The Mystifying Nation of North Korea: Unique Photos from the World’s Most Isolated Country

As we all know, North Korea is under a dictatorship in which immigration and emigration are strictly controlled. Citizens of North Korea are not allowed to freely travel around their own country, let alone other countries. With all the mystery that surrounds the nation, people around the world are more curious than ever to know what it’s like to live in such a society.

You may have heard North Korea is referred to as the Hermit Kingdom. The term is used to refer to any country, organization or society that deliberately walls itself off, metaphorically or physically, from the rest of the world. This is why North Korea has been considered a leading example of what a hermit kingdom is.

Considering how nosey we all are, let’s look at some rarely seen photos from North Korea.

Government Approved Photo-Op

Most of the following photos were taken by Eric Lafforgue, a photographer that went into North Korea to document what it’s like inside. But before looking at his photos, let’s see an example of what types of images the North Korean government chooses deliberately to release. Here we see Kim Jong-un touring a modern factory, surrounded by smiling North Koreans. As pleased as they may seem, the truth is much less rosy.

Government Approved Photo-Op

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

The Roads are Their Playgrounds

For years, cars in North Korea were limited to military officials or high-ranking party members only. But in recent years, vehicles have become more common in certain areas, which has been something of a learning curve for many North Koreans who have never driven in their lives. Lafforgue said, “As cars have become more widespread in Pyongyang, the peasants are still getting accustomed to seeing them. Kids play in the middle of the main avenues just like before when there were no cars in sight.”

The Roads are Their Playgrounds

Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images

The Pink Swan

Something like a needle in a haystack or even a diamond in the rough, this woman is pretty in pink in this photo showing the North Korean military. By the way, taking photos of the North Korean military, which is one of the world’s largest armies at a total of 1.2 million men, is strictly prohibited.

The Pink Swan

Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images

Women are in the military too, and their ability to stay in unison is remarkable…

Soldiers in Unison

Their unison is uncanny. Here we see the Korean People’s Army (KPA) female soldiers march during a mass rally on Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang on September 9, 2018. Thousands of troops followed by artillery and tanks paraded through the city as the country celebrated its 70th birthday.

Soldiers in Unison

Photo by ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

Eyes on the Dolphins!

Believe it or not, North Korea does have amusement parks and entertainment, too. Some that would even be recognizable to Western audiences. Take this Delphinium for example. It allows citizens to get up close and personal with sea life. People are even allowed to take photos of the animals, just not the soldiers who make up most of the crowd.

Eyes on the Dolphins!

Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images

Don’t Mind the Missiles

South Koreans walk past replicas of a North Korean Scud-B missile and South Korean Nike missile (front) at the Korean War Memorial. The country is so full of missiles everywhere that citizens are not fazed by it at all. It is simply a part of their culture that they’ve gotten used to. For all they know, it’s normal.

Don’t Mind the Missiles

Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Next, see what an organized crowd looks like…

When a Crowd is Organized

Unlike other countries in which a new year’s celebration is quite chaotic and far from organized, North Koreans stand in an ultra-ordered fashion. This shot shows a mass demonstration in support of a New Year address made by Kim Jong-Un, theNorth Korean leader, at Kim Il-Sung square in Pyongyang on January 4, 2018.

When a Crowd is Organized

Photo by KIM WON-JIN/AFP/Getty Images)

The Side of the Road

This is a rather unpleasant shot, showing a group of women resting on the side of the road after a long and hard day’s work. The looks of exhaustion on their faces speak louder than any words the government can use to describe their workforce.

The Side of the Road

Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images

A Grand Statue

Look up, and you see a grand statue of Kim Il Sung. Look down, and you see something out of place. A broom. Lafforgue said how “This is never supposed to happen: a broom standing on the base of Kim Il Sung’s statue in Mansudae, in Pyongyang.” Government officials would likely be furious.

A Grand Statue

Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images

Subway Station/Bomb Shelter

While we may focus on the two women holding hands in the Pyongyang subway station, which makes it a cute photo, it’s hiding one of the militarized country’s secrets in plain sight. Lafforgue explained that “Pyongyang’s subway system is the deepest in the world as it doubles as a bomb shelter. Someone saw me taking this picture and told me to delete it since it included the tunnel.

Subway Station/Bomb Shelter

Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images

In North Korea, there’s a rather grey market…

The Grey Market

Due to the nation’s massive poverty, especially in the countryside, North Koreans have taken to selling goods from the so-called “grey market” (meaning the items aren’t contraband like on the black market, yet also aren’t being sold completely legally either). Thus, it’s a grey legal area. From these roadside carts, citizens sell all kinds of things, from cigarettes to candy to food.

The Grey Market

Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images

The next photo was taken during the country’s 50th anniversary…

Celebrating its Homes

During Lafforgue’s trip to North Korea, the nation was celebrating its 50th anniversary. And part of the festivities involved in the celebration is to give tours of homes and other places. While each of these homes was strategically selected by the government, occasionally you’ll see something like the below picture, where the bathroom doubles as a cistern, a type of water tank.

