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New book offers rare look at North Korea through lens of a foreign resident

New book offers rare look at North Korea through lens of a foreign resident
Lindsey Miller photographed scenes of everyday life in North Korea, such as this older couple outside an apartment in Pyongyang, in her new book "North Korea: Like Nowhere Else." Photo by Lindsey Miller

SEOUL, May 24 (UPI) -- Images of North Korea that make it to the outside world tend to feature military parades, goose-stepping soldiers, missile tests and perfectly synchronized mass spectacles.

But Scottish musical director and composer Lindsey Miller experienced an intimate side of the secretive state rarely seen by foreigners during her two years there, a perspective she shares in the new book North Korea: Like Nowhere Else.

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Miller's husband, a diplomat, was posted to the British Embassy in Pyongyang from 2017 to 2019, and as a resident she was able to move around much of North Korea without a minder, taking photographs and interacting with locals.

The travelogue includes almost 200 images alongside accounts of memorable moments, from sharing beers with a train conductor over an episode of The Wire to being awakened at dawn by the sound of a ballistic missile launch.

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Miller said she began taking photographs as a means of recording her experiences and making sense of a place that quickly defied her preconceived notions.

"I'd only ever really associated North Korean people with that propaganda lens of parades, missiles, self-criticism sessions," she told UPI over a Zoom interview from her home in London. "I felt like I had to go back to the drawing board and start all over again and build up my view on the place from what I was seeing and what I was experiencing."

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Miller, who lived in a diplomatic compound in eastern Pyongyang, was free to walk, drive and bicycle around the city on her own, as well as visit locations such as the port city of Nampo and Mount Myohyang. (Other parts of the country, including the resort town of Wonsan and the border city of Kaesong, required an official guide.)

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She initially was struck by the strangeness of the place, from the desolate airport runway that greeted her arrival to ubiquitous bright red and yellow propaganda posters. But soon Miller's attention turned to observations of North Koreans simply going about their lives.

"The eyes of the people around me, their everyday lives, was where I wanted to become lost and absorbed," she writes.

"After a few months, I realized that my photographs weren't just highlighting life and people as I saw them; they were also showing how much Pyongyang and other areas were changing: hairstyles, fashion, buildings and agriculture may have felt like they were stuck in time, but that didn't mean they didn't alter in very small ways."

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At the same time, Miller describes living in a state of almost constant uncertainty, never quite sure whether her interactions were authentic and not knowing what the people she became closest to were truly thinking.

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"During those two years, trying to understand what was real and what wasn't became the question with which I wrestled most," she writes in the book, which will be released in the United States on June 29.

Miller, whose recent work includes a season as music director for the Royal Shakespeare Company, said the idea to put a book together emerged after she had returned to Britain but was still struggling to understand her time in North Korea.

"The idea for the book only came about after I got back, as I was trying to make sense of things," she said. "Writing and going through these pictures that I took helped me process the complexities of what I had experienced."

The episodes that Miller lingers on in the book are seemingly unguarded interactions: chatting in Spanish with a shop clerk who had lived abroad in South America, talking about relationships at a karaoke bar with millennials, holding a family's newborn daughter at a water park.

"Those really small moments felt instinctively true and honest -- whether they were or not objectively, who knows," she said. "But for me, just those small moments are windows of human connection."

Miller's experience also coincided with some of the most turbulent times in North Korea's recent history. She arrived as the country was conducting a series of missile and nuclear tests, while a war of words between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had foreign residents preparing to evacuate at a moment's notice.

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One morning in August 2017, Miller was woken up by what sounded like an airplane passing in the distance.

"No planes go over Pyongyang," she recalled. "You never see aircraft. It's a normal noise for us elsewhere in the world, but there it's just not part of life."

Miller soon learned that it was a test of an intermediate-range ballistic missile, the Hwangsong-12, fired from Pyongyang International Airport on a trajectory over Japan.

The mood shifted dramatically in 2018, as North Korea and Kim went on an international charm offensive, participating in the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and taking part in a high-profile summit with Trump.

Anti-American propaganda posters were replaced with images of a unified Korean Peninsula, and a sense of optimism temporarily prevailed.

Miller's time in North Korea raised a swirl of emotions, ranging from deep anger at the Kim regime to at times almost empathizing with the propaganda she was constantly bombarded with. Despite the challenges of living in North Korea, she said that leaving was incredibly difficult.

"The biggest thing for me has been leaving behind people I care about," she said. "Anywhere else in the world, you can send emails, call someone, go on Facebook, or have a trip and see them. And that's just not possible in North Korea.

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"The only thing I can compare it to is saying goodbye to a loved one who's passing away. But they don't die. They're still there, but you can't ever connect with them again."

Miller said she hopes her book helps bring the people of North Korea closer to the foreground for outside observers.

"What I want to do is to open a very small window," she said. "I have no grand illusions that this is going to change the world, but I feel it's my responsibility as someone who's been there to be honest and to share.

"There are 25 million experiences happening in that country. And I think it's really important that, as outsiders, we try and shift our focus to those people."

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