North Korea is a country shrouded in secrecy. One of the most mysterious places on earth, it is also one of the most difficult to visit. It is nearly impossible for an outsider to gain entry without a hard-to-get and pricey visa. Here are the haunting photos, along with Lafforgue’s descriptions.
The Demilitarized Zone
This is one of the few spots that you are actually capable of taking pictures without too much of a hassle. The key words there being “too much” because you know, you’re still in North Korea. There is one thing you need not do when taking photos in this area. “Taking pictures in the demilitarized zone (between North and South Korea) is easy, but if you come too close to the soldiers, they stop you,” said Lafforgue. Why would you even want to get that close to the soldiers in the first place? Just mind your business and don’t do anything stupid!
This is something you won’t see every day. Not even because it’s North Korea but because why would a woman be standing by herself in a bright pink gown in the middle of an army? Maybe she is planning something but, nevertheless, this is the definition of a rare photo so take a mental photo. “A woman standing in the middle of a crowd of soldiers. This picture was not supposed to be taken as officials do not allow pictures of the army,” said Lafforgue. Not allowing pictures of the army sounds like a standard procedure in a dictatorship, so there’s not much of a surprise with this one.
He Is Eating…Grass?
In most cases, unless it is in some sort of healthy smoothie drink, grass should only be eaten by animals. It doesn’t have a great taste and people walk across it as well as animals and insects. There are feces all in it. It is best you steer clear from eating grass. “This kind of picture is widespread in the West,” said Lafforgue. “The caption often points out that North Koreans have to eat grass. The guides get furious if you take it.” Sadly, they often have to resort to eating grass because food is so scarce and the people are dying of starvation.
Going fishing is plenty of people’s favorite hobby to enjoy when they have the time. In many cases, however, it is also used as a means to capture food to bring back home to eat. In North Korea, you will see the latter more in effect as opposed to it being done for leisure. This man was using an old tire for a boat. In the countryside, people often fish in small lakes – it’s a way to get fresh food in remote areas where it’s rare,” said Lafforgue. Hopefully, that tire is sturdy enough for the guy trying to provide food for himself.
Malnourished Children Pose For Emergency Food Assistance Program
In addition to economic problems, during 1994-1997, North Korea experienced major natural disasters, including hailstorms, floods, drought, and tidal waves. This image, taken on June 30, 1997, shows malnourished children at the Taesong District kindergarten, in the capital of Pyongyang.
A photographer from the WFP Emergency Food Assistance program documented the shocking state of health of the kindergarten students. The health of 3,984 children in North Korea under the age of seven was documented during that time, as crops and infrastructure were severely damaged due to natural disasters.
Smoking Is Forbidden
When someone wants something to appear as if it is the greatest thing to ever be established then chances are that photos of the establishment taking a break or not looking serious will spoil those appearance dreams. Which is why this photo of the soldier just taking a smoke break is not allowed. It is prohibited to take photos of soldiers “enjoying” themselves.
It could be depicted that they are “sneaking” the cigarette (which they shouldn’t do in the first place) so it appears that two negatives are taking place in at this moment. Does that make it a right?
Born to Work
Childhood might just be the most innocent and happiest of times for the children of North Korea. However, this is because they are not old enough to understand the horrible conditions they are brought up in or that they are being conditioned to acknowledge their dictator as a great guy. Those who are not so fortunate to be born in Pyongyang often are subject to harsh conditions not suitable for a child. North Korea has recently come under fire for their forced labor of children, who are treated like slaves. This picture depicts school-aged children fixing potholes in the North Hamgyong province.
A Subway Train
North Korean citizens must travel to and from school and work just like other people in the world. Public transportation is one of the only options for children and adults for travel.
So what makes this photo illegal, you might ask? The country strictly prohibits capturing photos that are of unnecessary or unpleasant things. A subway train, with people looking generally bored and unhappy, would make that list of banned photos.
