Live From North Korea, An Instagram Feed

Posted Feb. 16: "This little North Korean dude and his school buddies, were playing with one of my cameras this morning at Mansu Hill in #Pyongyang." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
Posted Feb. 16: "This little North Korean dude and his school buddies, were playing with one of my cameras this morning at Mansu Hill in #Pyongyang." (David Guttenfelder/AP)

If nuclear concerns haven't pushed North Korea back to the front of American consciousness, Dennis Rodman's recent visit has. It's a reminder of just how rare an opportunity it is to meet with the North Korean leader; NPR's news blog says Rodman is "the only American to have met and talked with Kim [Jong Un]."

Posted Feb. 28: "Check out who we met on his way to #Pyongyang when we left North Korea and landed in Beijing. And now today, Dennis Rodman sat next to DPRK leader Kim Jong Un to watch North Koreans and the Harlem Globetrotters play a basketball game in a Pyongyang arena. #Rodman told Kim in front if the crowd, 'You have a friend for life.' " (David Guttenfelder/AP)

Just setting foot in North Korea is a feat. But as chief Asia photographer for the AP wire service, photographer David Guttenfelder (who snapped this photo of Rodman at an airport) goes every few weeks. And in recent months, he has made a few dents in Korea's historically iron wall by posting photos — in real time — to Instagram. But back in 2000, when he went for the first time, mobile phones were not allowed at all.

"Not only could I not bring a phone but I was told not to take pictures from a moving bus," he says via Skype from Tokyo, where he's based. "They put sheets over the windows of my hotel room so I couldn't see outside. I had this strange feeling that nothing was real."

A lot has changed since then. "Fast forward to February," Guttenfelder says, "and suddenly I'm standing in Pyongyang and can send [photos] straight to Instagram or ... straight to the office."

For whatever reason, North Korea has recently allowed certain foreigners and reporters to bring in not only mobile phones, but also phones equipped with 3G — which means instant connectivity. This is a big deal for people like Guttenfelder who, until now, could only connect to the outside world via WiFi in hotel rooms.

In January, he was allowed to bring an iPod touch. Using that camera, and his hotel WiFi, he began filing photos to Instagram. Just before leaving in late February, the lift on the 3G ban meant he could send a photo directly from the back of a bus. He has been back in Japan for about a week and retroactively posting more lonely, wintry photos, in preparation for another upcoming trip to North Korea.

Within the scope of American culture, in which immediacy is both expected and demanded, it's hard to overemphasize just how incredible it is to see North Korea through Guttenfelder's eyes, in real time. As basically the only Western photographer there, Guttenfelder says, "it's a big responsibility" and is careful to qualify his appreciation for 3G:

"All that said: Koreans don't have access to this. It's just for foreigners. Very few North Koreans ... [have] access to Internet at all. And this mobile Internet is completely off-limits. So this is a small crack in the window for we foreigners who go there. ..."

"The most important thing is that my whole point of photographing in North Korea has been to open a window into a place that's otherwise totally isolated," he continues, "and through my pictures reveal something about this really otherwise unknown place. And this is just an amazing new tool."

The access might be a breakthrough, but it is still incredibly limited. Guttenfelder still can't go everywhere he'd like, or photograph whatever he pleases. Especially on Instagram, he sticks to the safe subject of daily life: street scenes, restaurants, people waiting for the bus. It's not breaking news, but he thinks it's important. "You'll see that from the outside and say, 'Oh, I do that, too,' " he says, "and that's a connection."

In addition to his iPhone, Guttenfelder carries a digital SLR for the photos he files with the AP — and goes the completely opposite direction for his personal work, shooting film with a Hasselblad panoramic camera. The Huffington Post featured some of those photos in December.

North Korean rockets roll past civilians at a military parade in Pyongyang, celebrating 100 years since the birth of the late North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, April 15, 2012. (David Guttenfelder/AP)

You can follow Guttenfelder's upcoming trip on Instagram, @dguttenfelder. It should be interesting to see how North Korea thaws in the spring.

