World Economy

Watch this incredible, rare video of the streets of North Korea's capital city

Jennifer Williams
"Soldier-builders" and civilians walk in central Pyongyang, North Korea last October.
Damir Sagolj | Reuters

North Korea is a notoriously secretive place that is often hostile to outsiders, especially Western journalists. Which means that getting an unfiltered, unvarnished look at everyday life inside the Hermit Kingdom is incredibly rare. Most of what the outside world gets to see is carefully crafted regime propaganda or the occasional heavily edited, stylized documentary.

That's what makes this short video by Finnish journalist Mika Mäkeläinen so fascinating. Mäkeläinen is the Asia correspondent for Finland's Yle Uutiset news program and had visited the county to cover the recent "Day of the Sun" celebrations marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder (and the current leader's grandfather).

The video is roughly 12 minutes of raw footage he captured on April 18 as he was traveling in minibus from downtown Pyongyang, the country's capital, toward the airport. "I shot it openly through the windshield, and nobody told me not to film," Mäkeläinen told me.

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It is, as he puts it in his Finnish-language Facebook post, a "rare delicacy":

There is a ton of weird and interesting stuff in the video: the hulking Soviet-style concrete apartment blocks painted in pastel pink and green; the brightly colored propaganda billboards randomly posted on the side of the road; the Three Revolution Exhibition that looks like a cross between Epcot Center and the planet Saturn; and the imposing Tower of Immortality — one of the 3,200 memorial obelisks built around the country after the 1994 death of Kim Il Sung, who was named the country's "Eternal President."

But what's most striking about the video is how, well, normal everything looks.

There's no narrator explaining how oppressed the people of North Korea are, how dire the North Korean economy is, how belligerent supreme leader Kim Jong Un is, or how many nuclear weapons he has. There are no carefully framed propaganda shots designed to convince the world of the glorious triumph of the North Korean socialist model. There's just a calm, quiet drive through the rainy streets of a city as people go about their daily lives.

The images most Americans typically see of Pyongyang feature vast, pristine streets almost completely devoid of people and cars, with the occasional gaggle of smiling, rosy-cheeked children gleefully posing for the camera on their way to school.

The other common images show massive military parades featuring legions of stern-faced soldiers marching in perfect lockstep and large, terrifying missiles rolling ominously down the street.

But while such images do offer important insights into the mindset of the opaque North Korean government, they are mostly caricatures of real life in North Korea. It's easy to forget that real people live in this city.

They go to work, raise their kids, fight with their spouses, gossip about their neighbors. They have secrets, dreams, ambitions, fears, worries. They're people who live in a country led by an eccentric dictator with nuclear weapons who regularly threatens to destroy Japan, South Korea, and the United States, yes. But as this video vividly and movingly reminds us, they're people all the same.