Editor's note: The following post is by AP's David Guttenfelder
In this April 15, 2012 photo, North Koreans rest under portraits of the late leaders, Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il, at the end of a mass military parade in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square to celebrate 100 years since the birth of Kim Il Sung. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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.
In this April 8, 2012 photo, North Korean soldiers stand guard in front of the country's Unha-3 rocket at Sohae Satellite Station in Tongchang-ri, North Korea. The Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite was launched on April 13, 2012 but failed to reach orbit. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 15, 2012 photo, North Korean rockets roll past flower waving civilians and a soldier standing at attention during a mass military parade in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square to celebrate 100 years since the birth of the late North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 14, 2012, photo, North Korean military members chat as they line up at a stadium in Pyongyang during a mass meeting called by the Central Committee of North Korea's ruling party. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Aug. 8, 2012 photo, North Koreans gather under a diving board platform to watch as fellow swimmers hesitate to try a dive at a newly opened swimming pool in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Aug. 13, 2012 photo, North Koreans try to move a truck, retrofitted to run on a barrel of burning wood, in a riverbed near Ungok, North Korea, during operations to aid victims of heavy flooding. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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.
Last spring, as North Korea was preparing for the 100th birthday of its late founder, Kim Il Sung, citizens practiced for weeks, even months, for the large-scale military parade and public folk dancing that was part of the celebration.
One morning, on our way through town, we saw small groups of performers walking home from an early rehearsal. They wore their brightly colored traditional clothing, but covered over with warm winter coats. In their hands were the red bunches of artificial flowers that they shake and wave in honor of country's leaders during mass rallies.
From the van window, I saw a woman standing alone, holding her bouquet as she waited for the bus. It was, to me, a more telling moment than the actual events we would cover a week later, a simple but provocative glimpse into one person's life.
For this project, I used a Hasselblad XPAN, a panoramic-view film camera that is no longer manufactured. Throughout the year, I wore it around my neck and shot several dozen rolls of color negative film in between my normal coverage of news and daily life with my AP-issued digital cameras.
The XPAN is quiet, discrete, manual and simple. Because it has a wide panoramic format, it literally gives me a different view of North Korea. The film also reflects how I feel when I'm in North Korea, wandering among the muted or gritty colors, and the fashions and styles that often seem to come from a past generation.
In this April 14, 2012, photo, North Korean military members applaud the country's leaders, including Kim Jong Un, from their seats on the field of a stadium in Pyongyang during a mass meeting called by North Korea's ruling party. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Feb. 16, 2012 photo, North Korean soldiers march and carry a portrait of Kim Jong Il during a military parade at Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang commemorating what would have been the late North Korean leader's 70th birthday. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Sept. 12, 2012 photo, ears of field corn lay in piles along a roadside during the autumn corn harvest on a farm on the edge of Kaesong, North Korea. It was a tough year for North Korea's farmers, who grappled with an extended dry spell in the spring, followed by heavy rains from a series of summer storms and typhoon. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 3, 2012 photo, North Korean students practice playing the accordions at the Samjiyon Schoolchildrens' Palace in Samjiyon, North Korea. The facility was built for children to take part in after school programs in the arts, sciences, sports, computer and vocational training. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this Sept. 10, 2012 photo, a woman enters the front doors of the Grand People's Study House where a statue of the late leader Kim Il Sung stands in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this April 15, 2012 photo, North Koreans gather along the banks of the Taedong River in Pyongyang to watch a fireworks display to celebrate 100 years since the birth of the late North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In my photography, I try to maintain a personal point of view, a critical eye, and shoot with a style that I think of as sometimes-whimsical and sometimes-melancholy. My aim is to open a window for the world on a place that is widely misunderstood and that would otherwise rarely be seen by outsiders.