North Korea Banned Photos: A Look Inside the Mysterious Nation
North Korea is currently one of the world’s most mysterious nations. Lorded over by the notorious Kim Jong-un, North Korea is a major player on the world stage thanks to its suspected nuclear capability and Jong-un’s relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump. However, even with North Korea being in the news on a daily basis, relatively little is known about life inside the country due to the strict regulations regarding tourist visas. In addition, the government of North Korea banned photos and videos from leaving the country unless they were approved.
Photographer Eric Lafforgue took it upon himself to share what life in North Korea is like with the outside world. He had the chance to visit the mysterious nation six times and snapped breathtaking photos along the way. Laffourgue then illegally smuggled the camera’s memory cards out of the country. Along with the photos, Laffourge included personal anecdotes about his experiences to flesh out what everyday life is really like for the country’s citizens.
Before looking at Eric Lafforgue’s photos, it’s important to see the types of images that the North Korean government chooses to release.
Above, we see Kim Jong-un touring a modern factory, surrounded by smiling North Koreans. The truth is much less rosy.
Less a needle in a haystack and more a sore thumb, this image of a woman in bright purple standing in the midst of North Korean soldiers is striking for several reasons.
Not only is she seemingly entirely surrounded by male soldiers, taking photos of the military in North Korea — which is one of the world’s largest armies, totaling 1.2 million men — is strictly prohibited.
The Army's 'Real' Job
Despite being the world’s fourth-largest army, whose fighting prowess and large army often are touted in propaganda videos and feared by the West, soldiers inside the country often do small tasks.
According to Lafforgue, “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.”
While on the surface this photo of two friends in the Pyongyang subway station appears to simply be a cute photo, it’s also hiding one of the highly militarized country’s secrets in plain sight.
Lafforgue has 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.”
Due to poverty, especially in the nation’s countryside, many North Koreans have taken to selling goods from so-called “grey market” stands (meaning the goods are not contraband like on a black market, but aren’t being sold completely legally either).
From these mostly roadside carts, citizens sell everything from cigarettes to candy and food in order to get some money in their pockets.
For many years, cars in North Korea were limited solely to military officials or high-ranking party members. However, recently vehicles have become more common in some areas, which has led to a learning curve for many North Koreans.
Lafforgue observed, “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.”
During one of Lafforgue’s trips to North Korea, the nation was celebrating its 50th anniversary. Part of the festivities involved giving tours of homes and other areas.
While each of these homes were carefully selected by the government to be shown off, occasionally you see something like the above, where the bathroom doubles as a cistern.
According to Lafforgue, poverty wasn’t the only economic strata 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.”
While taking any pictures of the military is off limits, it is particularly frowned-upon to document soldiers enjoying any type of leisure time.
These two soldiers, caught having a smoke, betray the tight, faceless images of the North Korean military that the country’s propaganda tries to spread.
In most areas of the world, a trip to the supermarket is a throwaway trip for many. However, like many things, it’s totally different in North Korea.
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.”
Unsafe Working Conditions
While the above scene may look to the naked eye like a Hollywood stunt or highly choreographed Cirque du Soleli routine, it’s actually a real0life picture of the unsafe working conditions with which North Korean workers deal.
North Korea does have amusement parks and entertainment that would be recognizable to Western audiences.
For example, this Delphinium allows citizens to get up close and personal with sea creatures. They’re even allowed to take photos of the animals, though not the soldiers who make up most of the crowd.
Eric Lafforgue shared this story of just how paranoid North Korean officials are about the 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.”
What's Wrong With This Picture?
Can you spot what’s wrong with this photo? Upon first glance, this simply looks like a shot of a grand statue of Kim Il Sung. However, as Eric Lafforgue points out, there’s something out of place.
“This is never supposed to happen: a broom standing on the base of Kim Il Sung’s statue in Mansudae, in Pyongyang.”
While photography of the country’s many statues and monuments generally is allowed, 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.
In one of Lafforgue’s more unbelievable images, he captured this group of North Korean soldiers banding together to push a bus that had broken down.
Due to the lack of access to cars and relatively little public transportation, many North Koreans have to find different ways to travel.
For example, this Pyongyang resident has found a low-tech way to get around. As an added benefit, traveling like this often help one avoid government checkpoints.
In this shot, Eric Lafforgue captured a student studying on a computer at Pyongyang’s Studies Palace.
However, learning and expanding one’s mind only allow one to go so far; the twin paintings above looking over everyone serve as a reminder of this.
In this heartbreaking shot, a group of women rest on the side of the road after a long day’s work.
The looks of exhaustion and weariness on their faces transcend any language, political, or national barrier.
Just an Average Shopper
This candid photo was actually taken by redditor u/M1ckey, who stated that on their trip to North Korea they were required to have two guides at all times – one in front of them and one behind. However, when both guards stopped paying attention for a brief minute, u/M1ckey was able to run off for about 15 seconds to snap this photo of a North Korean woman making a purchase at an average shop that foreigners aren’t supposed to see.
This photo, posted by redditor u/biwook, shows a colorful view of Pyongyang. If you look extra closely, you can see solar panels underneath some of the windows. This is an attempt to counter the frequent power outages that occur in North Korea.
School Children on a Walk
This beautiful photo, posted by u/XasthurWithin, shows a group of school children on a walk. It almost appears as if whoever took the photo was telling the kids to look around and point at different things intentionally, doesn’t it?
Sneaking Into the Country
This eerie photo was taken by an American man named Miles who snuck into North Korea illegally in 2015 by crossing the Yalu River. He was ultimately detained by North Korean officials and then released after nine weeks. In the photo you can see China on the other side of the river.
Taking in the View
In this photo you can see a soldier enjoying a spectacular view of the city. It’s said that tourists in North Korea get to enjoy their lunch on those same steps on one day of their trip.
Redditor u/linnagnes took this photo of some North Korean children while out in the forest in a very rural area about two hours from Chongjin Airport. The kids were out gathering wood and were incredibly surprised to see the photographer!
An Empty Superhighway
As previously mentioned, despite the fact that more and more people are learning to drive in North Korea, cars on the highway are still relatively few and far between. This photo of a nearly empty eight-lane superhighway says it all.
Real Life For Many North Koreans
As Westerners, we may see a lot of photos of the skyscrapers in Pyongyang, but this photo shows what real life is like for many North Koreans: Full of poverty and devoid of the tall buildings and amenities of a typical big city.
This photo, posted by u/mallubabesmoderator, shows a van driving through the streets of Pyongyang broadcasting government propaganda through its speakers.
This surreal still is the only known photo of the inside of a North Korean prison camp where inmates are forced to do hard labor, posted by redditor u/cigar_dude.
Learn More About North Korea's Secrets!
Curious to find out more about North Korea?
You can read about some of the country’s best-kept secrets here.