Behind-the-Scenes Photos of What It’s Like in North Korea Today
North Korea is one of the most isolated and mysterious places on Earth. Dubbed the “hermit kingdom,” it is considered to be a crippled nation by the rest of the world because of its policy of self-reliance and isolation. The government tries to make it seem that the country is modern and thriving. To keep up their facade, it is illegal in North Korea to take certain photos and share them with the outside world. Still, visitors easily see through the lies and in recent years, a few brave photojournalists and visitors have smuggled out photos of the country that show the truth. The pictures you are about to see were extremely difficult to capture, considering all visitors are constantly watched by a designated chaperone. The photographers even risked their own lives to take them. Start reading to see some of the rarest undercover photos of what North Korea is really like today.
1. Desperate Fisherman
Pictured here is an elderly man floating on a tire on the banks of a river in rural North Korea to catch fish in order to feed his family. His resourcefulness stems from the pressing need to fend for himself seeing as though he won’t get enough produce rationed to him by the regime.
When famine struck North Korea in 1994, the country suffered a devastating shortage of food that resulted in the deaths of about 420,000 citizens. Since then, the state continues to struggle with food production because of its policy of self-reliance and local production called Juche. This in turn has resulted in most of the population suffering from severe malnutrition, waterborne diseases, and parasite infections.
2. Savoring Every Kernel
This is another banned image which brings home the dire conditions in North Korea. These kids, dressed in ragged clothes and shoes, were spotted by the photographer Eric Lafforgue on his visit to the country in 2014. He spotted them collecting maize kernels on the rural streets near Begaebong. North Koreans eat the cobs of maize before the crop is even developed.
The North Korean famine, which lasted from 1994-1998, coupled with the economic crisis and the government’s centrally-planned system known as the Arduous March, all led to harsh conditions in the North Korean peninsula which have been long-lasting. The famine stemmed from the mismanagement of imports and food production, as well as the loss of Soviet support after communism fell. A series of droughts and floods only exacerbated the already-disastrous reality.
3. Widespread Malnutrition
North Korean official prohibit any visitors from taking photos of the citizens suffering from malnutrition. This didn’t stop the photographer from capturing this young soldier brandishing his badge of Kim Il-sung and the hat that forms the staple item of all North Korean uniforms with its iconic communist star of the Workers’ party.
The majority of the population is desperate for food, owing to the destruction of food reserves, even in the supposedly better-off parts of the country. North Korea prioritizes produce for the Korean People’s Army because of its Songun “military-first” policy, but even the armed forces are poorly fed with meager rations.
4. Smiles All Round
Whether it’s in classrooms, public transport, state buildings, or private homes, portraits of the Kim Dynasty, otherwise known as the Mount Paektu Bloodline, hang on the walls as a sign of reverence. These include North Korea’s first leader Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il, the predecessors of Kim Jong-un, the current leader of the state.
Eric Lafforgue asked these kids to smile for the camera, and naturally they chose to pose under the portraits of the “Eternal President of the Republic” and the “Great General”. In saying that, the regime finds it extremely disrespectful for citizens to smile and make silly faces underneath the portraits.
5. It’s Just Another Manic Monday
This image encapsulates the gloomy weather matching the despondent faces of commuters on their way to work and school in the North Korean capital. It can get pretty crowded on the trams and trolleybuses, but when you need to get to work there is no other choice.
Both cars and fuel are extremely rare and expensive commodities in North Korea, so most citizens rely on the electrically-powered public transportation to get around. Compared to other poverty-stricken countries, the centrally-run transportation appears to be well-maintained, efficient, and cheap, but that’s only in the capital and larger cities. Outside Pyongyang, the roads have withered away and people use bicycles to travel.
6. Freedom of Movement
The bus, which looks like a 1960’s relic, fits in well with the North Korean countryside, but what’s pictured here is an extremely rare sight in the country. The state wants to know exactly where each citizen is all the time, so freedom of movement is extremely restricted.
