Photojournalist Penetrates North Korea One of the toughest places for intelligence officers to penetrate is North Korea. One journalist, Tomas van Houtryve, has been in and out of North Korea twice, capturing rare images of everyday life in the secretive nation.
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Photojournalist Penetrates North Korea

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Photojournalist Penetrates North Korea

Photojournalist Penetrates North Korea

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GUY RAZ, host:

One of the toughest places for intelligence officers to penetrate is North Korea. The hermetic communist country allows few Westerners across its borders. Those who enter legally are kept on a short leash with minders watching every move. And for others, well, there's the case of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two American journalists sentenced to 12 years hard labor for allegedly crossing into North Korea illegally.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about the journalists yesterday.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): What we hope for now is that these two young women would be granted amnesty through the North Korean system and be allowed to return home to their families as soon as possible.

RAZ: Another journalist, Tomas van Houtryve has been in and out of North Korea twice. He's captured rare images of everyday life there, and he got in by joining a visiting business delegation.

Mr. THOMAS VAN HOUTRYVE (Photojournalist): And in order to do that, I had to completely mask the fact that I'm a photojournalist.

RAZ: So you had to pretend like you're a businessman. And what were you?

Mr. VAN HOUTRYVE: I was a consultant in the chocolate business. Basically North Korea has no chocolate production and no major chocolate importation, and it was, sort of, an in what I could get in; and chocolate is also a fairly innocent thing.

RAZ: And so you just sort of went on your U.S. passport with this delegation, and it was as simple as that?

Mr. VAN HOUTRYVE: No. I'm actually a dual national. I have a European passport too.

RAZ: Oh.

Mr. VAN HOUTRYVE: And I went in with that one.

RAZ: Presumably, the North Korean authorities could do a Google search or could easily find your photographs online. We're you ever concerned that they would find you out?

Mr. VAN HOUTRYVE: Yeah. There are a lot of published photos of mine on the Internet that are linked to my name. I actually did a very, very small misspelling of my name just by combining two - my last name is a two-worded last name and I made it into one. And then I put up false Web sites indexed to that name and I waited until the Google search had them at the top before I applied for my North Korean visa.

RAZ: So you land in North Korea as a consultant to the chocolate-making industry and how do you, sort of, begin to take photographs? I mean it would be a bit unusual for a chocolate man to carry around a good camera and start snapping professional photos.

Mr. VAN HOUTRYVE: Right. I had to be very very discreet. I just couldn't behave like a professional photographer. I couldn't, you know, wait for a nice light or get down on one knee, all the things that a photographer normally does. I had to be very, very discreet and choose which shots I wanted to take very, very carefully.

RAZ: Some of these pictures are amazingly candid. There's a photo of people pressed against a rainy bus window, sort of, fogging up and a woman in what appears to be a hospital bed. They're not normal tourist snapshots by any means. How did you get access to these places? How were you able to take these photos?

Mr. VAN HOUTRYVE: That was the advantage of being on these delegations is we visited schools, hospitals, factories, all kinds of sights in Pyongyang that had never been visited before by foreign photographers. A lot of it was staging. There's even a word in Russian for this kind of staging. Whenever a foreign visitor or a high party official comes through, they put on a show to make everything look better than it is. The Russians call this word pokazuha(ph), and we were paraded through one model school or one model hospital after another. So it was very hard to tell were we seeing the real North Korea or were we seeing the North Korea that they want these delegations to see.

RAZ: They were showing you the best of North Korea, essentially.

Mr. VAN HOUTRYVE: Of course.

RAZ: And, I mean, in terms of the photographs, was any suspicion cast on what you were doing?

Mr. VAN HOUTRYVE: Yeah. A few days after I had first arrived, on the first trip, they said nothing to me for two days and they kind of watched me work. And since they said nothing to me, I let my guard down a little bit and began to take photos in a way that a tourist wouldn't take them. And eventually, on the second evening that I was there, they pulled me aside. They questioned me for four hours. They questioned me about what my real employment was. They made me take my digital memory cards out. They made me look through photos and they made me delete them.

But unbeknownst to them, I had a system where I was secretly hiding the photos. So I had a kind of MP3 player with a card reader in my room. And each day during lunch or each day after the end of our excursions, I would go into the bathroom and secretly transfer the files from my memory cards onto this MP3 player. So when I had to later delete them from the memory card, I had a backup. So I never lost a single photo.

RAZ: As we mentioned earlier, two American journalists have been sentenced to 12 years in prison for allegedly trying to sneak into North Korea without a permit. Did you hear that story and sort of have any pause that maybe that could have been you?

Mr. VAN HOUTRYVE: Yeah. You know, even while I was there, I - like I said, I'm a dual national and I had two passports. And because of a small technical problem getting a Chinese visa, I ended up traveling with both passports with me. And on one of the trips, they came very, very, very close to discovering my American passport. And when that story came out about the horrible verdict that these two American journalists were given, I really thought had they discovered my passport would I have been put into a similar situation and it just hits me a little bit too close to home as you can imagine.

RAZ: Tomas van Houtryve is a documentary photographer who's visited North Korea twice. You can see some of his pictures from those visits at our Web site, npr.org.

Mr. Van Houtryve, thanks very much.

Mr. VAN HOUTRYVE: Thank you.

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