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.
"The Pyongyang subway is small but it runs deep. You ride these seemingly endless escalators down into the tunnels. All I could think of was that someone probably dug all this by hand They don't exactly have a lot of construction machinery even now."
"A North Korean military police woman. Pretty much everyone is a soldier and wears a uniform, but the yellow epaulets identify her as belonging to a police unit."
"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.
"These are members of a work group, perhaps from a farm a couple miles away or a factory, who knows. The trip to this waterfall was their reward for work well done."
"National Day activities in a park in Pyongyang. The whole country has off on this day and they are tailgating and shootin' airsoft guns just like Americans."
"National Day activities in a park in Pyongyang… Admit it, you'd like his BBQ, too."
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."
"Not only are cellphones available, they often get cute shells, like anywhere in Asia. Only difference: In North Korea, they are very expensive status symbols and they're fairly useless without the actual internet. Our tour guides said some people have cellphones on their belt that have no SIM cards because that's all they could afford. So looking richer than you are is a thing even in this supposedly egalitarian place."
"Schoolboys outside the mausoleum of Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-sung."
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.'"
"These kids are learning english. They were all screaming the same sentence they were learning at that moment: "ENGLISH IS VERY INTERESTING!" ... They were shy but able to respond to simple yes/no questions."
"Music library in the big central Pyongyang study hall — a library. You can check out supposedly 'any' music you want to learn about. I did see Michael Jackson's Thriller in a corner."
"Pretty much all farming is done by hand. You'll see at most one tiny tractor for every 50 people working and ox-drawn carts are much more common."
"Computer lab in a school… The principals were able to see all classes in their office via CCTV cameras."
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."
"Kids practicing soccer at an elementary school in Kaechon. They were really good. No grass anywhere though, so they had to play on dirt."
"Busts of North Korean heroes at the Taesongsan Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery. Most are from the '60s and '70s, both men and women."
"A retiree pedestrian in Pyongyang."
"National Day in Pyongyang. This girl is wearing the same traditional-style dress as adult women at the Mass Dance. And she knows she's outclassing everyone around her."
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