PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — My window on North Korea is sometimes, quite literally, a window — of a hotel room, the backseat of a car, a train. Fleeting moments of daily life present themselves suddenly, and they are opportunities to show a side of the country that is entirely at odds with the official portrait of marching troops and tightly coordinated pomp that the Pyongyang leadership presents to the world.
In April, I was part of a group of international journalists that traveled by train to the launch site for this year's first, failed rocket test. We traveled in a spotless train used by the Communist leadership, and I spent the five-hour journey inside my sleeper car looking out the large, clean window at a rural landscape seen by few foreign eyes. The tracks cut across fields where large groups of farmers were at work in clusters. Occasionally, there was a plow drawn by oxen or a brick-red tractor rolling along the gravel roads. On a rocky hilltop above the train tracks, a small boy sprinted and waved at the passing train. Every few hundred yards along the entire route, local officials in drab coats stood guard, their backs to the tracks, until its cargo of foreign reporters had safely passed.
I have made 17 trips into North Korea since 2000, including six since The Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang opened in January 2012. It is an endlessly fascinating and visually surreal place, but it is also one of the hardest countries I have ever photographed. As one of the few international photographers with regular access to the country, I consider it a huge responsibility to show life there as accurately as I can.
That can be a big challenge. Foreigners are almost always accompanied by a government guide — a "minder" in journalistic parlance — who helps facilitate our coverage requests but also monitors nearly everything we do. Despite the official oversight, we try to see and do as much as we can, push the limits, dig as deeply as possible, give an honest view of what we are able to see. Over time, there have been more and more opportunities to leave the showplace capital, Pyongyang, and mingle with the people. But they are usually wary of foreigners and aware that they too are being watched.
This has been a historic year for North Korea, with large-scale dramatic displays to mark important milestones, struggles with food shortages, crippling floods, drought and typhoons, as well as growing evidence that people's lives are changing in small but significant ways. But in a country that carefully choreographs what it shows to the outside world, separating what is real from what is part of the show is often very difficult.