Make Sure You Look Up To Standards If You Want Your Photo Taken
What we have here is a man not up to clothing standards. At least, not enough to be photographed. Imagine a fashion show and a model shows up with the wrong clothing line or is not wearing the style he was instructed to. That is what you are getting with this North Korean man in the photo.
“It is forbidden to take pictures of North Korean people if they are not well dressed,” said Lafforgue. “For my guide, this man was not well dressed enough to be photographed.” Even though he is wearing a nice button-up collared shirt, he did not meet the requirements of a well-dressed person.
The Korean Military Performs Menial Tasks
Rumors are spread daily. Rumors have probably even been spread about you! However, there is the next level of rumors and that is called propaganda. It is “rumored” that the Korean army is ultra important. Are things starting to make sense now? All those “no photos please” moments. Well, get a load of this.
“The North Korean army is said to be one of the most important in the world,” said Lafforgue. “But if you travel there, you’ll often see soldiers doing menial tasks.” If something is rumored to be very important, you wouldn’t want photos surfacing of non-important things being done by these highly important people.
There are tons of places for you to be silly. The privacy of your own room, the park, a circus, or even a fair but if you are under portraits of Kim, you better not be silly. Especially if you are about to take a photo because it is also seen as disrespectful.
“Never take a picture where you can see people doing silly things in front of the Kim portraits,” says Lafforgue. For any leader, you can probably see how that can be taken as disrespect. However, it wouldn’t be banned in most other countries.
They Call It Home
This photo shows a pretty run-down structure where hundreds of people live. It is interesting to see how many people keep flowering plants and other items on their balconies, not unlike what people do all over the world.
However, Kim Jong-un wouldn’t allow this photo to escape North Korea as it shows more signs of poverty. Each balcony appears covered in dirt, perhaps caused by pollution. Only images of brand new developments are permitted.
Throughout history, women have been attracted to powerful men. Even so, it can be difficult for outsiders to understand the apparent idol worship that many women in North Korea have for Kim Jong Un. Countless photos exist of the dictator surrounded by fawning, almost ecstatic fans.
In this picture, we see a military rally where several female troops greet Kim with smiles, hugs, and tears of joy. One of the women desperately hangs on his arm. Kim clearly relishes the attention, judging by the big grin on his fleshy face. However, as Ben Cosgrove noted in a Time article, “[o]f course, there’s always a possibility that the displays of weepy adoration that erupt wherever Kim goes might be sparked by base, primal fear; no one wants to be sent off to one of North Korea’s ‘re-education’ camps for the crime of not evincing the proper reverence for the ruler of the world’s weirdest nation.”
Dead or Alive?
On the surface level, there are two possible things wrong with this image. One, why is this man laying on hard rocks like that. Isn’t that highly uncomfortable? The second thing is that it is hard to distinguish if he is indeed alive or dead.
Because that looks like somewhere a dead body could be found. “This man was taking a rest by the sea in Chilbo,” said Lafforgue. “My guide asked me to delete this for fear that Western media would say this man was dead. He was alive.” Who knows what the truth really is.
An Army Of Mini-Skirts?
North Korea also prides itself on its military, which includes all-female regiments. The female soldiers all wear the exact same haircut, determined by the military and a uniform with a mini-skirt over tights. While it might be surprising to some that North Korea allows females in its army, the reason behind the decision is tragic: thousands of the male soldiers have either deserted or starved to death. Unlike the men in their country though, women aren’t automatically drafted into the North Korean army. The military chooses only those women who they think show the most promise and successfully been brainwashed using the educational system, where they’ve reportedly been taught phrases like ‘We are killing Americans’.
Not Volunteer Work
Would you look at that, a couple of citizens enjoying a public project? Isn’t that what everyone would think is going on this picture? Don’t let it come out that some people assume that this is any kind of negative act going on like forced labor because then Kim would not allow for photos like this to be taken again.
“People go to the country to do public projects,” stated Lafforgue. “The regime used to see shots like these as positive but now they know that we interpret this as forced labor.” Well, which do you think that it is?