Travel to the hermit state is tightly controlled – the only way to get in and out is via Beijing by train or plane, but movement within the country is also next to impossible. The average North Korean can’t leave his village because the military controls the entrance to every city and town. One needs permission to travel, and going against the law is considered a crime and form of espionage.
7. “Spice Up Your Life”
Yes, you heard it, the Moranbong band of North Korea is actually referred to as North Korea’s Spice Girls. This 20-member, all-female band which debuted in 2012, was carefully handpicked by Kim Jong-un himself. Kim Jong-un realized the need for some kind of “modern” pop music in North Korea in order to satisfy young people, women, and the elite in Pyongyang.
The band performs pop fusion music and attempts to span many genres. Fans have described the Moranbong’s music as symphonic, though many outsiders will just think it sounds a bit dated. The band’s music is still supervised by the state with music that features military themes and therefore, the Moranbang Band is also used to entertain military and infrastructure personnel.
8. A Means of Escape
While the North Korean government enforces countless restrictions on its citizens, one of its surprising stances is on the use of marijuana. Many visitors and defectors of the state have reported that North Korea doesn’t impose any laws against the sale and consumption of cannabis.
In fact, when freelance writer from England, Darmon Richter, visited the country, he was pleasantly surprised when he was able to buy a full bag of weed, called yoksam there, at an indoor market in a rural town. He smoked it along with his guide in parks, restaurants, bars, and at national monuments.
9. A Sinister Kind of Pristine
The Workers’ Party of Korea takes pride in its federal buildings and monuments, which means the façade of buildings and the surrounding areas are kept in tiptop condition. It goes without saying that the portraits of the leaders serve as an integral feature of the design.
It’s considered the ultimate form of espionage to take a picture of the Pyongyang government building, so the photographer was definitely brave. However, nothing out of the ordinary seems to going on in the image; just government bureaucrats and people walking around and getting on with their day.
10. An Ever-Present Authority
As a form of inspiration and intimidation, there are mandatory portraits of the Kim Dynasty all over North Korea. So, no matter the time of day and no matter where they are, North Koreans are constantly reminded of the dynasty’s power.
With these portraits placed in every public and private space, the citizens of the state are made to feel like they are always under the watchful eye of North Korea’s great leaders, who are revered like gods. They serve as a constant reminder of the power of the Kim Dynasty since the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea —the official name of North Korea— in 1948.
11. An Education
If children want to earn an education in North Korea it comes at a hefty price. Students need to source their own chairs and desks, and even heating in the winter, in order to attend school. There’s also not much time for homework because they need to work after hours to contribute to the effort of the state.
A lot of the time, teachers are bribed to keep quiet about parents keeping their children at home, or to remain discreet about female students avoiding manual labor in order to focus on their studies and homework.
12. “Let Us Trim Our Hair”
“Let Us Trim Our Hair in Accordance with the Socialist Lifestyle” was a TV program aired as a five-part installment in 2004 to propagate the North Korean clothing and grooming standards as part of the government’s propaganda policies. The show was broadcast on Korean Central Television in Pyongyang and recommended ideal haircut styles for men and women.
The TV show claimed that long hair could negatively affect human intelligence as it robs the rest of the body of essential nutrients it uses to grow. Women are allowed to pick from 14 state-approved hairstyles, with married women instructed to opt for bobs and single ladies given the choice to sport longer curls. Men are required to keep their hair shorter than two in. (5 cm.) and to choose from a range of 10 hairstyles.
13. A Guided Visit
When tourists arrive in North Korea, their passports are confiscated for the duration of the visit and they are designated a guide or government minder. Visitors to the hermit state also need to undergo a compulsory briefing in China about North Korean etiquette. For example, it is forbidden to take pictures of only parts of the body of a statue of the Kim Dynasty.
