ts before going.

The most interaction with locals is definitely with our guides, but often you will have the opportunity (esp in Pyongyang) to meet people at local celebrations and holidays and they are usually shy and intrigued - less than 6000 westerners visit every year so foreign faces are quite rare. I have a fairly flamboyant sense of style so that breaks the ice - North Korean ladies often comment on my headscarves and bright red lipstick :)


Q:

What's the subway like in comparison to those in other countries? Does it cover a good portion of the city and get used for commuting or just between the main cultural/tourism locations?

Also, there are a couple folks in uniform that seem to mostly be standing around - the man at the bottom of the subway escalator and the women on the street with a baton or something in her hand. What is their role?

Finally, I was surprised to see a DHL truck. Germany must not be a part of the economic sanctions? What presence do western corporations and products have in the country?

Interesting video, thanks!

A:

The metro has only two lines but is used for commuting over a part of the city - buses and trams more convenient though as they cover more of the city (much like Beijing until quite recently). We have only just (last week!) been allowed to travel the full system, a colleague was the first to go to every station and our specialist tours (Train and Architecture) will be able to do this also.

The people working in the metro are checking tickets, the woman on the street is a traffic policewoman - directing traffic and so on.

DHL have been operating in DPRK for many years - there are a few joint ventures in the city but not many at all, it's a very rare sight.


Q:

IN the subway, at the bottom of the stairs, there is a man in a uniform you filmed for a while. He's standing there for quite a while. Did you meet him and did he know what you were filming for?

A:

We didn't speak with him actually, we had some other guides with us and they told him what we were doing but as you can see when he looks into the camera he was a bit uncomfortable - North Koreans are often told that when foreigners are filming in DPRK they are trying to make the place look bad, to destabilise the regime, for colonialist reasons so even though we were with North Koreans some people were very wary.


Q:

Don't you feel that you're only being shown what the NK government wants you to see? Parts of that look very scripted. You mentioned that you were only allowed to see certain parts of the city and travel certain roads. It seems like then city is just a large show to show the rest of the world how great their country is while just outside of that movie set people are starving and being murdered. Thoughts?

A:

We are definitely shown only what they want us to see, that doesn't mean that what we are being shown is fake - only that it is part of the story. Most people who travel to North Korea are well aware that there are terrible things happening out of sight - but to be honest, you see a fair amount of poverty and hardship in the parts you do see. No one I have ever met who has travelled to North Korea thinks that the country is as it is represented in Pyongyang - most are intelligent worldly people, capable of complex thought. They know there is much more to the story - but that this is all that open to them now, and they make the choice to take a little over nothing.


Q:

According to this article - http://www.news.com.au/travel/world-travel/the-north-korea-video-kim-jongun-wants-the-western-world-to-see/story-e6frfqb9-1227023118909 - a so called "expert on North Korea" called Dr Leonid Petrov is claiming that the video was technologically altered to make Pyongyang look more colourful than it really is. Is this true?

A:

Having quickly read that article I'll say: 1. No one in North Korea initiated this project so to say anyone in the govt "wanted this video" to do anything is absurd 2. When the sun shines Pyongyang looks incredible and when it's cloudy and hazy it looks grim. If you use a good camera with expensive lenses you'll get a different image than if you use a cameraphone - ie. light and colour should not be taken as a judgement on a place


Q:

Yes I agree, the whole article is very silly. I was only interested in that section because this Dr Petrov claims himself to be an 'expert' of DPRK - although how that translates to expertise of picture and video editing is beyond me. I suppose you must be used to these kind of hack jobs on north korea by now ;)

A:

I will say that there is a very narrow way of reporting on North Korea and this wee video alongside our documentaries are a way of trying to show another side - we don't for a minute suggest it's the only side or a definitive view, but it is in a small way widening the view of North Korea from the outside. Recommend these if you haven't seen already: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iR638THdoYk and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LY0Wlk1BtXA


Q:
  • On the Pyongyang International Film Festival, did you get to see Comrade Kim Goes Flying? What did you think of it?

  • Does the Pyongyang airport have reliable electricity now? I read Guy Delisle's graphic novel memoir of his visit there and he spoke about how the airport did not have lights.