Indoctrination of Young Minds
North Korean children are brainwashed as early as preschool. Here, a toddler holds a toy rifle. In kindergarten, youngsters are already taught anti-American messages. They use their toy rifles and grenades to attack cartoon images of soldiers, according to Business Insider.
They learn songs about Kim Jong Il, who they are taught works very hard all day for the benefit of his own people. The Washinton Post also reports that schoolchildren would throw wooden “grenades” at “a wooden target of a human figure with pale skin and a huge nose, with ‘cunning American wolf’ written on it.”
A Predetermined Future
Indoctrination is so important to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, that on International Children’s Day, they hold a mock military parade in Pyongyang. Children dress up as North Korean military men and women, most likely a representation of their futures should they remain stuck in their country.
Much of the school curriculum is centered around the cult of personality that North Korea is known for. When children were served the luxury of milk in school, they were told it came from their “Dear Leader.” When taught math, the questions would often have to do with the Kim family and their military prowess.
Failed Missile Test
As anticipated, North Korea brought out their weapons and showed off their military on the day of the 105th birthday of Kim II Sung. Not far away, South Korea and China braced themselves for any missile tests that would happen, as the United States naval strike group idled in the western Pacific.
As expected, North Korea did launch a missile test that week, but “the missile blew up almost immediately” according to U.S. Navy Commander Dave Benham. Kim Jong Un’s attempt to flex their power was an utter failure. Still, the leader threatened President Trump with his nuclear weapons.
While visiting a country where there are two huge bronzed statues in the center of a square, one might think that it would be the perfect spot to grab a photo — to make a memory to preserve forever. And, in most instances, you’d be right. But that doesn’t make it an easy task to accomplish in a place like North Korea.
The government keeps a close eye on any straying foreign tourist that might be stepping out of bounds. It was very important for Huniewicz (and is so for any other tourists visiting the country) to watch his every step and to make sure he could capture pictures quickly.
What Exactly Are They Cleaning?
“What the heck are they cleaning? The country is depressing. We only saw a handful of people smiling or expressing anything other than obedience. They just walk in silence from one place to another, and avoid foreigners like ourselves,” Huniewicz said in an interview with Next Shark.
These women were photographed sweeping a pathway that already appeared very clean. However, this is a very common sight to see in the country’s capital city. Seeing women sweep already clean pathways and streets is extremely common, and many people have a hard time figuring out why. Could it just be that the Kims require unnecessary manual labor? That could be it indeed.
Don’t Snap a Pic of a Soldier
Have you ever been to a water park and tried not to get wet, for fun? Well, it is almost impossible to do such a task seeing as to there is water literally everywhere you turn. We advise you not to try this because of the difficulty of the task. Another hard task is associated with the dolphinarium in North Korea.
“When visiting the dolphinarium in Pyongyang, you are allowed to photograph the animals, but not the soldiers who make up 99 percent of the crowd,” said Lafforgue. As you can see in the photo above, you better be in a good position to avoid getting a soldier on photo.
The Education System Brainwashes Kids
North Korea prides itself on its educational system and the fact that its literacy rate is high, the government controls this system and uses it to its advantage. According to the Washington Post, kids are taught to love communism and their supreme leader in an almost cult-like way as early as kindergarten.
Lee Hyun-ji, who grew up in North Korea but fled to South Korea told the Post, “…The teachers would say: ‘Do you know where the milk came from? It came from the Dear Leader. Because of his love and consideration, we are drinking milk today.'”
Preparing to Launch Rockets
In an ongoing effort to exhibit their technological prowess, North Korea has made multiple attempts to launch a rocket in order to get their own satellite into orbit. After three failed attempts since 1998, North Korea prepared for their fourth attempt in 2012 with the Unha-3.
On December 12, 2012, U.S. Northern Command reported that first stage fell into the Yellow Sea, while the second stage fell into the Philippine Sea. That time, North Korea successfully launched the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 satellite into orbit, which concerned other countries at the time for fear that North Korea was preparing to launch a missile.
