Phantom: Likeness of North Korea
The photographer and art director Doh Lee captures 30 portraits of North Korean who managed to escape from North Korea.
North Korea made the headlines many times recently because of the fear that Kim Jung-un has caused over the world, through his threat to release one of the world’s most dangerous nuclear bombs. His anti-modern attitude and harsh politics have drawn worldwide attention the North Korean system, which has a completely different setup and lifestyle to anywhere else in the world.
“North Korea has always been a great source of inspiration for me, because the North Korean lifestyle always fascinated me.” Doh says. Under one of the strictest dictatorships, the North Korean citizens have no idea about the outside world. From the day they are born, they are told what to do, what to work on, what to wear... They are told that they are happy. You may think it sounds similar to George Orwell’s 1984. What is even more fascinating is the fact that North Koreans and South Koreans never really interact. If you ever come across a North Korean in South Korea, you can tell from their accent, and law forbids South Koreans to speak to North Koreans. We are completely separated as civilisations.”
North and South Koreans have been in opposition throughout history. South Koreans see North Koreans as brainwashed, uneducated communists who can’t even speak the the Korean language as they should. Despite - or perhaps due to - this separation, Doh has always been curious about North Koreans: their lifestyle and views, whether they are happy or not, and what it would feel like to be one of them...
His friends were aware of his curiosity, and one day his Chinese friend of South Korean origin told Doh that she could introduce him to a North Korean if he liked. “He is the head of the North Korean community in New Malden,” she said. New Malden is an area of south-west London which has the largest North Korean population outside of Korea.** There are so many Koreans in the neighbourhood that, apparently, they hardly need to know any English.
It was around two years ago when Doh decided to meet this man. And from the moment they met, Doh decided to capture portraits of North Koreans who managed to escape their country. But it wasn’t an easy task. He had to go to great efforts to convince North Koreans to be involved in the project, as they are still very fearful of Kim Jong-un.
All the North Koreans featured in the series are now in asylum in the UK having managed to escape North Korea, an almost impossible feat under Kim Jong-un's authority. Had they been caught, they would have been put in prison or ordered to be killed. Doh managed to capture 30 North Korean portraits, and entitled the series “Phantom”. Phantom evokes ghosts who haunt lonely roads, much like North Koreans trying to escape their country.
“As a South Korea native myself, I had never had the chance to speak to a North Korean before the Phantom project.”
says Doh. But through this project, he had the chance to sit down with North Koreans for the very first time, to talk to them and listen to their stories while taking their portraits.
Through these talks, Doh came to understand that, although they ultimately managed to escape North Korea after many complications and countless hours travelling on foot trying to reach China, (where the borders are more flexible and brokers provide assistance if they have money), these refugees still hope to return to North Korea one day. Even though they live in the UK in freedom, it is still hard for them to adapt to a completely new environment and system, which is very different to the North Korean system.
Even though they miss their country and want to go back, they know they would not be safe under Kim Jong-un’s authority. However, they also seem afraid of getting a new identity, and still want to hold on to their North Korean culture. In a way, they are rejecting their new culture but running away from from their past one. To reflect this great paradox, the aspiring photographer moved their faces beyond human comprehension in the portraits. This symbolises the different, paradoxical realities that exist between the conscious and unconscious. It stands for having lost one’s identity.
“In this project, I have attempted to show their real figure that is never exaggerated or disguised and their thinking in their mind with regard to North Korean policy and their environments. Moreover, I have realised that North Korean defectors’ photographs taken by me portray their consciousness in the past and the present at the same time in their expressionless face, tense, smiling, scared or sad facial expression and tears in their eyes. It is the viewer’s responsibility to read and catch North Korean defectors’ experience and perceptions in the past and feel their emotions at the moment.”
As part of the portrait series, Doh Lee also directed a short film, entitled ‘Beyond Identity’. Watch the video from the link here.