  • What's your favourite Pochonbo song? :)

  • Did you get to meet any of Pyongyang's "international" residents? (aid workers, ambassadors, etc).

  • How reliable is Koryolink's connection in the city?

  • How does broadband connectivity in the country work?

Thanks for doing this AMA :)

A:

I worked on Comrade Kim Goes Flying and have met the whole cast and some of the crew - I think it's a fun film, and is a very important engagement project. If you are in LA it's being screened on Sep 7th! http://comradekimgoesflying.com/index.php

There has always been electricity in the airport when I've visited (various times since 2008)

I happen to be a fan of this one: https://soundcloud.com/vicky-mohieddeen/arirang-echoed-through

I actually bumped into a Red Cross worker in Kaesong in May, very interesting guy. I've also met quite a few of the people working for the British Embassy.

Koryolink is very reliable in Pyongyang and I have had good coverage in all cities I've travelled to - on Monday I go to the far North East so am hoping it holds up there too.


Q:

How easy is it to visit North-Korea as a private tourist? How safe is it? What are the typical daily expenses in dollars?

Also pay not mind to these guys downvoting your posts and whining, they are just bunch of brainwashed tumblers spoonfed with American propaganda and in no way do they represent the intelligent and rational conseus of Reddit, just the majority unfortunatelly.

A:

Thanks for your kind words!

It's very easy to visit North Korea - the restrictions actually make it more simple than travelling anywhere else. Because you have to travel with an approved agency (such as ours) you just need to pay and provide a passport copy - your tour company will organise visas, transport, accommodation, everything. Whether you choose to travel in a group or as an individual you will be accompanied by two North Korean guides.


Q:

Why the fuck would you go to Best Korea?

A:

I believe travel broadens the mind.


Q:

I saw the video and I liked it, but it feels too much like propaganda. Do you not mind that your video can serve as a propaganda for probably the worst regime today?

A:

I don't think anyone watching the video would be unaware of the situation in North Korea - I believe this thread vindicates that. People know how things are there, what they don't know is that there are real people, living everyday lives too. This is a part of North Korea that exists, it's part of the story.


Q:

[deleted]

A:

Quite honestly, a better future for many ordinary North Koreans means, in the short term, supporting organisations that can get very real and practical help to those who need it most - hot water and soap in schools, a reliable food supply in rural areas. We are very happy to support organisations such as Marama Global who have a proven record of getting support to those who need it - no mean feat in North Korea - and you can see our page on humanitarian appeals here: http://www.koryogroup.com/about_humanitarian.php


Q:

[deleted]

A:

Assume by 'they' you mean the North Korean government? They weren't involved in this vid.


Q:

Have you ever felt in danger? Can anybody visit North Korea? As an American, would it be safe for me to travel there?

A:

Honestly never. It's very safe. If you are a South Korean citizen you can't travel as a tourist other than that anyone can go. As an American if you follow the rules it's perfectly safe. We take many Americans in on tour. Once a guide was talking about the Korean war on the way to the War Museum and was quite bombastic about the Americans in the war, he sat down, thought for a bit and then stood up again and said: 'we don't like the American government, but we like the American people and John [an American tourist on the bus] John, you are my brother'


Q:

How did the locals react to your presence in North Korea?

A:

People were quite wary when they saw our cameras but our guides explained we were making a video about the city. The guides themselves had no idea about timelapse - they were really confused as to why we needed multiple visits to places, and why we needed to be there for so long. Eventually we showed them the film that Rob and JT made in Shanghai and our guide Mr Lim stood and took off his glasses after watching and had a very serious look on his face. Then he turned to Rob and said - well I think you must be a genius and I will do everything to assist you. Was a lovely moment and we went from there!


Q:

I'm a South Korean born with U.S. nationality. If I visit North Korea and tell them I'm actually South Korean, how would they react? Will they speak back to in Korean (I'm fluent in Korean) or in English?

A:

They will treat you as family in a way, they will be curious about where in South Korea you are from and they will definitely talk with you in Korean. I have seen many American-Koreans on tour and it's a nice bridge between the guides and the tourists - the guides of course find it tiring talking in English all the time so often it's a relief for them to have a break as it were. It's almost always a enriching experience for both foreign-born/ naturalised South Koreans and the North Korean guides.