Singing for Their Country
This photo depicts a North Korean military choir performing in honor of the 100th birthday of North Korean founder, Kim Il-Sung. Much of the music in North Korea is politically influenced and honors the Kim family, as with most aspects of the North Korean cult of personality.
After North Korea became its own entity, song-writing was changed to support the state and the patriotic style became known as “taejung kayo.” Some sources say that there may still be an existence of traditional Korean religious or folk music in North Korea, although there is not enough evidence in Western knowledge to prove this.
Billions Went into Creating This Dam
The above photo depicts men operating a manual railcar along the West Sea Barrage dam. Also known as the Nampho Dam, it closes the Taedong River off from the Yellow city. From 1981 to 1986, the entire country was directed to contribute resources or labor to help construct it.
30,000 soldiers and an estimated $4 billion went into the construction of the dam, whose purpose was to prevent seawater intrude on fresh water and to help irrigate land that did not have a lot of access to water. North Korea is reportedly so proud of the accomplishment that it is often used as a backdrop in news broadcast and it is a popular tourist destination.
Born in North Korea
According to an article in nknews.org, healthcare for expecting mothers is very divided between the capital city and the rural areas. “Residents in the Pyongyang Republic have access to obstetricians, pediatricians, and facilities of higher quality while residents in the Regional Republic are denied access to all of these.”
He continued, “People in North Korea were saying that Kim Jong II made sure that the medical service provided at Pyongyang San Won would be of satisfactory quality because he was heartbroken when he lost his mother due to gynecological disease.” The above picture was taken at a nursery inside the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital in 2013.
Getting an Education
When children do have the opportunity to go to school, they often have to fend for themselves just to get there. Business Insider reports that children in less developed areas have to walk a precarious route on the way to school.
Construction projects and dangerous terrain stand in the way of these children’s education, but this doesn’t stop them from finding a way to brave it. While there are some rural areas that are fortunate to have school buses, these buses are often just dump trucks that are repurposed to take children to school.
Not Everyone Is So Fortunate
Elite families or families that had more money, most likely those who lived in Pyongyang, were able to provide their children with more luxuries than those who could not. This included traditional Korean clothing, as seen above. And although some families were better off than others, this didn’t exempt them from their political obligations to pay respects to their leaders. Parents who have money take their children to national monuments as a regular form of worship.
While not all children are born into abject poverty, all of them are conditioned and indoctrinated at a young age in North Korea’s efforts to create their version of an idealized and pure society.
USS Reagan Arrives in the Republic of Korea
While Kim Jong Un demands that the U.S. stay away from their region, the U.S. remains loyal to their allies, Japan and South Korea. Following a failed missile launch test by North Korea in September of 2016, the USS Reagan was welcomed in South Korea in October, where they have 15 military bases to aid in defense and prevent North Korea from striking neighboring countries with missile launches.
The relationship between the U.S. and South Korea infuriates North Korea’s leader, as Kim Jong Un aims to be seen as the dominating force in the west Pacific.
105th Birthday of Founder
Tensions quickly rose between North Korea and the United States when President Donald Trump took office in 2017. While the U.S. sought to disarm North Korea of nuclear weapons, the country’s leader told the U.S. to back off.
April 15th, 2017 marked the 105th birthday of North Korea’s founder, Kim II Sung, and the rest of the world nervously awaited what they suspected would be a showing of power and force on the day of the anniversary. In preparation, the U.S. deployed the USS Carl Vinson towards Korea, as Kim Jong Un grew angrier.
No Mistaking For Grand Central Station
If you’ve ever been to a train station in the United States (or perhaps anywhere in the world), you’re probably used to seeing tons of people, carrying briefcases, rolling luggage, talking on cell phones, and being “busy.” However, when Huniewicz went to this particular train station — one of the country’s few (if not only) entry points for foreign tourists — it was basically deserted.
This is a far cry from what you’d see at just about any other train station that you visit on any given day of the week. Since it’s nearly impossible for tourists to be granted entry into North Korea, this isn’t too surprising, even if it is a little eerie.
