As a German who can remember when his country was divided by the Berlin Wall, Christian Petersen-Clausen has a unique fascination with North Korea. The photographer, who recently visited nearly a dozen cities across the Hermit Kingdom as a tourist, says he expected the country to resemble Communist East Germany.
"I basically wanted to see what the lives of everyday North Koreans are like," he said. "I was 13 when the Berlin Wall came down. I was really interested in what North Korea would look like. It's basically like East Germany before the wall came down, but more ultra-nationalist, even more extreme."
Petersen-Clausen, who lives in China and works a day job in advertising, traversed North Korea with a tour company that operates out of Beijing. Journalists who visit the country are typically shackled with regime "minders," and though his group was shepherded around by a pair of North Korean tour guides, he says the tourist experience allowed him a relative degree of freedom to interact with locals.
"I was a total outsider," he said. "In China, people get used to Westerners and foreigners. In Shanghai and Beijing, nobody even looks at you anymore. In North Korea, it's staring as if Elvis just descended from the moon or something. Everything just stops."
He admits that the guides steered him toward "the best parts of the country, the propaganda parts," but says he was still able to capture candid moments, like a couple of laborers enjoying a smoke together, or a man napping in the park after a barbecue during the country's National Day festivities.
He said one surprise from the trip was that many North Koreans seemed "pretty damn aware" of life in the outside world. He saw people in Pyongyang using smartphones, which are connected to the country's propaganda-filled "intranet" and blocked from calling foreign countries, but says he was told it was relatively easy for people to procure Chinese or South Korean SIM cards. Foreign media, smuggled into the country on USB sticks, was also reportedly common.
"They watch Chinese and South Korean soap operas, they see the cars, the fashion, everything," he said. "It's basically rubbed in their faces how poor they are, while at the same time they can't talk about that."
Students at a school he visited were using computers equipped with Windows XP, and in the music section of a library in Pyongyang had foreign albums — including Michael Jackson's Thriller — available for listening.
Petersen-Clausen said the standard of living was much lower outside of the capital. Many people had Chinese-made solar panels installed on their homes to provide electricity, and vegetable gardens were ubiquitous.
"The countryside was absolute abject poverty," he said. "You can see it in every space, be it a little garden or a little nook or cranny, is planted with edible vegetables. There's not one rose or anything. They're like, 'Fuck that, we're going to plant things we can eat.'"
The photographer says he left the country with the sense that it is changing — not in the political sense, since Kim Jong-un's regime maintains a firm grip on power, but culturally under the influence of neighboring China. While North Korea remains a totalitarian state, Petersen-Clausen said the citizens he encountered seemed irrepressible.
"They're still trying to preserve their dignity and make the best out of the situation," he said. "The joy seeps through. The human spirit doesn't allow itself to be completely repressed."
Christian Peterson-Clausen's photos will be featured in a 2016 wall calendar published by NK News, an independent news site focused on North Korea. Sales of the calendar help fund the site's in-depth coverage of the reclusive nation, and VICE News readers get $5 off the purchase price when they enter the voucher code "vicenews."
All photos and captions by Christian Petersen-Clausen. Follow him on Twitter: @chris__pc
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton