On the day of our wedding we had no doubt that we would have the perfect marriage, but less than five years later our relationship was on the brink of disaster.
North Koreans pay their respects at the Mansudae Grand monument in Pyongyang.
Fabian Muir is an Australian photographer whose documentary work aims to develop humanistic narratives in otherwise politically isolated regions of the world. After years documenting places like the former Soviet Union, Iran, and Cuba, his next series focuses on a country that epitomizes the phrase “hermit kingdom”: North Korea.
Since 2015, Fabian Muir has traveled to the isolated nation of North Korea five times to capture a side of life that many Americans may be surprised to see as nonconfrontational and somewhat relatable.
Here, Muir shares with BuzzFeed News the story of his journey and his thoughts on the pictures he walked away with:
The series began with many of the same expectations that anyone would have before going there — bleak cityscapes, expressionless people, soldiers everywhere. It’s difficult not to have such preconceptions since the dominant visual narrative pushes these tropes. I had hardly ever seen an image of a smiling North Korean before visiting.
So to start, I was also looking for things to confirm these expectations, no doubt exacerbated by the fact that my first visit took place in winter, which is excruciatingly cold there. After several days, however, various unexpected layers began revealing themselves, not least the way in which I observed North Koreans interacting among themselves and the fact that they can actually be very warm.
Schoolchildren make their way from the leaders' statues in central Hamhung.
Traditional female Korean haircuts and a customer at a Pyongyang hair salon.
A cyclist rides through rural North Korea.
With repeated visits the project became increasingly personal as I realized how limited most people’s understanding is of the country, making me feel a kind of obligation to tell the story. I’m not talking about the understanding of the political dimension, but rather of ordinary North Koreans in day-to-day contexts.
It’s estimated that up to 200,000 people are incarcerated in North Korea’s prisons, which are constantly in the media spotlight, but what about the other 25 million there, who are leading “normal” lives? These are the people I wanted to discover: What is a normal life in North Korea? How do they relax? What does family life look like? What do they read? What music do they like? What do they know about the outside world? How do they operate within their political framework? How do they respond to foreigners? What are the similarities and differences between us and them?
There are so many questions in this vein, and the fact that the answers at times ran counter to popular assumptions meant that the work initially hit brick walls in some quarters. At times, people were unwilling to entertain the notion of a “human” North Korean and instead suspected I had fallen for elaborate setups or that the North Koreans had stage-managed my photography. Occasionally things are indeed set up, but this is rather rare and very obvious when it does occur.
Nervous anticipation as locals prepare for the launch of a ride in Kaeson Youth Park in Pyongyang.
Munsu Water Park in Pyongyang.
Pyongyangites play volleyball at Munsu Water Park in Pyongyang.
It’s important to mention that any foreigner who goes to North Korea is assigned at least two guides/minders, who will almost always accompany you whenever you leave your hotel. They are trained as guides, usually charming, and do provide a lot of information, but part of their role is also to control your movements. This means that by definition there are significant constraints, so the possibility of an absolutely definitive survey of North Korea does not currently exist, even though one can indeed travel through large parts of the country and photograph quite freely.
This doesn’t mean there was someone on my shoulder every time I took a picture, but they were rarely more than 50 meters away other than the relatively few occasions when I was allowed to roam free for an hour or two. That said, my own experience was that the guides are also in a position to facilitate a great deal if you simply treat them normally, and I was frequently surprised by the access I was given considering the circumstances.
They generally offer frank responses to questions. It’s clearly not the ideal arrangement, but if one tries to understand their own sensitivities and thinks of them as fixers it’s possible to work quite effectively even within these parameters. As mentioned earlier, I’ve not experienced intervention in my photography there, nor did they ever try to prevent me from interacting with locals.
North Korean fast food and US '50s outfits in Munsu Water Park in Pyongyang.
Locals enjoy a picnic on Moran Hill in Pyongyang.
Locals admire Kimjongilia (red) and Kimilsungia (purple) flowers at a flower festival in Pyongyang.
It has occurred to me that perhaps some people feel certain images are contrived because their composition makes them feel like tableaux. Such skepticism riles me since it’s difficult not to take it personally when an individual who has never even visited North Korea believes they know more on the topic than someone who has completed a two-year project and studied every text available. So it certainly became a personal mission on two levels: first to supplement the established narrative through a balanced survey of ordinary North Koreans and, as it turned out, lending them a dignity that has previously been lacking; and second, the task of convincing armchair skeptics that the images are truly candid.
The image of people laughing at a picnic is important to me since it is the last thing most viewers might expect to see in a body of work on North Korea. I've occasionally been challenged on this photo by people thinking it was staged, yet it was a completely spontaneous moment. Since it was a national holiday, there must have been thousands of picnickers in the park, and this particular group were laughing when a man in a neighboring gathering, who had evidently had one soju too many, stood up and began swaying in the breeze while singing painfully out of tune.
North Koreans never interfered with my image-making, deleted photos, or instructed me on what to shoot. The conviction that the whole thing is a huge Truman Show for visitors can take on extremes — for example many Westerners genuinely believe that the Pyongyang Metro only actually runs when a foreigner is on it!
Students participate in a mass dance on Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang.
A newlywed couple outside Pyongyang Folklore Park.
A guide translates a female soldier's comments about the Wangjaesan Monument in North Hamgyong province.
People in provincial North Korea pass before a mural of the leaders standing upon the North Korean “sacred mountain” of Mount Paektu.
As mentioned, it was my experience of North Koreans as thoughtful, kind, and humorous people, in many ways not different from us, that I found most illuminating. Children are cheeky and fun. Obviously the people are indoctrinated, but the automatic conclusion that they have all been completely desensitized to become unthinking cogs in the state apparatus is an exceedingly simplistic analysis and typical of the kind of assumption one makes without having been there — I had made it too.
I hope that the images open up unexpected perspectives on the country and particularly its people, and help viewers to attach a different face to North Korea from the bombastic version the state tends to project on the world stage.
A man runs past monumental mosaics at Pyongyang film studios.
A child sings at a kindergarten performance in Chongjin, North Korea. Talented children are trained to a very high level from an early age.
Young girls perform at a kindergarten in Chongjin.
A nurse tends infants in an orphanage in Nampo.
Children line up in an orphanage in Nampo on North Korea's west coast.
To see more of Fabian Muir's work, visit his website at fabianmuir.com.
BuzzFeed News; Getty Images; CSPAN
It covers just eight pages, misspells names and relies on only one Russian intelligence source.
The so-called “second dossier” echoes many assertions about Donald Trump’s activities with Russians that former British spy Christopher Steele made in his reports now called “the Steele dossier.”
And the “second dossier” is gaining increasing attention in Washington where Republicans say it provides additional evidence of anti-Trump taint in the Trump-Russia investigation.
But to paraphrase the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, we’ve read the second dossier, and it’s no Steele dossier. It’s not even a dossier.
Written by Cody Shearer, a one-time journalist who became an activist in the 1990s with close ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton, it's 26 paragraphs divided into two reports, one dated Sept. 24, 2016, the other, Oct. 12, 2016, that summarize his interviews with people he solicited for dirt on Trump in Russia.
The main sources are two prominent American journalists said to have chased Trump sexcapade rumors in Russia, an unnamed Turkish businessman with “excellent contacts” in Russia’s Federal Security Service, and an unnamed member of the service.
Two-thirds of the reports cover Trump’s supposed sexual activities and add only a couple of details to the Steele dossier. The rest concerns Trump financial activities, with a focus on Azerbaijan, the former Soviet republic with a not-quite-completed Trump tower.
Some details enhance the reports’ credibility and others detract. Paul Manafort’s last name is spelled “Manniford” even though Manafort had been a news fixture since being fired in August 2016 as Trump’s campaign chairman. Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, founders of the research group that hired Steele, are “Glen Semper” and “Peter Fitch.”
If the Steele dossier evokes Russian literature with its endless cast and nuanced relationships, the reports are the CliffsNotes.
They would be of little interest were it not for their authorship and a series of exchanges that put them in the hands of the FBI just before the 2016 election.
Cody Shearer, 67, has long and personal ties to the Clintons. His late twin sister, Brooke, was director of the Clinton-era White House Fellowship program and was married to then-deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott. His investigation of Trump fit his interest in uncovering international scandals.
Republicans are focusing on a series of exchanges in the months before the 2016 election that went as follows:
- Shearer shared his reports with longtime friend Sidney Blumenthal, a close associate of the Clintons.
- Blumenthal showed the reports to his longtime friend Jonathan Winer, who was the State Department’s special envoy to Libya when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.
- Winer showed the reports to his longtime friend Christopher Steele, the former British spy who had been investigating Trump’s activities in Russia for months.
- And Steele gave the reports to the FBI in October 2016 as part of an arrangement developed months earlier when Steele began telling the FBI about his own research into Trump and Russia. Steele received the Shearer reports after he’d written most of his Trump-Russia dossier.
It is not known what the FBI did with the reports and if they influenced the counterintelligence investigation the FBI started in July 2016 after receiving reports of contacts between Russians and Trump campaign officials.
The reports do not mention former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. That makes it unlikely that they were included in the disputed Justice Department request in October 2016 for secret court approval to monitor Page.
But Republicans are suspicious.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes ®.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
House intelligence committee chairman Devin Nunes said his committee is probing the State Department as “phase two” of its investigation, following an examination of the Justice Department’s application for the warrant to monitor Page. “We are looking into discrepancies or irregularities at the State Department and how information came into the State Department, what was done with that information, how that was processed and where it went,” Nunes said Wednesday in a radio interview with conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt. He did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican on the intelligence committee, said Tuesday on Fox News that he was “pretty troubled by what I read in the documents with respect to the role the State Department played in the fall of 2016.”
CSPAN / Via c-span.org
Republican Sens. Charles Grassley and Lindsey Graham said in a letter released Monday that they were troubled that “Clinton associates” were “feeding” information to Steele. Grassley did not respond to a BuzzFeed News request for comment.
Shearer and Blumenthal have remained quiet since Shearer’s reports emerged, and efforts to reach them and Winer were not immediately successful.
In an opinion piece published Thursday night on the web by the Washington Post, Winer explained his actions.
Winer, now an expert at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, said he’d known Steele since 2009, when both men were working in the private sector. After Winer returned to the State Department in 2013, he stayed in touch with Steele and received reports the former spy was writing about Russia. One batch of reports that Winer reviewed in the summer of 2016 was the Steele dossier.
Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call,Inc.
Several months later, in late September 2016, Winer spoke with his “old friend” Blumenthal. As the conversation turned to ongoing news reports that Russians had hacked Democrats’ emails, Blumenthal showed Winer the Shearer reports. Struck by the reports’ similarity to the Steele dossier, Winer said he gave the reports to Steele “for his professional reaction.”
“He told me it was potentially ‘collateral’ information,” Winer writes in his op-ed. “He said that it was similar but separate from the information he had gathered from sources.”
Winer, knowing Shearer was not an intelligence officer, did not mention the Shearer reports to anyone in the State Department. Steele gave the reports to the FBI, Winer said, “after the FBI asked him to provide everything he had on allegations relating to Trump, his campaign and Russian interference in US elections.” ●
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Alexey Nikolsky / AFP / Getty Images
In February 2014, when Russia hosted the Winter Olympic Games at Sochi in the country's southwest, its athletes won an unprecedented 232 gold medals. Less than two years later, the World Anti-Doping Agency, the watchdog for drug use in international sport, took aim at that performance, saying it rested on a massive doping conspiracy directed by the Russian government.
Russia's reaction was quick — and also unprecedented. Soon, its intelligence agency was hacking into WADA's computer system.
Now, as the next Winter Games begin in South Korea — without the official presence of Russia, which has been banned for cheating the last time — it’s clear that the hack of the World Anti-Doping Agency came from the same playbook Russia has used in elections around the world, including the most recent US presidential election.
WADA announced in September 2016 that it had been hacked and that athletes' medical files had been taken and were being posted to the internet. That was only a few months after the Democratic National Committee acknowledged that its computers, too, had been hacked and its stolen emails posted on the web.
Now it's clear that the same culprit was responsible in both cases. A rare declassified joint report by the US’s National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, and Federal Bureau of Investigation reached that conclusion last year, as had several internationally known cybersecurity companies.
The culprit? Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, the country’s largest foreign military intelligence agency. Cybersecurity companies call the GRU hackers by a variety of names, but they are most commonly known as APT 28 or Fancy Bear, and they've been operating since 2004.
According to an analysis by the Japanese firm Trend Micro, 2014 to 2016 was a particularly active time for the GRU hackers, which it calls Pawn Storm. During that period, the group created email phishing campaigns targeting at least 12 countries' militaries, eight ministries of defense, six political parties, and seven media outlets around the world, including BuzzFeed News.
And the hackers are likely to continue their operations. “Pawn Storm is becoming increasingly relevant particularly because it is doing more than just espionage
activities,” Trend Micro concluded. “We can see how the group has become
more adept at manipulating events and public opinion through the gathering and controlled release of
And not just about US politicians. Its WADA hacks were intended to tarnish the reputations of some of the best known figures in world sports.
Olympic gymnast Simone Biles
Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images
For US gymnast Simone Biles, Fancy Bear revealed the presence of methylphenidate in her system, a drug used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“Whenever you’re at the top, it’s very easy for a lot of people to bring you down,” Biles told BuzzFeed News. “I take it for a certain reason, just like if you have asthma you take an inhaler. It is what it is. I take medicine. If you have a problem, I’m sorry.”
“One of the things we’ve seen most prominently is the degree of meanness in Fancy Bear’s attacks,” Toni Gidwani, director of research at cybersecurity firm ThreatConnect, told BuzzFeed News. “The WADA breach is an example where you had sharing personal information of a bunch of athletes who were involved in the Russian doping scandal as whistleblowers or not involved at all. But we’ve seen a similar type of pattern in the way that they’ve gone after journalists and civil society activists. There’s a pretty clear intention to intimidate these people who were acting against perceived Russian interests.”
Tensions between the Russian government and WADA began in November 2015, when WADA declared that its Russian affiliate had failed at its job of adequately testing Russian athletes for performance enhancing drugs.
The next year, Grigory Rodchenkov, who headed that affiliate, confessed to a massive state-sponsored doping scheme in the lead-up to the 2014 games and provided extensive evidence to both the New York Times and WADA itself. Rodchenkov is currently in protective custody in the US.
It’s not unusual for any sophisticated nation-state hacking group to have a wide interest in important targets around the world. But Fancy Bear is different from many because “they’re noisy,” Gidwani said. “They’re one of the more visible threat actors.”
It's also developed in recent years a practice of not merely gathering information, but spreading it online, often in misleading ways that align with Russian interests. In 2014, as Russia was in the process of finalizing its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, a pro-Russia “hacktivist” group believed to be a front for Fancy Bear published Ukrainian military documents. The story made few waves in the US, but was reported by Russian state media.
That was similar to what would happen to Democrats’ files after they were pirated from DNC computers: Some were posted to a newly created site, DC Leaks; some were posted by Guccifer 2, a hacker persona who appeared online and encouraged the media to write about the documents; and some were handed to WikiLeaks, which posted batches of Democratic emails for weeks leading up to the election.
Similarly, after the GRU hackers hit WADA, a website called “Fancy Bears” — a clear reference to the name researchers had given them — began slowly leaking non-Russian athletes’ medical files. In addition to Biles' ADHD medicine, Fancy Bear revealed the use of anti-inflammatory steroids by basketball player Ellena Della Donna and tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams. All of those uses had been approved by WADA.
Though Fancy Bear has demonstrated sophisticated hacking capabilities, its penetration into both the Democratic National Committee and WADA came from a basic spearphishing attack, where a target can be tricked into giving up their password. That’s what happened with a staffer at the Democratic National Committee, and it’s what led to Olympians’ files being breached, according to WADA's former chief technology officer, Robert Jackson.
“Somebody at the International Olympic Committee fell for a spearphishing email with my name on it,” Jackson told BuzzFeed News. The email, sent to around 10 people, mimicked Jackson’s email signature, though shoddily. “Colors were wrong and certain information was wrong. It asked this guy to reset his password. He fell for it. He basically gave them his password.”
Once it had gained access to a high-ranking IOC employee’s email address, Fancy Bear was able to log into WADA’s Anti-Doping Administration & Management System database and download athletes’ files, many of them American.
Soon after the breach, Jackson said, he contacted international law enforcement agencies, which convinced him Fancy Bear was indeed behind the attack.
Just as the Democrats' leaked emails led to months of breathless media coverage, headlines around the world covered the American Olympians’ medical files, even though WADA had cleared them to use those drugs.
“Russian Hackers Expose Drug Use By America's Greatest Female Athletes,” Maxim wrote. “Simone & Serena Drug Use EXPOSED In Russian Hack!,” declared Radar. Online. “WADA hack raises questions about therapeutic use exemptions, security,” said USA Today. And RT, the Kremlin-sponsored news channel, framed the story as “Top US athletes deny cheating after hackers show usage of banned substances.”
After WADA’s first wave, Travis Tygart, the head of USADA, WADA’s American affiliate, reached out to those four athletes. “It’s cyber-bullying at its worst, attempting to smear innocent athletes who end up being the victims,” Tygart told BuzzFeed News. “Our immediate concern and compassion went out to those athletes. It’s really another step when you attempt to smear and destroy clean athletes who hadn't done anything other than follow the rules.”
But then Fancy Bear released another batch of American athletes’ files, to considerably less fanfare, and then a third round. Tygart’s team, overwhelmed with the number of victims, had to settle for recording a password-protected video message to those athletes. USADA has given BuzzFeed News permission to show it to the public for the first time.
Though the IOC did in fact ban Russia from formally competing in the 2018 Winter Games, citing the country’s “unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympics,” athletes who were found to have not participated in the doping scandal will be allowed to compete. Their uniforms, instead of representing their country’s flag, will have neutral colors and call them “Olympic athletes from Russia.” None of the IOC’s multiple statements on Russian cheating mention hacking.
Remarkably, Fancy Bear returned with a handful of other leaked Olympic emails this January, mostly related to the decision to ban Russia for doping, published on the same site the group has used since 2016. When asked if Russia would face any additional punishment for repeatedly hacking Olympic entities, the IOC declined to comment, saying that “Cybersecurity is a top priority at the Olympic Games since a long time but we will not discuss details in public.”
The Kremlin did not respond to a request for comment. However, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs put out a statement Wednesday that accused BuzzFeed News of participating in an “information war against Russia,” claimed Russia is “ready to help investigate cyberattacks against any affected country,” and claimed that nations that oppose its actions in cyberspace “are building up their own military cyber capabilities, conducting illegal spying and violating human rights.”
Kim Yo Jong has been working away quietly in the background but now she’s stepping into the spotlight in South Korea.
The upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea became even more intriguing on Wednesday, when North Korea announced that Kim Yo Jong, the elusive sister of the country’s leader, would be attending the Opening Ceremonies.
Her visit marks the first time a member of the Kim family, which has ruled over North Korea since the country was partitioned after World War II, has traveled south of the DMZ dividing the two countries since the Korean War.
Wong Maye-e / AP
Her brother, Kim Jong Un, has been in power since the death of their father in 2011. Since then, he’s expanded the country’s nuclear stockpile and recently engaged in a high-stakes war of words with US President Donald Trump.
The North Korean side of feud is likely at least in part by Kim Yo Jong's design: her listing on a US Treasury Department sanctions list last year gave her official title as “Vice Director of the Workers' Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department.” Treasury describes the PAD as “North Korea’s primary agency responsible for both newspaper and broadcast censorship, among other things.”
– / AFP / Getty Images
Kim Yo Jong last year also took an spot on the politburo of North Korea’s all-powerful Workers’ Party as an alternate, a sign that observers said showcased just how large a role she plays in the government.
Damir Sagolj / Reuters
She’s reportedly only about 30 or 31, attended the same Swiss school as her brothers, and has long been groomed to take up the same support role that her aunt played for her father.
Ahn Young-joon / AP
Aside from attending the Opening Ceremonies, Kim will also have lunch with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the highest level meeting between the countries to take place in the south.
Moon has been an advocate for calming tensions on the peninsula, even as its allies in the United States and Japan have attempted to increase the pressure on North Korea.
Making things especially awkward, Kim's trip comes right at the same time as US Vice President Mike Pence is in town for the Winter Olympics as well. Protocol officials are already trying to figure out how to handle having the two of them on the same dais, just seats apart, as the 2018 Games open on Friday.
Yonhap News / Yonhap News/Newscom
While her trip is definitely a huge deal — one that plays into South Korea’s efforts to make the Pyeongchang games the “peace Olympics” — the goodwill isn’t likely to last once the last medal is awarded.
Analysts recently told BuzzFeed News that the state of tension between North Korea and the rest of the world will likely go right back to their normal high as soon as the Olympics are completed.
Yonhap News / Yonhap News/Newscom
NBC’s primetime coverage of the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, will kick off Thursday night with the start of the figure skating team competition. But if you tune in and kick yourself because you missed the much-anticipated Opening Ceremony, don’t worry — that isn’t happening until the following morning stateside.
For U.S. viewers who want to watch how things unfold in real-time, the event will be live-streamed online starting at 6 a.m. Friday on the NBC Sports website and app. (Korea is 14 hours ahead of the East Coast, which means 6 a.m. Friday is 8 p.m. local time.)
This will be the first time the Opening Ceremony will be streamed live for those in the U.S. For viewers in the United Kingdom, the Games will be available on BBC TV and digital platforms.
NBC’s Katie Couric and Mike Tirico (taking over for the now-retired Bob Costas) will be stepping in to cover the festivities from PyeongChang Olympic Stadium, which seats 35,000 and was built specifically for the opening and closing ceremonies.
While American television viewers won’t be able to catch the Opening Ceremony fully live — although Today will be airing reports from PyeongChang that morning— NBC will broadcast a delayed replay of the ceremony for primetime viewers starting at 8 p.m. E.T. on Friday.
The Opening Ceremony of the 23rd Winter Olympics will feature a grand parade of the dozens of countries competing in the Games, and it’ll be South Korea’s chance to showcase their culture through performance and spectacle on the world stage.
This year, in an highly anticipated gesture, athletes from both South and North Korea will be marching under one unified flag during the ceremony. It’s being touted as an important step in relations between the two feuding countries, and also symbolizes the power of sport.
This will all lead to the lighting of the Olympic torch, which will signal the official start of the Games.
For Team USA’s opening ceremony entrance, Ralph Lauren is providing Americana-inspired outfits that will feature slim-fit moto jeans, fringed cowboy gloves, a tricolor wool knit sweater, a navy bandana and brown suede mountaineering boots with red laces.
The 2018 Winter Olympics will air live starting Feb. 8. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.