Celebrating its Homes

Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images

A BBQ for the Elite

According to Lafforgue, poverty wasn’t the only economic layer that is off limits. He explained, “Showing poverty is forbidden, but displaying wealth is also a big taboo in North Korea. In a park on a Sunday afternoon, I found this car that belongs to one of Pyongyang’s elite. The owners were having a BBQ.”

A BBQ for the Elite

Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images

Soldiers are not allowed to be seen relaxing, as is seen in the next photo…

Forbidden Leisure Time

Just as taking pictures of the military is off limits, it’s especially frowned-upon to show soldiers enjoying any type of leisure time. These two soldiers, seen having a smoke, betray the image of the tight and impersonal façade of the North Korean military that the country’s tries to spread.

Forbidden Leisure Time

Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images

Supermarkets of the Elite

In most areas of the world, a trip to the supermarket is seen as a casual errand to run. However, like many other things in North Korea, it’s a different thing altogether. As Lafforgue explains, “You can find all kinds of food and drink in Pyongyang’s two supermarkets where things are sold in both euros and wins. They even have Evian water. Only the elite can shop there.”

Supermarkets of the Elite

Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images

Next, a glimpse into some risky work conditions…

Less Than Safe Working Conditions

While the above scene may look like a mistake or something unplanned and even embarrassing, it’s actually just a regular real-life photo of construction workers. Clearly, the working conditions that North Koreans have to deal with are less than safe.

Less Than Safe Working Conditions

Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images

No, the next photo is not of homeless people…

Official Paranoia

Eric Lafforgue explained how paranoid North Korean officials are about the outside perception of their country: “Paranoia is strong in North Korean minds. I took this picture at a funfair of a tired mother and child resting on a bench. I was asked to delete the picture since the guides were certain I would have said those people were homeless.”

Official Paranoia

Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images

The next photo proves that Lafforgue is a bit of a rebel…

A Daring Perspective

Photography of the country’s many statues and monuments is generally allowed, but there’s one angle that’s technically forbidden. “It is absolutely forbidden to take a picture of the Kim statues from the back. It is considered very rude,” Lafforgue said. We can see that Lafforgue is a bit of a rebel.

A Daring Perspective

Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images

Teamwork

Speaking of backsides, here’s another “behind the scenes’ angle. In one of Lafforgue’s more questionable photos, he captured this group of North Korean soldiers who banded together to push a bus that had broken down. Looks like true teamwork.

Teamwork

Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images

There aren’t many buses and cars, so people resort to….

Rural Transportation in the City

Due to the lack of access to cars and relatively little public transportation for citizens to use, many North Koreans have to find other ways to travel. For example, this Pyongyang resident found a low-tech way to get from point A to point B. As an added benefit, traveling this way will often help one avoid the relentless government checkpoints.

Rural Transportation in the City

Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images

They’re Always Watching

In this photo, Eric Lafforgue captured a student studying on a computer at Pyongyang’s Studies Palace. Although studying is clearly allowed, the whole notion of learning and expanding one’s mind is allowed to a certain limit. The paintings above, looking over everyone, serve as a reminder that they’re always watching you.

They’re Always Watching

Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images

A Family of Dogs

Here we see a family of dogs look walking around an operational trench system overlooking the main highway leading towards North Korea, near the Demilitarized Zone on February 7, 2018, near Panmunjom, South Korea.

A Family of Dogs

Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

Next, a look into the seriousness of the military…

Full Nuclear Statehood

This photo is from December 1, 2017, where soldiers attended a mass rally to celebrate the North’s declaration on November 29 that it had achieved full nuclear statehood, on Kim Il-Sung Square in Pyongyang on. Kim Jong-Un declared the country had achieved a ‘historic cause’ of becoming a nuclear state.

Full Nuclear Statehood

Photo by KIM WON-JIN/AFP/Getty Images

He Would Have Been 105

On April 15, 2017, this picture was released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) showing Korean People’s ballistic missiles displayed through Kim Il-Sung square during a military parade in Pyongyang. It marked the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung.

He Would Have Been 105

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

Santa’s Elves?

No, those aren’t Santa’s elves. They’re North Korean cheerleaders attending the Men’s Slalom at the Yongpyong Alpine Centre at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games in China on February 22, 2018. Even when they’re in another country, they manage to stay in uniform, both in how they dress and how they assemble together.

Santa’s Elves?

Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Next, a look at a town that meets its giant neighbors, Russia and China…

Giant Neighbors

This rather glum photo shows us North Korean citizens walking along a road near Rason, which is a town located at the northeastern tip of North Korea. It’s where the isolated country meets its giant neighbors China and Russia.

