Photojournalist Gavin John talks about his trip to North Korea

Jusz Travel had the privilege to interview Gavin John, a freelance Canadian photojournalist, about his trip to North Korea.

Gavin is one of the few people I look up to. I met him back in 2011 since we were classmates for two years at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology Polytechnic. He is dedicated and passionate in everything that he does. Having said that, he is not always serious as he is a really fun guy to be around with, as well.

Photo courtesy of Gavin John.

1. Tell me something about yourself?

I am a 29 year old freelance photojournalist from Calgary, AB.

2. What made you decide you wanted to go to North Korea?

A combination of curiosity and a desire to know more about a country that not much is known about.

3. When did you go there?

April 2014.

4. How long were you there for?

I was in country for a week.

5. What was the process you had to go through to get there?

It was pretty straight forward really. Just applied through the government and waiting a spot. They only accept a limited amount of people in, so I had to wait. Luckily, it wasn’t long at all.

6. How were you feeling before your trip?

Nervous. On my application it specifically pointed out that they did not allow journalists in. Which I clearly omitted in my application.

7. Before you got there, what did you think North Korea was like?

I knew that there was a lot that we don’t know and are not shown. I did have a very clear understanding though of the brutality and oppressiveness of their government.

8. What airline did you take to get there? How was your experience with them?

Air Koryo from Beijing. They were pretty pleasant and quirky, as they are North Korea’s only airline.

9. What were some of the first things you noticed when you got there?

How “normal” it seemed. Pyongyang is like most Asian cities I’ve been to, but with less people. It had everything you would expect a large city to have. Far from the stories of no cars on the street that I had heard of.

10. Tell us about your experience there/trip in general/what you did/etc.?

It’s odd. Uncomfortably odd really. Our government minders watched over us like hawks, while still being quite friendly. It all seemed off, as if something wasn’t quite right. All the sites we visited were all very scripted and organized. They have a narrative they want to show the world and they stick to it. There is no deviations from it and sure as heck no questioning it.

11. Tell us something/things about North Korea that we don’t know about?

I can’t really say I know anything “new” really. In fact, I can say I know even less about that country now that I’ve been there. Its citizens are in its own world really, and not by choice. It’s quite unreal how cut off they are and I didn’t expect to be so extreme. It’s like going back to the 1960s but with cell phones and newer cars.

12. What are some of the misconceptions about North Korea?

North Korean people are some of the most kind and gentle people I have met. The citizens that is. The government and people who work for them are willingly lying to their citizens and intentionally restricting basic freedoms of information. We need to separate the people from the government when it comes to criticizing the country.

13. What is the most memorable thing about that trip?

Having to smuggle out my photos in my shoe as all of the images were confiscated as I was accused of being a journalist. I was threatened with conviction of crimes against the state because of the photos and for being a journalist. Which was true, but I denied it to the end. A pretty nerve wracking and terrifying experience really.

14. Would you go there again? Why or why not?

No. Never. For many reasons. I’m sure by now it’s no secret to them that I did get photos out, and clearly lied to them. It’s not safe for me to go back clearly.

15. How did you feel after your trip?

Lucky… and unlucky at the same time. I have a sadness I carry with me that the kind people I met will live the rest of their lives in such a brutal state and I will never see them again. Knowing that there are places like that in the world is very disheartening.

16. What advice would you give to someone who wants to visit North Korea?

Don’t. And I’m not saying that out of my own selfishness. To go there is to directly fund one of the repressive and brutal dictatorships in the world, and that money no doubt contributes to the systematic oppression that the Kim Dynasty subjects its people to. Also, you’re not going to learn more about the country by going, just fed North Korean propaganda the entire time. It’s not a safe place to go at all, one wrong step or word and you can end up disappearing and NO ONE will help you. It’s not a country to visit just to “cross it off a list”. That’s entirely selfish in my mind, the people there are not part of a zoo, and should be treated with respect and dignity. By going on government trips all you are doing is reinforcing the narrative that Kim Jong Un wants. If you do want to go there, better be a damn good reason to go. Looking back I can’t say mine was even a justifiable reason.