Photos: Live From North Korea, An Instagram Feed

"North Korean babies rest in a row of cribs at the #Pyongyang Maternity Hospital." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"A surreal mass synchronized swimming performance in #Pyongyang, North Korea tonight." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"A North Korean guide uses a pointer at the start of a tour of an historic site. ... [This] week the local service provider, Koryolink, is allowing foreigners to access the Internet on a data capable 3G connection on our mobile phones. ... [Today] I'm posting this directly from my phone while riding in the back of a van in #Pyongyang." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"The highway, heading south to #Pyongyang, North Korea. Four lanes wide and few cars to be found." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"An old-school photo lab in #Pyongyang, North Korea." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"When Google chairman Eric Schmidt traveled to North Korea in January, I went with him to this massive library in #Pyongyang called The Grand People's Study House and met these students, in winter hats and gloves, working at computers connected to the local intranet. iPod touch photo from Jan. 9, 2013." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"A frilly dust cover protects a desktop computer inside a #Pyongyang, North Korea office." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"A North Korean doctor and a bank of video monitors inside a #Pyongyang hospital." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"A North Korean soldier reads at a desk at the Grand People's Study House in #Pyongyang." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"North Koreans ride an escalator past a model of the country's Unha-3 rocket as they enter an exhibition in #Pyongyang of #Kimjongilia flowers named after the late leader Kim Jong Il." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"A North Korean woman walks in snowstorm in #Pyongyang. An iPod touch photo from Jan. 13, 2013." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"This is a tourist-like view from a balcony at the Grand People's Study House. The high-rises, behind the mosaics of two Kim's, is the 3,000-unit Changjon Street apartment building complex that was completed last April. iPod touch photo from Jan. 9, 2013." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"Construction workers, #Pyongyang, North Korea. iPod touch photo from Jan. 18, 2013." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"A North Korean couple eats dinner at a #Pyongyang restaurant." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"A North Korean traffic policeman laces up his ice skates at his buddies watch at an ice skating rink in #Pyongyang." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"A frozen waterfall at the base of North Korea's Mt. Myohyang." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"A female soldier looks across a frozen park in front of an apartment block in #Pyongyang, North Korea." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"The restaurant in The Koryo Hotel in #Pyongyang, North Korea." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"A dressmaker's window display in #Pyongyang, North Korea." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"Three of the posters on display at an exhibition of North Korean #propaganda at a gallery in #Pyongyang. iPod touch photo from Jan. 12, 2013." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"North Korean commuters pass by propaganda posters in #Pyongyang." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"Album cover band photo. A random statue on a roadside in #Pyongyang, North Korea." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"Offerings of flowers are lined up on Mansu Hill as North Koreans bow in front of bronze statues of their late leaders. Today would have been the 71st birthday of Kim Jong Il, who died in Dec., 2011." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"Under a black and white framed photo of the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, cigarette smoke floats in the air of a #Pyongyang coffee shop." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"A North Korean passenger aboard a North Korean Air Koryo flight from #Pyongyang to Beijing reads a newspaper article about leader Kim Jong Un." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"A pin over the heart of every North Korean citizen." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"The yet to be completed 105-story pyramid shaped Ryugyong Hotel can be seen from about anywhere you stand in Pyongyang. The North Koreans started building it around 1987." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"A bicyclist rides along a snowy rural highway on the outskirts of #Pyongyang, North Korea." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"North Korean lab coats at a #Pyongyang hospital. We came here on this trip to DPRK primarily to do health related stories. Check my website for updates soon when those at published by the Associated Press." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"Banquet seating. #Pyongyang, North Korea. An iPod touch photo from Jan. 15, 2013." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"Example haircuts on display at a barbershop in #Pyongyang." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"And here are some style choices for women. #Pyongyang, North Korea." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"The huge planetarium that looks like Saturn called the Three Revolution Exhibition Hall. #Pyongyang, North Korea." (David Guttenfelder/AP)
"North Koreans walk along a #Pyongyang street seen through a coffee shop window curtain on January 8, 2013." (David Guttenfelder/AP)

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