Upon arrival, officials examine phones and camera for GPS capabilities. The government chaperone takes the visitors to specific locations and instructs them as to when they need to wake up and when they need to go to sleep. Some tourists have even shared stories of being watched in their hotel rooms.
14. A Staged Commute
What appears to be a photo portraying a bustling train station in the capital city Pyongyang, is more likely a government-sanctioned picture captured by a tourist. The train station seems like your average station with well-dressed commuters milling about, but there is more to it than meets the eye.
Trains are mainly used to transport tourists around the country which means there is about one train scheduled each day, and therefore the station closes early. The picture looks staged with actors because by the time this picture was snapped, the train had stopped running for the day.
15. Inner-City Pride
Pyongyang is the capital and largest city of North Korea. It was completely destroyed during the Korean War and was rebuilt from the bottom up according to Kim Il-sung’s designs. Government chaperones take visitors to this same spot every day; probably to emphasize the atmosphere of modernity that these buildings exude.
Kim Il-sung’s vision was an amalgamation of Russian and Korean architecture with public buildings boasting terraced landscaping surrounded by tree-lined boulevards. His desire was to boost the morale of the North Koreans with an orderly city plan. However, other parts of the city reflect a totally different reality as you’ll see next.
16. A Shanty Town
This picture portrays a stark contrast to downtown Pyongyang. The buildings are dilapidated and some appear to be abandoned and neglected. While the Workers’ Party of Korea does take pride in the exterior of its buildings to create a certain impression, it doesn’t hold as fast to its regulations in the smaller towns and cities.
A lot of towns and cities in North Korea are, in fact, uninhabited. In order to make North Korea appear to be prosperous and booming, the government occasionally instructs entire populations of towns to uproot and relocate to a different town. This is so that when satellite images or spy planes manage to capture images of the country, the hermit kingdom doesn’t appear so isolated.
17. Busy at Work
The unemployment rate in North Korea is extremely low, standing at just 4.3%, because every single citizen is provided with some kind of job or manual labor to do. These ladies sweep the streets and pavement at the Mansu Hill Grand Monument and the surrounding government buildings as a form of public service, which means there is no litter in the cities and everything is clean and orderly.
There are soldiers watching from every corner, so these street sweepers can’t slack for even one moment. Despite all the hard work, North Korea’s economy is in a dire state. On average, a yearly income ranges from $1,000 – $2,000 per capita, whereas South Koreans earn about $20,000 per capita in a year.
18. Fading Away
Satellite photos taken in 2014 reveal the degree to which North Korea’s is lacking compared to its neighbors South Korea and China. Since the ’90s, the hermit kingdom has faded into complete darkness because of the lack of fuel and resources.
This satellite image released by the International Space Station portrays a dark spot between the illuminated China to the North West and South Korea to the South East of North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang. In South Korea, the average person consumes an average of 10,162 kilowatt hours of power per year, while North Korean only use 739 kilowatts.
19. Fake It Till You Make It
Tour guides employed by the Workers’ Party of Korea are instructed to show tourists how modern North Korea is by visiting the average North Korean family’s home. Pictured here are two women typing at their computers; only that’s all they are doing – typing into thin air.
Because of electricity shortages, the computers are not actually connected to the power. When the electricity is turned on, North Koreans have extremely limited access to the Internet. In general, one needs special permission by the government to use the internet and special authorization is usually given to government officials and foreigners only. North Korea does have some fiber optic and broadband infrastructure, but only between major institutions.
20. The Grand People’s Study
The Grand People’s Study opened on Kim Il-sung’s 70th birthday in 1982 as a sanctuary of learning and force for the North Korean nation. The goal was to intellectualize the public with the various rooms in the center dedicated to different fields of arts, culture, and studies. In essence, the center was created to develop the citizens’ socialist training and to foster greater reverence for the Kim Dynasty and it’s Juche philosophy. Peppered along the hallways of the center are heroic scenes and figures from the Korean War.
