Pyongyang Style – North Korean Haircut

A few months ago, I had the privilege of visiting North Korea for a second time.  This time to shoot video – something I hadn’t done since Anhui.

Pretty much the only way anyone can visit North Korea is by joining a tour.  Because China is North Korea’s only ally, I knew my joining a Chinese tour would have fewer restrictions.  The North Koreans see less of a need to put on a show for the visitors; as is more the case with western tours.

Although both still photography and video are permitted, lenses that are above 200mm (more powerful zoom lenses) are not allowed.  As long as you take pictures or video of the places that they take you, it’s fair game.  North Korea wants the world to see their good side…

One evening when I returned to my hotel, I walked into a hair salon that seemed kinda hidden and not very well advertised.  The hairdresser that greeted me was boisterous and cheerful, and didn’t speak a word of any foreign languages.  I quickly realized that this might be one of the few opportunities any foreigner would get to interact with someone who wasn’t either a minder or tour guide, a shopkeeper or waitress (all of whom are well-versed in foreign languages).

There was something genuine and uncontrived about her that made me feel like she was just a normal hairdresser who somehow got placed to work in a hotel that hosted foreigners.  She was charming and quirky.  And for the first time, I felt like I was seeing something real, which wasn’t just being shown to me.

The first step was figuring out how much the haircut would cost.  After a few back and forth attempts to talk to each other (and trying to use every language that I barely knew a few words of), I made a gesture of a pen and paper.  She wrote down the number 20 first, and then wrote down the number 2.  I then realized that she meant “either 20 RMB, or 2 Euros.”  (As a tourist, you are not allowed to handle their currency – the reasons which I will blog about another time).

I thought it might be an interesting thing to record – getting a haircut, so I put my camera on the table in front of me, and turned it on…

Because I was part of the One Day On Earth project, covering North Korea, I knew I was going to shoot a lot, and I didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention to myself.  On my last trip, a “media checker” dressed in a military uniform had to go through every picture on everyone’s cameras when leaving the country.  I decided it would be easier to not reveal the fact that my camera is capable of taking video, so I covered the back screen with black electrical tape.

As I shot with Nikon lenses by way of a simple adapter, I lost any form of autofocus.  In addition, I thought it would be even more covert to manually focus without putting the camera to my face or looking through the viewfinder at all. For a few weeks before my trip, I’d practice every day, shooting with the camera around my neck, manually focussing and composing blindfolded.

It worked – although I took over 80 gigs of video, I didn’t stick out too much in the group.  And the funning thing is, this time the media checker didn’t even show up.

One Day On Earth is a global film project where on 10.10.10, at least one filmmaker in every single country in the world would film the highlights over a 24 hour period.  I covered North Korea.  The raw footage will eventually come out as a feature film, but here, I’ve made my own edit.  Stay tuned for the feature film though.  It’s a great project that we believe will help bring the world together.

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88 comments

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  2. I loved the film, Steve. What a fascinating juxtaposition of the grand squares and flower arrangements with the wonderfully intimate haircut. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Your video is awesome! The quality is great and I love the music and all the other clips you added. I do have some questions, though. How come you were allowed to visit a hair saloon? Was the minder with you? And how long were you in there getting your hair cut?

    Greetings from Taiwan

  4. Steve, you are a genius – this video blew me away! It was a work of ART. Jim and I just sat and watched it – he says you blew his mind, too. The haircut, the selective color, the uniforms, the dresses, the scenery! Amazing, wonderful detail. And of such a mysterious. place. You created a treasure!

  5. Great video. I really liked the way you integrated the haircut with all of the other tour stuff. And doing that video without using liveview…..pretty amazing. Thanks.

  6. Do you speak Korean, and did you know that your hairdresser was saying, “Why do you take pictures?” while she was hitting you playfully? :) I guess she knew she was being recorded. Very interesting video! I loved getting a look at an ordinary North Korean. Thanks.

    • Lu – was there anything else interesting in the Korean on the video? Would love to know what was being said, please… :)

    • Steve, please PLEASE edit this part of the video out. The poor hairdresser is probably in serious trouble as it is, and if it’s shown that she knew about the filming, it will make things much, much worse for her.

      People in North Korea have been sent to concentration camps for much less than this. For example, here’s a NY Times article about people who lived their whole lives in these camps, just because their parents or relatives got in trouble:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/09/world/asia/09iht-korea.4.6569853.html

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    • I agree.. Although it’s a wonderful insight, the author has apparently no idea what he caused.

      These people (especially the guide) will end up in working camps, perhaps even their families.

      Great job.

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  13. Interesting video, but I’m not really sure what the fuss is about? I have been twice also and filmed lots. We didn’t have any problems in doing so, except when the military was about…

    • Tad – I would love to see your film, if you have a link to share? When I was there, we were hawkishly watched and stopped from filming or photographing frequently.

    • Interesting. I have never seen footage like this of NK until now. Please show us yours! Because I want to see more of this truly trippy immaculately clean place!

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  20. Beautiful work. Great sound and editing.

    At first I thought: ‘This North Korea isn’t that bad. At least it’s clean.’ But then I noticed the silence. Especially in the subway. Nobody was speaking to each other. Looked almost alien to me.

  21. really liked the video..and the hair stylist it seemed really took her time and gave you the deluxe treatment..haha , do everyone who go in for a simple hair cut get such extensive treatment or was it because you were part or a “tour” and were a foreign national, i wonder? The underground station really looked quite impressive and clean too.

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  24. I’m also deeply concerned for the hairdresser and the tour guide if this clip somehow gets in the hands of people who work in the government or people who are willing to tell on them? This video is great but should not come at the expense of a person’s safety. They might be questioned and sentenced to camp or worse…

  25. As Ruby has written, Your Hairdresser can finish in camp or some worse place. You should predict it (not show sheet with text).
    For people who think, there’s not so bad in NK, i’m sure, He have seen that NK Authorities had prepared especially for foreign tourist.
    Excuse me for my english ;).
    Regards

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  27. Came across the amazing clip posted on facebook – the best I’ve seen by a long way and really brings back memories of being in that eerie, unsettling place. However – I tracked down your website because I have to say PLEASE take the face and the name of the hairdresser off the internet. Surely you’ve read enough about the place to know what could happen to her? Her family, her children? Such selfishness on your part – in leaving the faces (and distinguishing features of your guide) in this video exposted – I’m ashamed how how irresponsible you are.

    • I agree with Kate..I’m from South Korea and I’m concerned about what might happen to those exposed in your video.

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  29. Would you happen to know the title of the song used at the very end of the shoot? Right when the letter from the hairdresser appears. The song is haunting me (in a good way) and I can’t seem to keep my mind off of it…

  30. As soon as I was done watching this (on Gizmodo) I came here immediately to see which comments had been left. I thought, “There must be something I don’t know….I don’t know much about NK, but I feel like it’s got to be a bad idea to not only show the hairdreser’s face, but to give out her name as well. So I must be totally clueless….it must be okay if the blogger didn’t edit it for anonymity.” But apparently, people who are in the know are also really concerned. I mean, it’s probably too late now that it’s been unleashed on the internet, but I won’t be sharing this video with anyone because I am pretty disgusted with your apparent disregard for the wellbeing of others, and I don’t want to promote that kind of behavior.

      • It doesn’t matter that they didn’t know. His guide and the errant border guards will get the brunt of it as they were the ones responsible for him whether they knew it or not. At the very least, the barber will be taken in for questioning most likely.

      • Riight…you talk as if North Korea is a free and fair country, where only the guilty are punished. This is a country where if a North Korean defects to another country, they severely punish the defector’s family and relatives — whether or not they even knew about the defection.

  31. This is amazing. Thank you for taking a risk and providing us with a window into North Korea–maybe one day, we won’t have to risk our lives to go and take video.

    • FWIW, I too am worried about the people in the video whose names have been released (perhaps their names can be edited out for their wellbeing). But at the same time, I am thankful for the video, too.

  32. How did you shoot the barber shop video? The camera couldn’t have been around your neck, as it would have been covered by the smock.

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  34. My guess was that he just set the camera down on a counter with his other belongings and made sure it was pointing in the right direction. I also was wondering about what possible repercussions the hair dresser could face. It seems like a very bad idea to show her name and face.

  35. While I love the video, and applaud you for pulling it off, my immediate reaction was horror that you are exposing these people on the ‘net. I have had a blog for 5 years and NOT blogged about anything related to NK or SK, and I still got hits on a daily basis–multiple times a day–from North Korea before I finally locked my blog down. PLEASE save these people before it’s too late (if it’s not already!!)

  36. Are you aware of the risk that you’ve placed that hair dresser and your guides? Shame on you for profiteering at their expense. If you had any idea what they will probably now have to go through you would not have posted this. You have put lives at risk. Shame on you.

  37. Came to see the video, but stayed to leave the same comments as above… I can’t believe you didn’t edit the faces and names out. That lady will be dead in a camp within a year.

  38. Actually, it’s not the North Korea that I expected. I thought they were at least 50 years behind. Perhaps this city is the only modern one? I also don’t like the fact that you published the poor girl’s name. She is probably in a gulag. One day it will circle back to you.

  39. Although it was bold of you to take this risk. It was foolish of you to show the name and face of the hair dresser. You know how NK is and you still didnt take the time to blur their faces out and erase her name from the video.

    Very foolish. Also, I hope you dont plan on going back to NK. Chances are that if they notice you did this, they’ll arrest you next time you try to enter the country.

  40. Your rare video made headlines in South Korea and quiet a stir among South Koreans who all voiced concern about the poor North Koreans exposed in this video (especially the lady in the barbershop).

    The images in the video were amazing and I was very much impressed by the scenes of Pyongyang, but this is not worth all the pain and trouble people exposed in the video should be going through by now.

    As someone who had visited the country, didn’t you know publishing this video without blurring the lady’s face may get her in a massive trouble?

    Don’t say you didn’t know. I bet you knew.
    And I don’t know what you were thinking.

  41. Steve, I see you’re getting so much flak for this video, I wanted to let you know that at least one person supports you. I applaud what you’ve done.

    All of you trying to shame this brave man, shame on you! You’re not even IN North Korea, and yet you let the government there silence you and pressure others into silence as well. Why should we play by Kim Jong Il’s rules? NK is not ruled by fairness and justice, so it’s foolish to think you can ever be good enough to avoid punishment there. Nobody can know the mind of a madman well enough to appease him. You worry that the hairdresser will be punished? What makes you think she wouldn’t be punished anyway, even if she had never met this man?

    It is only when the people of North Korea break this silence and say “We have had ENOUGH!” that things will ever change. People get braver when they know others are standing up. The more communication there is, the more open North Korea must become.

    • I hear you, Wayne–but it wasn’t HER choice to speak up and reveal herself. Freedom is grounded on choice–and the expression of Steve’s freedom impinged on her freedom by taking away her choice.

      You say, “What makes you think she wouldn’t be punished anyway, even if she had never met this man?” I feel that that is an impossible question–it’s like taking someone and exposing them to radiation on purpose and then saying, “What makes you think that person wouldn’t have died within a year, anyway, even if I hadn’t exposed them to radiation today?”

      This is a very very gray area, with serious repercussions not for Steve, but for the lady in the barbershop. Again, I laud Steve for making the video–but urge him to blur out her face and name.

    • I agree that North Korea needs to change, putting peoples lives at risk like this is not the way to do it. While I don’t live in the DPRK I’ve visited as well and have spent a lot of time in South Korea too. This videographer knew very what would happen to these people. I agree with the others that this was irresponsible and foolish. He should get no recognition, let alone a spot on CNN’s front page, for such a reckless video.

    • Just to add to your comments Wayne. If you are so gung ho about speaking out, maybe you’d like to take the guide’s place in the interrogation sessions and detention center that he or she will likely end up in. Just think about that.

    • oh WOW. wayne, your ignorance of what is going on INSIDE NK, is truly showing. it is NOT about what we are letting anyone do to us, it is about being mindful of innocents’ lives. it is BECAUSE of their rules (no matter how foolish) that we should take care not to cause unnecessary torture/deaths. yes, gong’s accomplishment is truly a wonder and i can appreciate what he went through to capture this footage, but was it really worth causing innocent deaths? gong may have ruined it for the rest of us potential tourists who’d follow the rules of photography taking in a country known to be extreme in their punishment. they’ll probably spin the story and make gong out to be an evil spy for the western world in order to justify the torture/deaths.

      if you haven’t heard, north koreans are taught from an early age that the western world is evil. people there are brainwashed, if you haven’t noticed, so to naively believe that it is up to the people of NK to “break the silence” is almost laughable. those who were around to experience the k-war’s effects are either dead or about to croak. and those who were young when the dmz was made have now become accustomed to life in NK because they do not know any better! unless you’re in the government or something, generally N. koreans are isolated from the world and not allowed to travel, to meet others and learn from a different perspective that their controlled way of life is so deprived.

      i’m thinking it would have been much more difficult to have known WHICH minder was tasked to gong if he hadn’t posted the hairdresser video. now they can definitely investigate and pinpoint who was even remotely involved with gong’s tourist group…? oh, it’s so sad…

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  44. wow, i wish i could say that it was a neat thing you did, but basically you just condemned the minder and his family, along with the next couple of generations in his family to either be killed and/or sent to concentration camps. i truly do not think the consequences of what you did was worth the recognition you felt you needed. what you have done, is no different than pulling the triggers yourself. congratulations.

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  46. Hi, Kate (3/16),
    My Korean is not good enough yet to know much of what else was said. :)

    Everyone, if you click through to the Vimeo site, Steve Gong answers your concerns about the hairdresser. She knew she was being filmed and was okay with it. I guess that explains why she was kidding around with him about it, as I mentioned above.

  47. What a great video. I saw also one video what one American man was shooted. It is so great to see what really happens there behind the curtain. I hope these videos helps people there. Mayby some day they will be free because you did this.

  48. To people who are concerned about the hairdresser’s safety.

    Don’t worry. You guys worry too much. North Korea is not what the western media have been trying to portary.

    She agreed to be filmed by a foreigner at a hairdresser’s shop which is in a hotel where mostly foreign tourists are staying.

    If NK government is such an evil regime, they must have strictly ordered all employess in the hotel not to agree that sort of things. That’s my logic.

    She is saying in the footage, “Why are you filming (this meaningless stuff)?” If we do the same thing in our country, hairdressers will ask the same questions.

    Not able to understand Korean. Mr Gong just smiles and she expresses joyful frustration.

    As a Korean, I urge you to get rid of misconceptions abot NK. They are just a different country. That’s all

    • Moon, are you living under a rock in Korea? it’s not just the “Western Media.” It is also the S. Korean Media. Hear it from NK’s who have escaped and have first-hand knowledge of the nonsensical punishment there. I’m quite sure the hairdresser had NO idea her footage would go planet-wide.

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  52. This video had a lot in common with the great Orville Schell “Harper’s” article on North Korea from some years ago, including the account of the haircut. I have watched this video many times and am still enjoying it, nice job.

  53. It’s so beautiful and captivating initially but I found myself becoming increasingly sad as the realities of the situation in North Korea started to sink in as I was watching. For instance, how you making and posting this video could potentially cost that hair dresser & tour guide a lifetimes worth of hard labor camp.

    And…

    Did you really negotiate the amount of money you were paying for your haircut?! Dude… come on.

  54. I agree it was a bad idea to film the lady in the barbershop, but since she’s working near the hotel and charging in euros, and since she wrote the thank you note, I would assume she is NOT an average North Korean, but someone who is authorized to deal with foreigners. So hopefully she won’t end up in a gulag. Maybe her sudden celebrity status will protect her as well. But would-be adventure tourists should keep in mind that you can get the locals into dire amounts of trouble by involving them in your illegal projects, and that violating the laws of repressive countries can have tragic consequences for you too, even if the laws seem ridiculous to us.

  55. Great video. Our group left on the Pyongyang to Dandong train. We knew our cameras would be checked at the border so we all just copied our pics to our laptops (which they don’t check). The photos they delete are pretty random.

    They are very strict about GPS devices and confiscated GPS cameras (returned on way out).

    One guy had a 3G Kindle and was able to access the Internet in DPRK on the town bordering Dandong using a Chinese 3G network. Before they confiscated my iPhone at customs I was able to see the North Korean GSM phone network.

  56. Wonderfully constructed video! I just love they way the music is played so beautifully to fit the scenes. Will you ever be able to go back after the officials there have found out about your video even if it hasn’t compromised anything about North Korea?

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