In North Korea, the main means of transportation is by foot. Many people also use bicycles to get around. You hardly see any cars or motorcycles (women aren’t even allowed to ride motorcycles, according to North Korean law).
This means that the roadways are mostly used for pedestrians and bicycles, and overall, the environment is quieter. Views from the train show just how rural and quiet some areas of North Korea are.
Riding A Bus
This is a great example of daily life in North Korea. As you can see, there are people traveling on a bus, which is something that happens in many countries all over the world.
The North Korean government has a very strict, limited photo policy. While pictures are often encouraged, there are only certain places where said photos can be taken. Since the government is so secretive, breaking these photography rules can cause a person to wind up in big trouble.
While North Korea might want the world to respect them and see them as a dignified country filled with happy people and a thriving economy, the truth is far from that. Some media may lead you to believe that the Kim regime is good for the people and that their way of life is a good way of life, but seeing what someone like Huniewicz saw — even seeing what he captured “illegally” with his camera lens — opens your eyes a bit wider.
It may be hard to believe, but North Korean citizens actually spend time idolizing their leaders. It’s part of their daily life.
Photo Michal Huniewicz
Most of the time, you see someone with authority, such as a police officer, in the street or near a busy intersection when he or she is needed to direct traffic. As previously mentioned, very few people own cars or motorcycles in North Korea, making a traffic officer a very strange sight. As you can see, this female officer doesn’t have much to do as she stands in the street without any cars around her. It is unclear exactly what she might be doing, but what is clear is the fact that Huniewicz got away with taking yet another banned photo.
Although he said that he was prepared to see a poverty-stricken area, Huniewicz picked up on a “mental strain” that he felt these people had to be under.
Any photo that shows any kind of oppressive nature of the North Korean government is supposed to be deleted before making its way out of the country. However, Huniewicz was able to smuggle this photo out without issue.
Making The Abnormal Seem Normal
What exactly is going on above is anyone’s guess. What do you think this person might be doing? Taking a bath or maybe rinsing himself of the wrongdoings he committed per request of his leader? Let us just go with he is taking a bath.
The photographer, Eric Lafforgue, said, “Once you get into rural areas, this sort of thing is very common.” Maybe they see it as relaxing or just a chance to clear their mind. One thing to also consider is that maybe he does not have any other place to bathe and get cleaned for the day in the rural area.
Collecting Food…From the Street
“I spotted these kids collecting maize grains in the streets near Begaebong,” explains Lafforgue of this secret shot. If you take a deeper look, there could multiple things going on in this photo so let’s dissect.
One of the options is that these young kids were traveling and they happened to drop their bag full of the grains and had to pick them up. Lafforgue caught them at the right time.
No Worries for the Kids…Right?
The situation in this photo just seems extremely dangerous. Why are there small children just sitting criss-cross apple sauce in the middle of the street? There is an explanation but the explanation leads to more questions to be asked. For instance, who would let their child do that?
“Although cars are becoming widespread in Pyongyang, peasants aren’t used to seeing them,” said Lafforgue. “Kids play in the middle of the road just like when they didn’t exist.” We understand that getting used to something new is a process but parents should at least tell their children not to do that.
When Times Get Tough, Child Labor Is Common
There are hard times in every country. When you can’t make a dollar in America, some people turn to selling illegal substances. Of course, if they get caught the consequences can be heavy but they are not thinking about that in the moment. They just want to make ends meet for themselves and the family.
“When times are hard (as they usually are here), children can be found working for the farming collectives,” explains Lafforgue. This seems more feasible than standing on the corner slinging narcotics but still a bit questionable if you are considering child labor laws in place. Apparently, there are none.
When All Else Fails, Blame It on the States
When there is a blackout and all the lights go out, the natural thought process is to assume that the weather caused it or something is wrong with the circuit breakers. Would you ever assume another country had something to do with your power going out unless you were forewarned ahead of time?
