CNN Photos

Painting a picture of North Korea

North Korea opened its border to photographer Martin Sasse for the sixth time since 1999 in October. With chaperones, permissions and regulations in place, he was able to explore modern life and the art culture in Pyongyang, the capital city.

He went to art studios, universities and leading art manufacturers to take photographs. He visited art students drawing in a park.

“I always look for the natural, the spontaneous, something that is not just a show for foreigners,” Sasse told CNN. “I think the message that I try to bring across is that despite their isolation, North Koreans are just regular people, with the same hopes, fears and joys as the rest of the world.”

Born to German parents in South Korea, Sasse is drawn to the northern half of the peninsula and its inhabitants.

From his perspective, North Koreans love the government and hang photos of their leaders in their homes, schools and public buildings. With that much patriotism, the people automatically stay in check, he said.

“I don’t really think the government needs to use many other forms of coercion,” he said.

He says he’s found that they feel lucky to live in a “utopia socialist society” with benefits like free housing, electricity and health care.

There are regulations on taking photographs in North Korea, including getting permission for specific sites and ceasing when told to stop. Sasse compares these restrictions to those made by other major cities in the world since the 9/11 attacks.

On his latest trip, he visited Paekho Art Studio, Mansudae Art Studio and Kumgang-San, or the Diamond Mountains. He said that over the years, he has become friends with the two chaperones who accompanied him this time.

Sasse said most people in Pyongyang were comfortable getting their picture taken, while some in rural areas report a foreigner taking pictures.

He hopes to return to the country as it transforms under its young new leader, Kim Jong Un. Already, he says, he’s seen a boom in the capital.

“I am already planning my next trip,” Sasse said.

- Elizabeth I. Johnson, CNN