Pictured here is the Music Appreciation room where one can listen to Korean and classical music. Other rooms have TVs, books, computers, and other equipment to inculcate the North Korean ideals or what others would term propaganda. The Grand People’s Study is located at the head of Kim Il-sung Square right opposite the Juche Tower in order to serve as the backdrop for all national events that take place there.
21. Shopping with the Locals
This photo was secretly taken by Michal Huniewicz without anyone noticing. It captures exactly what a grocery store looks like in North Korea with its empty shelves and fridges and limited produce. The government provides each citizen with a ration according to what it sees fit, but the reality is that it’s a measly amount. This Pyongyang supermarket is where the above average, although not elite, echelons of society shop for their goods.
Tourists are not allowed to shop in the same supermarkets and shops as the locals because then they would notice how little is available to eat. One can mainly buy leeks, turnips, and apples. This picture is considered illegal, so when a policeman noticed Huniewicz milling about the supermarket, he was instructed to leave because the area is only designated to locals.
22. It’s a “Jangmadang” Kind of Day
Captured here are some North Koreans selling goods on the black market, otherwise known as Jangmadang, which stands for market grounds in Korean. Owing to the North Korean famine, a large informal economy has burgeoned , and most of North Korea’s citizens depend on these markets for survival.
Since the outbreak of the famine in the ’90s, black markets emerged in order to somewhat combat the effects of the policy of Juche implemented by the the Workers’ Party of Korea and the paltry government rations. The government reluctantly tolerates black markets and small-scale farmers, however, they are strictly regulated. This hasn’t stopped widespread corruption and illegal activities from proliferating. Some experts even suggest that the black markets have spurred some government reforms and changes in the economy.
23. Working the Farm
The children of North Korea spend their days on the farms, but not playing around like some would assume. Instead, they help adults toil the land at the farm collectives scattered around the country. Even in school, many children are forced into hard and manual labor which means they don’t really achieve a proper education. Rich kids can avoid manual labor by attending very good schools, but they are still forced into some kind of propaganda function for the Kim dynasty.
Children cannot refuse to work the land and can face public executions if they refuse. A lot of the time, children are forced into these hard conditions when they live in prison camps and work the land because their parents were punished. This is called the “three generations of punishment” rule in North Korea, whereby three generations of a family face state punishment for one person’s wrongdoing. Families are assigned a Songbun, which is a status ascribed to a family unit according to its loyalty to the government, as well as the social, economic, and political behavior stemming back three generations.
24. The Grass Isn’t Greener on the Other Side
It is no secret that most of the North Korean population suffers from starvation and malnutrition. Pictured below is a man collecting grass in a public park for food. The policy of Juche has resulted in stunted physical and mental development.
Studies have in fact proven that since the Korean War in the ’50s and the famine in the ’90s, which have in turn resulted country’s policy of self-reliance called Juche, a whole generation of North Koreans is actually shorter by at least 2 inches (5 centimeters) than the South Koreans. Not only has an entire generation shrunk in size, the IQs of the generation are much lower because of the lack of food, healthcare, and medicine.
25. The Perfect Line
Queuing is somewhat of a national sport for North Koreans. This picture eloquently portrays citizens of the country patiently lining up for public transport every morning to go to work. Very few private cars are available in the country, so North Koreans are instructed to maintain order while they wait for buses and tramways every day.
Photographer Eric Lafforgue managed to snap this image that perfectly represents two key mantras of the hermit kingdom: discipline and order. However, other countries could learn a thing or two about standing in line from these disciplined North Koreans.
26. Just an Ilusion
According to this image, the roads in North Korea look in tiptop shape, but the traffic officer seems to be directing non-existent traffic. The truth is that most of the country has unpaved and broken roads because the government doesn’t invest in fixing and building the infrastructure of most rural areas.
If you travel through North Korea, you will notice that only three percent of the roads are actually tarred and paved, which means that out of 15,878 miles of roads in the country, just under 450 miles of them are paved. That means only 2.83 percent of all roadways in the country are easily accessible.