Giant Neighbors

Photo by ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

The Women’s Ice Hockey Team

North Korea had a Women’s Ice Hockey friendly match against Sweden on February 4, 2018, in South Korea. The match was held ahead of the Olympic Games where South and North Korea competed for the first time as a unified team in a sport at the Olympic Games. Talk about making history.

The Women’s Ice Hockey Team

Photo by Woohae Cho/Getty Images

Next, a look at what a water park in North Korea looks like…

Water Park Fun

In this photo, swimmer Ri Song-Hui, aged 21, poses for a portrait at the Munsu Water Park in Pyongyang. The water park seems quite small, and the sun isn’t shining. So it doesn’t look like the most fun is being had. But it’s definitely a positive thing to see that water parks are part of their culture, and not just missiles and the military.

Water Park Fun

Photo by ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

Standing Proud

Members of a North Korean military women’s band took part in the 2018 International March for Peace, Prosperity, and Reunification of Korea in Pyongyang. 500 Pyongyang residents and 150 members of international organizations took part in the procession in support of Korean unification. It was just as the country celebrated the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the DPRK.

Standing Proud

Photo by Alexander Demianchuk\TASS via Getty Images

A Lonely Path

A woman walks her bicycle down a dirt path, seen from a window of the motorcade that was carrying US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as it made its way to a guest house in Pyongyang on July 6, 2018. The photo is quite remarkable as it portrays a single person in a vast area, seemingly isolated. A metaphor?

A Lonely Path

Photo by ANDREW HARNIK/AFP/Getty Images

Their First Goal

Jong Il Gwan (third from the right) of North Korea’s soccer team celebrated scoring his side’s first goal to make it 1-1 with his team during the EAFF E-1 Men’s Football Championship between China and North Korea at Ajinomoto Stadium on December 16, 2017. It was in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan.

Their First Goal

Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images

Next, another isolated view…

The Port in Rason

This man is walking along a dock at the port in Rason, the tip of the country that meets with China and Russia. It’s remarkable that a country as isolated as North Korea sits right next to two powerhouses. One can only imagine that North Koreans look beyond their borders and wonder…

The Port in Rason

Photo by ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

Like Shining Stars

This photo was taken on December 3, 2018, showing pedestrians walking past the portraits of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il across Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang. Yet another “friendly” reminder that they are always watching you. Or them, rather.

Like Shining Stars

Photo by ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

Next, a slightly unamused student…

Less Than Impressed

Students attend a class at the Kang Pan Sok revolutionary school outside Pyongyang. The Kang Pan Sok School was originally set up by the North’s founder Kim Il Sung to educate the orphans of those killed in the fight against Japanese colonial rule. It evolved to become the country’s top school, and one of the institutions that unite the ruling elite. But she doesn’t look so impressed.

Less Than Impressed

Photo by ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

Youth Ski Camp

On February 19, 2017, Pak Han-Song, age 11, posed for a portrait on the beginner’s slope at the Masikryong, or Masik Pass, a ski resort near Wonsan. Pak was a member of a youth ski camp. The Masik resort was opened in 2013, and it costs 80 USD for a one-day lift pass and ski hire for foreign tourists. North Koreans can expect to pay the equivalent of around 40 USD.

Youth Ski Camp

Photo by ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

See another example of what the broadcast agency chooses to promote…

A Message of Intimidation

This is a photo that was released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on March 7, 2017, showing the launch of four ballistic missiles by the Korean People’s Army during a military drill at an undisclosed location. It goes to show you what they chose to release to the foreign public.

A Message of Intimidation

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

Textile Assembly Line

North Korean women hard at work on an assembly line of the factory of South Korean textile company ShinWon. 300 South Korean companies, mostly labor-intensive manufacturers, were waiting to build their factories by the end of 2007. The plan was to hire more than 100,000 North Koreans to make products ranging from shoes and watches to clothes.

Textile Assembly Line

Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Propaganda Posters

Pedestrians are seen here walking past propaganda posters in central Pyongyang. The Central People’s Committee announced that February 16 was to be ‘the greatest holiday of the nation’ for celebrating the 53rd birthday of North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung.

Propaganda Posters

Photo by Yoshikazu TSUN/AFP/Getty Images

Mask-Wearing Cheerleading

North Korean cheerleaders wear masks as they perform during the women’s preliminary round ice hockey match between the unified Korea team and Switzerland. This was at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics. The masks were worn as the cheerleaders sang ‘Whistle,’ a North Korean song whose lyrics are about a man’s unrequited love for his female neighbor.

Mask-Wearing Cheerleading

Photo by ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

Menial Tasks

Despite being the world’s fourth-largest army on record, with the large army advertised in propaganda videos and meant to intimidate the West, the soldiers inside are often left to small tasks. According to Lafforgue, the photographer, “The North Korean army is said to be one of the most important in the world. But if you travel there, you’ll often see soldiers doing menial tasks like helping farmers.”

Menial Tasks

Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images