The outside world has been granted a sepia-tinted glimpse into North Korea, historically a bastion of high-walled secrecy. On 22nd February, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea announced that foreign travellers would be permitted to use wireless internet on their mobile devices while within its strictly patrolled borders. Just days after Koryolink (the only 3G mobile service provider in North Korea) opened its data services to foreigners, the first Instagram photos ever to come out of the region were released online.
The photos were taken by Jean H. Lee, a Seoul and Pyongyang-based reporter with the Associated Press, which opened its first full Western news bureau in North Korea back in January 2012. Lee also grabbed the opportunity to use Twitter within the notoriously totalitarian country, posting on Monday 25th February: “My first tweet using #Koryolink’s new mobile #Internet service. Hello world from comms center in #Pyongyang.”
The content of the pictures is striking, juxtaposing snapshots of signs welcoming nuclear test scientists and a photo of a propaganda postcard depicting a giant fist crushing a USA missile, alongside the typically mundane images we’ve all come to expect from Instagram users, like a Christmas tree and bleak, foggy landscapes.
This all comes a month after a controversial visit to the region by Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, and his nineteen year old daughter Sophie. Eric and Sophie, along with a group of seven other delegates, were allowed to enter the country to promote the use of the internet, which a huge portion of the North Korean population have never previously had access to.
While they were instructed to leave their laptops and mobile phones in China (or run the risk of confiscation), Sophie kept a camera on her person and ended up posting a number of photos on her blog. In a post entitled It Might Not Get Weirder Than This, Sophie wrote: “Very, very cold and very, very strange… Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments.”
Whether foreigners’ new freedom to use social apps in North Korea is directly due to the Schmidts’ visit or not is uncertain, but there is no arguing that this is nothing short of a huge step forward for the infamously restrictive region.