27. A Precarious Situation
Although it seems like North Korea has an extensive infrastructure, most buildings, bridges, and other public amenities are crumbling and in dire need of modernization. The number of private cars and trucks is limited, and the 3,000-kilometer-long railway network only provides 70 percent of transport for passengers and about 90 percent for annual cargo traffic.
The shortage of oil and gas, as well as the poor telecommunication system, do not help this desperate situation from improving. These problems are unfortunately unlikely to be solved by North Korea on its own because the government doesn’t regard the country’s infrastructure as important as other industries and would rather pay more attention to the military.
28. Dinner with a View
For the elite citizens who can afford to eat at restaurants, dinner wouldn’t be complete without the TV blaring in the background. However, one cannot choose what to watch because there are programs about national leaders and the history of North Korea playing in the background 24/7 in order to further the Kim dynasty’s propaganda agenda.
While the faces on the TV might not be ideal to induce a large appetite, the customers have no choice but to listen to the tirades as if its background music. This kind of propaganda eventually fits in like the rest of the furniture and almost becomes that nagging white noise one eventually forgets about.
29. Bon Appétit
Expect this to be the typical restaurant setting if you decide to visit the capital of Pyongyang. As a rule of thumb, the restaurants that tourists frequent are empty because locals are not allowed to patronize these places at all. That doesn’t mean the North Koreans aren’t prepared to entertain those who do visit.
This restaurant, decorated with murals of holy places in the country like Mt. Paektu, provides karaoke and all sorts of interesting Korean cuisine. Dining out at a restaurant of choice isn’t an option in the hermit kingdom seeing that the tour package includes meals and designated restaurants in the itinerary. Nightlife is almost nonexistent seeing that visitors need the permission of their government chaperones to leave the hotel for a pre-arranged trip.
30. Up Close and Personal
This image is illegal for so many reasons. Michal Huniewicz certainly took a risk when he snapped this shot of a man relieving himself on the side of the road. Firstly, it is forbidden for this man to commit such a crime because the government prides itself on keeping Pyongyang clean.
If Huniewicz was caught he would have been in serious trouble for taking an illegal picture of the country’s capital and for capturing a man vandalizing public property in such a manner. The government takes the meaning of cleanliness very seriously, which is clear from this image as there isn’t one piece of litter in sight.
31. It’s Not What It Seems
It’s no wonder that Eric Lafforgue was banned for life from North Korea after he released his pictures to the public. This picture innocently captures a man resting after a long day’s work on the rocks by the sea in Chilbo. However, Lafforgue’s guide told him to delete it. He said Western media would think this man is dead.
The North Korean government takes great offense to these kinds of pictures being released to the public because a lot of them reveal the harsh conditions and severe deprivation most of the citizens endure on a daily basis in the hermit kingdom. While this image seems extremely harmless, maybe the guide knew something he couldn’t reveal to Lafforgue.
32. What Lies Beneath
Pyongyang boasts the deepest subway system in the world because it doubles as a bomb shelter. Eric Lafforgue’s guide told him to delete this photo immediately because it shows the tunnels which are considered a state secret. Lafforgue, on the other hand, was more concerned with the girls walking hand-in-hand towards the staircase.
The metro track reaches over 360 feet (110 meters) into the ground and does not have any track segments or stations above the ground. The government allows tourists to use the metro system, but only within guided groups with no one diverting on the way.
33. Fenced In
The Tumen River is surrounded by barbed wire fences on either side as it marks the border between North Korea and China. There are guard houses erected along the fence to monitor cross-border activity ranging from travel to simple phone calls.
Since 2011, the number of North Koreans allowed to visit China and South Korea has halved. Maybe it is an attempt to prevent people from defecting? Most people who defect manage to leave through the help of Chinese brokers who are ethnically Korean, but there is a hefty price to pay. In order to abscond to China, a North Korean needs to pay $8,000. This is beyond the means of most of the citizens, which means that most of them are there to stay.
