The photo exhibit “Window on North Korea” which opened at The 8th Floor gallery in New York on Thursday, March 15 is an unusual and important event. It is a significant achievement to have gathered and put on display over 70 photographs documenting daily life, important events and cultural achievements of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). The exhibit is a joint exhibit which presents photographs taken by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), and photographs taken by Associated Press (AP) photographers in North Korea. Hence it is not only unusual to have an exhibit of photographs taken in North Korea opening in the US, but even more striking is the fact that the exhibit is the product of a joint agreement between the AP and the KCNA.
At the opening reception for the exhibit, on Thursday evening, Donald Rubin, co-founder of The 8th Floor gallery welcomed the exhibit. He expressed his hope that this exhibit would mark the beginning of a reconciliation between the two countries and peoples. He envisioned the joint exhibit as one of the first steps toward bringing North Korea and the US closer together to help bring about a peaceful coexistence with each other. He looked forward to a future of increased joint efforts in areas of culture, sports, tourism, trade, and academic exchanges, such as US students studying in North Korea and North Korean students studying in the US. He expressed the sentiment that the exhibit be toward the building of a friendship between the peoples of the two countries, countries that have too long been at odds with each other.
AP Senior Vice President Kathleen Carroll similarly welcomed the AP-KCNA joint efforts. She observed how the exhibit showed how people with different views can find common ground. The exhibit was the result of an agreement made a year earlier to hold such an event to mark the centenary of the birth of Kim Il Sung.
First Vice President-Director General Kim Chang Gwang of the KCNA congratulated his hosts on the successful opening of this exhibit celebrating the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung. He expressed his thanks to Mr. Rubin for holding this meaningful event. This exhibit, he pointed out, is the result of the first agreement of the two agencies, despite the fact that the two countries do not have diplomatic relations. In the agreement, he explained, AP pledged to report on North Korea with fairness, balance and accuracy. He expressed the hope that the cooperation between the two news agencies would help to deepen mutual understanding and improve the bilateral relations of the two countries.
The exhibit presents a picture of life and conditions in North Korea that is rarely available to the people of the US.
Among the photographs are those of a historical nature. One such photograph is of Kim Il Sung enjoying a meeting with children from Japan’s ethnic Korean community who were visiting North Korea. The tradition of these visits was ended by Japan in 2006
Another photograph presenting an important historical moment is a photograph of South Korea’s President Kim Dae-jung and North Korea’s Head of State Kim Jong Il greeting each other at the June 15, 2000 Summit meeting, ending years of hostile relations between the two Koreas. This meeting marked the beginning of nearly a decade of economic and cultural exchanges and set a basis for the inter Korean agreement of 2007.
While the picture usually presented of North Korea in the West is of a backward country with poor, deprived people, some photographs in the exhibit portray a different reality.
One photo depicts a highly automated factory scene which shows the need for only a few workers to oversee the automated machinery.
The misconception of the DPRK as technically backward is similarly corrected by a photo of a large computer lab at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang.
Another photo is a scene of many people celebrating the building of the Huichon Hydroelectric Power Station.
The photographs in the exhibit present the contradiction of the separation of the two Koreas as represented by an AP photo of a North Korean soldier on duty at the DMZ in Panmunjom Village. In contrast, is a KCNA photo representing the longing for reunification represented by the Three Charters for National Reunification Memorial Tower at the southern approach to Pyongyang.
The photographs in the AP part of the exhibit focus more often on some aspect of daily life. Among the AP photos of North Korea, there is a photo taken in the subway system in Pyongyang and one of a family on a picnic being entertained by their young daughter.
Considering how rare it is in the US to have access to a means to develop a greater familiarity and understanding of life in North Korea, AP and KCNA are to be commended for beginning to make the photos in this exhibit available to the public in the US. I appreciated that when I asked the AP for permission to include some photos of the exhibit in my article, I was given permission to include up to four of my photos of the exhibit photographs, as long as attributions of the source were included.(1) Unfortunately, there is not yet any catalogue available of the exhibit.
The lack of a catalogue, however, is for now but a small point compared to the achievement represented by the exhibit. The sentiment pervading this exhibit is that it be a catalyst for a broadening and deepening of friendship between the peoples of the US and the DPRK leading to the creation of diplomatic ties and the normalizing of relations between the two governments. This event is a touching contribution to the celebration of the 100th anniversary celebration of the birthday of Kim Il Sung.
The exhibit will be on view until April 13. The gallery is open from 12 pm – 6 pm on Tuesday and Thursday and from 11 am to 5 pm on Wednesday. There is no admission fee. The url for the gallery is: http://the8thfloor.org/
1)Photos of photographs in the exhibit are used with the permission of AP as long as they are only used to accompany this article.