Fascinating Photos Compare Public Spaces in North and South Korea

Dieter Leistner

Street scene in Pyongyang, North Korea © Dieter Leistner

Dieter Leistner

Street scene in Insa-dong, South Korea © Dieter Leistner

Until recently, photographic views of North Korea were as controlled as the region itself. With Korea—Korea (Gestalten), the German photographer Dieter Leistner, who obtained special permission to photograph in Pyongyang outside of the normal, highly supervised structure, has made a fascinating comparative study of the capital cities of North and South Korea.

Leistner applied his particular vision as an architectural photographer to Pyongyang, North Korea, and Seoul, South Korea, in 2006, and 2012 respectively, to capture the apparent dichotomy between the two places. Although not all pairs are exact comparisons, they have much to communicate with their interaction, and it is immediately apparent which is north and which is south with most pairs. Leistner, who grew up in Germany, has a unique view of this divided nation, coming from a country divided as recently as 25 years ago, seems a distant, unfathomable memory.

Dieter Leistner

Pyongyang Metro, North Korea © Dieter Leistner

Dieter Leistner

Seoul Metropolitan Subway, South Korea © Dieter Leistner

Dieter Leistner

Geumsusan Palace and Kim Il Sung Mausoleum, North Korea © Dieter Leistner

Dieter Leistner

Statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square (in front of Gyeongbok Palace), South Korea © Dieter Leistner

Dieter Leistner

Policewoman on Janggwang Street, North Korea © Dieter Leistner

Dieter Leistner

Hat seller on Insa-dong Street, South Korea © Dieter Leistner

Dieter Leistner

View from the Grand People’s Study House, North Korea © Dieter Leistner

Dieter Leistner

Gyeongbok Palace, South Korea © Dieter Leistner

Dieter Leistner

‘Korea—Korea’ by Dieter Leistner, published by Gestalten.

  • Im not sure i like that the photos of modern seoul show exclusively smiling people while scenes in north korea do not. it seems like a cop out to communicate NK oppression by choosing photos of sad looking people juxtaposed with smiling happy south koreans.

  • Very interesting and thoughtful pictures, would like to read the book.

  • Smith and Wesson and Me

    You can express that opinion…only in the free West.

  • heimot

    Perphaps the photographer should ask the North Koreans to smile or South Koreans to stop smiling next time he does the comparison. While he does that, he could also ask North Korean people not to look so poor, hungry and oppressed. “Look happy and free! That’s the spirit! You there, back to the pr… retraining center, you’re too ugly.”

  • Sandro Amerixvedeli

    go look at faces of soviet people in USSR and try to find smiling faces.

  • Ive seen enough documentaries in/on North Korea to know that people there know how to smile. I live in Seoul and know that rush hour subway cars don’t always have a lot of smiling people. The point is the artist edits his own pictures and made the conscious choice to pick smiling happy looking people for one and not the other.

  • Yeah, I commuted by train in Tokyo for many years and 99% of the time no-one was smiling. The simplistic editing in this series discredits it somewhat.

  • Martin

    north koreans look nice in their clothes. i like the drab coats and muted tones.

  • eljeffster

    The ads on the right hand side obscure the comment section. If this is how this site operates I won’t be coming back.

  • Tony

    there is exactly one person smiling in the South Korea subway car. I think the artist was just showing how more modern the subway cars looks compared to the ones in North Korea.

  • Joe Joejoe

    I have no clue why you’re getting up’s.

    These photo’s accurately depict North Korea, but if anything they don’t come close to painting how bad it actually is.. When you live under oppression — even if you don’t know it, you’re still not a happy person.

    I’m sure N.Koreans find some happiness and have some fun (so did slaves)….but their typical daily lives are lived out like drones in some kind of twisted dystopian future (or rather, past) minus the technology.

    When virtually everything is against the law, and the law must be followed to the letter, that doesn’t leave much room for natural human things that bring rise to happiness. When your leader tells you how to dress and cut your hair and what to eat (if you eat much at all), it might have a tendency to result in pictures of miserable monotone non smiling people.