34. Rolling with the Times
Sometimes even the strictest isolation and restrictions can’t stop teenagers from enjoying things any other teenager would do. Pictured here are schoolkids at a the Golden Lane bowling alley in Pyongyang. Places like these provide an opportunity for tourists to get close to regular North Korean citizens.
Tourists have reported that the Golden Alley is crowded and loud, unlike most other places their guides take them to. Most people would regard the bowling alley as slightly dated, but it’s like any other bowling alley and even has an arcade on the second floor. What surprises tourists the most is that they don’t expect any sense of normality in North Korea. What’s even more interesting is that this place is one of the few public areas with English signs, and for once, nothing seem staged.
35. And More Rolling …
Most tourists report that Pyongyang feels like a different planet because of its reclusive and stagnant atmosphere, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t several scenes of normality that one would witness in any other city in the world. It’s moments like these that are worth capturing.
Kim Il-Sung Square, usually the backdrop for military events and mass parades, is also home to crowds of children enjoying some rollerblading. Their clothes and roller blades appear very modern and new, creating an even stronger feeling of modernity and freedom.
36. Picasso in the Making
When Eric Lafforgue took this photograph during his visit to North Korea in 2014, he was scolded by his guide for snapping this shot seeing that the picture was unfinished. The Workers’ Party of Korea loves its murals of the holy places and important figures.
North Korean artists paint spectacular paintings of scenes approved by the Kim dynasty, and most visitors get the impression that the art is just another channel to spread propaganda. However, the man in this picture seems to be painting a regular nature scene.
37. Life Is Too Short to Wear Boring Clothes!
Women love to keep up with the trends and look fashionable on all corners of the Earth, and North Korea is no different in this regard. North Korean women might not read Vogue or Elle, but they do catch a glimpse of what’s hot by watching TV or observing the very few foreigners who pay a visit to the country.
With China as its neighbor, clothing trends are accessible but the selection remains limited and reserved for the elite. The woman in this shop clutches her baby while she browses through the store. The owner of the shop might not be impressed if she’s the first one in for the day because it’s regarded as bad luck for the first customer to be female in North Korea.
38. It’s Off to Work We Go!
Pictured here is a group of women walking to work along a pavement on the outskirts of Pyongyang with their shovels in tow. It might seem strange to see women working in manual labor when the staunch Korean patriarchal society demands the perfect female homemaker, but this scene is all too commonplace for a very specific reason.
North Korea actually encouraged gender equality before South Korea, but not to emancipate women from the echelons of patriarchal society. The women are allowed to work due to all the damage incurred during the Korean War. Most of North Korea was razed to the ground and the motive was to re-build the infrastructure and economy as fast as possible. Women played a huge role in this endeavor. In fact, the Workers’ Party of Korea bestowed industrious women with the label “hard-working heroines.”
39. Say Cheese
Eric Lafforgue managed to snap this photo and save it on his memory card during his trip to North Korea in 2014. The guides told Lafforgue to delete this picture of a seemingly innocent teen enjoying a drink for two reasons.
The guide labeled this photo illegal because it captured the soldiers in the background, and it is forbidden to take any photos related to the military. However, the stranger reason the guide objected to this picture is the teen’s choice to wear his cap backwards, which was deemed strange by the guide. Fortunately, Lafforgue’s photos were backed up onto a second memory card in the camera.
40. Hold Up
Although it’s easier to take photographs in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, the place is still swarming with soldiers, rendering it the most guarded border in the world. This zone is informally called the 38th Parallel because it traverses the Korean Peninsula, dividing the area in half.
This soldier doesn’t look too impressed with a camera getting up in his face, and it’s probably better to avoid getting up close and personal with the military personnel over there. According to the North Koreans, this “wall” serves as a buffer against a South Korean invasion and prevents North Korean citizens from defecting to the South.
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