17. Anything else you would like to add?

If North Korea is somewhere that interests you, then there are far better things to do with your time/money than visit it. Educate yourself on the current political situation going on there.

To view the photos Gavin John took during his trip, visit his website. You can also follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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    • mar
    • November 12, 2015

    A very controversial opinion to say the least. I was in North Korea three months ago. I went through my mind about the moral or ethical reasoning for going and I decided to go anywhere. I strongly feel that you cannot condemn or otherwise have an opinion about something, somebody or a place you have never been to, that is just ignorance and fuels one-sided opinionated and unfair opinions. I would not like anybody talking bad about Spain without having been there, going earns you a seat at the table. Additionally, the media images are severely distorted and one-sided, what you see and hear is very different from the reality. I do not agree with his view that you don’t learn anything by going. I learned A LOT by interacting with the locals. I don’t think going there is treating them like animals in a zoo, travel in general anywhere is what he is describing. At no point was I visiting people, in fact, there is remarkably little interaction and you are definitively not staring at them like animals like most people do when traveling abroad. I don’t think anybody should go there lying. You know what you are putting yourself through by doing so. I openly said I was a blogger and gave the address of my blog. The guides knew I was a blogger and I was treated well and although it is true that you have the fear at all times that you could disappear if you do the wrong thing, just don’t do it. The rules are clear, don’t break them. If you do then you must be responsible to understand there are consequences. Even if you disagree with the way certain cultures treat people, women or other violations of human rights like I do, not going to a place is not going to help. Rather expose the reality to the world and give the North Koreans an insight into the outer world. I got to explain to my guides what the internet was, what Google is, what amazon does, and how I talk to my boss on video conference. My visit did not harm anybody and it gave them, the guides, a good tip to help their extended families. Everybody has their own opinions but I don’t think anybody should judge others for their own. And nobody should break the law anywhere, no matter how much one disagrees with the law. Everybody is free not to go to a place where they don’t want to respect the law. Once you do, you are aware of what you are subject to. This is obviously, my own personal view and I respect others
    mar recently posted…5 travelers share a moment which restored their faith in humanity – Part XIMy Profile

  1. Despite that last advise I still want to go there. But it’s nice to have different perspectives concerning the same place.
    Marta Grilo recently posted…CHÁ COM LIVROSMy Profile

    • Gemma
    • November 15, 2015

    Interesting post, I like you brutal honesty Gavin. There was a recent(ish) British documentary by a journalist guised as a member of a student trip to North Korea. It was certainly I an eye opener, they were shown around lots of ‘shops’ and ‘hospitals’ which had no customers or patients. A fake world for us by the looks of it. Nice to hear you had a positive connection with the locals.
    Gemma recently posted…Monthly Budget for Vancouver #8My Profile

  2. Quite the experience! We’re not considering going to North Korea any time soon, for many reasons of our own, but it’s great to hear from those who have. It would be interesting to see it first hand though, to fully appreciate what it is like!
    Carolann & Macrae – One Modern Couple recently posted…Nobu Manila: A View From Inside The Golden TowersMy Profile

  3. Great interview! I’ve always wanted to visit North Korea!
    Joe Ankenbauer recently posted…Mobile Photography: Creative ExposureMy Profile

  4. This is an interesting read. I’ve read a lot of news and stories about North Korea and has only left me curious about the country. As Gavin confirmed that people seems like they are living during the ’60 but with cellphones. I feel sorry for its citizens but then again, it is not their fault they are feeded with different news.
    evan kristine recently posted…A Rookie Traveler MishapMy Profile

  5. Now, this is very interesting! North Korea? Don’t get me wrong but most people will say, why would you even visit it? But boy, I’ve jelly!
    Mary Charie | Two Monkeys Travel recently posted…Luxury Hotel Review: Atria Hotel & Conference Magelang, Indonesia @AtriaMagelangMy Profile

  6. Really interesting. A few years ago, I was looking into going to North Korea but the interest just faded through time. Guess I have to reconsider. Thanks for sharing!
    Trisha Velarmino recently posted…Best Travel Destinations for 2016My Profile

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