    These pictures actually say alot if you look close enough. It shows a complete lack of any type of trend or creativity for the N.Korean people. No room for anything beyond the narrow borders drawn by their leader.

    It also proves they are subjugated because lack of trends and creativity are only that BECAUSE they have a small group of people creating the guidelines for the way of life, so it’s obviously VERY limited in variety.

    Imagine living in a country where you’re afraid to bring your family to be around the president because if the leader so desired, he could take your pretty wife and make her his mistress against BOTH of your wills and no one would have a problem with it.

    That’s exactly what kim jong un does too. He’s a fat insatiable sex addict who has palaces full of women there against their will (but pretending to like being there for fear of death) He grew up very much outside of Korea, lived western values…..but once someone tells you that you now have absolute god like powers over millions of people…..well then everything in that world becomes a thing to play with, manipulate, and toss aside.

    Even worse, everything he does on behalf of the people, he probably believe the people should be thanking him for. In his eyes, they need him more than he needs them. In his eyes, he’s working to feed them, not their own personal labor. That type of mentality, which is inevitable for someone with soo much power, is dangerous.

    When you’re immune from all consequences, you’re going to explore everything you can get away with. rape, murder, torture, etc…and when those things start becoming boring for lil kim jong, things are going to get pretty dark. When killing someone no longer quenches his thirst, he’s going to be like a crack addict chasing that first high….then that’s when the nukes fly.

  • DarthDisney

    NK refugee’s have described living in NK as hell. So, tell me… would you smile in hell?

  • dave

    i think ya’ll need to calm your balls, thats only 2 ppl smiling in the whole damn pic.

  • I never said they weren’t oppressed. I understand whats going on there. But believing that everyone trudges around like its 1984 looking at their shoes (outside of the camps) is being a bit naive. I’m criticizing the photographers editing. He went to tourist traps in Seoul where people are on vacation with there family, theyre going to be smiling.

  • Dan

    In the South Korea picture, there is a couple hugging. I can assure you this is a rare occurrence in Korea, as are all public signs of affection (between couples, as opposed to friends).

    These photos were taken to reinforce people’s prejudices, rather than try to learn anything or paint an accurate picture about Korean societies.

    Why did they choose Insadong? Because it’s the famously busy, vibrant, artsy and cultural neighbourhood of Seoul, if not all of SK. Why show that next to a non-busy area of Pyeongyang? I’m no defender of the odious regime north of the DMZ, but these photos don’t offer anything other than stereotypes.

  • Dan

    The main complaint is that the photographer went out of the way to find the busiest and happiest parts of Seoul, and the drabbest, slowest parts of Pyeongyang.

    If the REAL difference is so obvious to see (which I imagine it is), then show the truth. No need for exaggeration, and tilting the playing field.

    There are crummy, ugly, boring (SMELLY!) places in Seoul. I assure you.

  • Dan

    Why is a traffic police-officer being compared to an ajumma in hanbok?

    There are lots of traffic cops in South Korea, and lots of ajummas in hanbok in North Korea.

    I hate the regime in NK, and the resultant oppression of its people, but this photo series is complete bologna.

  • Ari

    Do you have butt hurt because these photos don’t show socialism in a good light? Sorry but reality does not have a socialist bias.

  • Ari

    Andrew, I am sorry but reality does not share your bias. Deal with it.

  • LoggerheadShrike

    I am sorry but edited, carefully selected photos aren’t reality at all; you don’t know reality from them, no matter how much you may think you do. Deal with it!

  • jdklsjdkl

    it’s called adblock. learn how to use it.

  • eljeffster

    I did and I have only you to thank.

  • Re-posting this piece on facebook after 6months – isnt it time for a different approaches to documenting the most known ‘unknown’ country in the world? Looking in with a view to looking out.

  • The monuments look pretty much the same to me. On both sides of the border.

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