“We were in Pyongyang art gallery when we experienced a power outage,” said Lafforgue. “When it happens, they tell you it’s because of the American embargo.” Surely, if the Americans wanted to mistreat the North Koreans they would do more than sending Dennis Rodman and cut out the lights.
A Common Thing
Here is another example of the common theme of not wanting the military to be shown. Even though this phenomenon happens quite frequently (military cars area always breaking down), pictures of this are not allowed to be taken. It could be because it shows some sort of weakness or flaw in the soldiers but there is nothing really wrong with this sight.
“You see this all the time in North Korea, but aren’t allowed to take pictures,” says Lafforgue. A band of soldiers using teamwork to help with a breakdown. That just shows comradery if anything. One can only imagine why photos like this should not be taken there.
U.S. Air Raid Strike On Pyongyang, 1950
This photo was taken at Pyongyang Falls, in 1950, during the Korean War. The U.S. has a long history with North Korea, and sadly 3 million North Koreans were killed during the war. Here a U.S. plane bombed Pyongyang, the Communist capital of North Korea which left the town in ruins. Here people of the community search for survivors through the rubble of collapsed structures as a grandmother carries her wounded grandson through the destruction. The air raid was ordered by General Douglas MacArthur after North Korea invaded South Korea. The U.S. also attacked the Pyongyang airfields.
North Korea Spy Sentenced To Death, 1989
Pictured in this photo, taken on December 15, 1987, is Kim Hyun-Hee, an alleged agent of North Korea. After graduating high school she enrolled in a North Korean spy agency, where she studied martial arts and spy tactics while being shown North Korea propaganda films.
Hee was sentenced to death on April 25, 1989, after being charged with blowing up a South Korean jetliner in Seoul. 115 people were killed on the jetliner and Hee was caught fleeing to Bahrain. From there, she was extradited to South Korea. In court, she was sentenced to death, but after breaking down and showing remorse for the crime she committed, South Korea President Roh Tae-Woo pardoned her, saying she was brainwashed.
North Korea Troops Captured
In 1950 the Korean War was in full force, as the United Nations battled North Korea, which received military support from the Soviet Union and China. While it looked like the US and its UN allies’ efforts were being overpowered, the UN pulled a counteroffensive in the town of Incheon that cut off North Korea troops.
This image, taken on October 10, 1950, shows US troops leading a Battalion of captured North Korean troops while the airstrikes and air-to-air combat continued to have a dangerous battle in the skies. That month Chinese forces crossed the Yalu River which borders North Korea and China and entered the war.
Poverty Is the Norm
It is true that poverty is everywhere, correct? If looking at it in the perspective of the whole world, it is something we need to work on. When looking at it from the perspective of one country, it could be easier to alleviate those pains because it is a more controlled area.
“The officials hate it when you take this kind of picture,” stated Lafforgue. “Even when I explained that poverty exists everywhere, they still forbade me from taking them.” Kim just doesn’t want people to know how some of his country’s inhabitants are actually living: terribly.
All-Female Military Regiments
As mentioned earlier, North Korea’s military includes all-female regiments. One defector from the country spoke candidly about her experience in an interview with Business Insider. She explained that men are required to serve for 11 years in the military, and women for six.
This military defector confided that malnutrition is a major problem facing all of North Korea’s troops and said that she was only fed three spoonsful of rice for each meal. Of her time in the service, she said “I was in the early stages of malnutrition… I weighed just around 81 pounds and was about 5’2.”
Not As Good As Men
One of North Korea’s female military defectors told Business Insider that women are taught from an early age that they are not nearly as smart, capable, or important as men. Tales of abuse among former soldiers are rampant.
Another defector told a heartbreaking story about being beaten bloody by a male Major General. He was 45 years old; she was 18. In the BI interview, she said, “I don’t know whether he’s dead or alive, but if Korea ever gets reunified, I’m going to find him and even if I can’t make him feel ten times the pain I felt, I want to at least smack him on the right side of his face the same way he did to me.”