Few people can claim to have heard the chilling sound of a North Korean ballistic missile flying overhead, but on September 15, 2017, Lindsey Miller, a musical director living in Pyongyang, recalls being jolted from her bed by a peculiar rumbling.
The unfamiliar sound was the test of a Hwasong-12 intermediate range ballistic missile – designed to deliver nuclear warheads – and which was launched from a site near Pyongyang airport, flying approximately 2,300 miles and setting off emergency alerts in Japan.
Ms Miller woke with a start at 6am and ran into the garden outside her home at the British embassy. “I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it and it was just like a plane going overhead, a very distant plane but it didn’t fade as quickly,” she said. “It was at a time when we were all on edge.”
The anecdote features in her new book, North Korea – Like Nowhere Else, a rare photo exploration of the reclusive state, which is due to be released on Thursday.
Ms Miller, an award-winning composer from Glasgow, was granted a unique window into life in the hermit kingdom when accompanying her husband on a diplomatic posting from 2017 to 2019.
The period was one of the most tumultuous diplomatic times in North Korea’s recent history, spanning a spike in tensions between Pyongyang and the US amid fears of nuclear war, to a sudden and unprecedented détente that saw Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump meet in Singapore.
But Ms Miller’s book, the first of its kind by a westerner living within North Korea’s closed borders, focuses mainly on portraying a fresh snapshot of daily life in the authoritarian regime and her human-to-human interactions with ordinary North Koreans in one of the most closed societies in the world.
“I thought this is an amazing opportunity to go somewhere in a capacity where hardly anybody else gets to go, in a way that few people get to go. And there’s got to be something there that I can explore,” she said in an interview.
As a foreign resident, she was able to roam without minders around the capital, Pyongyang, hike solo in the mountains and share beers and Netflix with North Korean train conductors on the long journey to China.
She was able to debate about Brexit and favourite music bands with millennials, wander off the beaten track to impoverished, unseen corners, and to enjoy the beauty of Mount Myohyang on weekends with picnicking families and their karaoke machines.
“People don’t sit around talking about Kim Jong-un all day. People have lives,” she said.
The book delves into a well of human emotions as she tries to connect with her new home. At times she is haunted by the deprivation of countryside workers, but also amused by the absurdity of sitting a driving test with an instructor whose breath stank of soju, the local alcoholic brew.
Ms Miller said she had to lay aside her preconceptions of the country. “I think it’s really easy to assume that we know on a very generalised, simplified level what life is like for people there,” she said.
But her photos and anecdotes explore the extent to which honest, genuine relationships can exist under the oppressive scrutiny of a cruel and totalitarian regime, as well as offering a glimpse of genuine curiosity and friendly gestures from the people she encounters.
“It’s really difficult developing relationships with people because there is no clear line between authenticity and falseness,” she explained.
Her work describes how relating to people can, at times, be a frustrating “diplomatic dance” that can never truly be extricated from the country’s harsh political regime where citizens are strictly controlled and face stiff penalties for resistance.
“You do find yourself, two people, stuck in the middle of this cage, trying to balance a natural curiosity, careful small talk, and have a conversation about something, but also about nothing, and then form some kind of friendship,” she said.
In one of her most memorable encounters, she tells of how an older man approached her in a Pyongyang waterpark, thrusting an inflatable ring in the shape of a duck into her hands.
“It had a tiny, brand new North Korean baby, all swaddled up, fast asleep in the middle,” she said, recounting how they had tried to exchange pleasantries and a snatched conversation about family, until an official in a suit suddenly shut down their spontaneous, joyful moment.
“Instead of relying on in-depth, emotional conversations with people, it’s actually more about smaller cherished moments where maybe that lid lifts and you do see a bit of someone that they are willing to share with you and you feel very privileged,” she observed on her time in North Korea.
Ms Miller said she hoped her book would change the narrative about the pariah state away from the usual politics, and open a window for readers to see people as human beings rather than products of their environment.
“It’s really important to shift the focus onto the human beings who are there and hopefully in doing so create a new kind of conversation,” she said.