You have probably heard something about the crippled nation of North Korea but there aren’t a lot of genuine photos that show the harsh conditions. Korea used to be one nation until the country was divided following World War II, with the North becoming a communist state while the South became a democracy. It is very rare for Western photographers to document the poverty-ridden society under the dictatorship of Kim Jong-un. It is a risky adventure since it is illegal to take photos of everyday life and show them outside the country. Here are some incredible photographs that were smuggled out of the country:
1. North Korea spends a fortune on its armed forces
It is unknown how much exactly the North Korean leader, Kim Jung-Un spends on funding the Korean People’s Army, though it is said to be quite a fortune. The North Korean army uses lasers and missiles banned in other countries and has an impressive cyber warfare unit.
It is mandatory for every North Korean over 18 to enlist, even women. North Korea also possesses an unknown number of nuclear weapons, though according to estimates, its nuclear arsenal is limited. North Korea also possesses a large number of chemical weapons.
2. You need to work for your education in North Korea
Did you know that the students in North Korea are required to purchase their own chairs, desks, and heating during the winter? And if that wasn’t enough, they are also forced to work while at school to produce things for the government.
If the parents want their daughter to focus on her education and avoid occasional hard labor, they need to either bribe the schoolteachers or stop sending her to school altogether, forcing her to miss the single opportunity she has at an education.
3. Only less than 3% of their roads are paved
Without a lot of government funding, most of the roads are left unpaved. In fact, if you travel through North Korea, you will only see less than 3% of their roads finished. That is, out of the 120,538 square kilometers of roads, only about 2.83% are paved.
Fun fact: all the roads in North Korea (if they were finished) could circle Pluto 3.5 times. At the same time, the 450 miles of paved roads would barely make the distance from New York to Cleveland.
4. Bill Gates’ net worth is larger than North Korea’s GDP
Bill Gates has a net worth of about $90.2 billion as of 2017, which is four and a half times larger than North Korea’s. According to reports, North Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) is estimated to be about $17.4 billion, while United States is $16.77 trillion.
Though there have been several reforms over the last few decades, North Korea’s economic system is still a centrally planned one, meaning that the governmet has control over production, prices, distribution and so forth. This also means that the people of North Korea have to rely on their government to fulfill their every need.
5. The country was named the most corrupt in the world
This probably won’t shock you but last year, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index, North Korea is tied as the most corrupt country in the world. They were tied with Somalia with a score of 8. The rating is between 0 (highly corrupt) and 100 (very clean).
Looking at the results as a whole, though, shows that 68% of all the countries in the world have a serious corruption problem, but North Korea definitely takes the cake. By the way, there is no perfect corrupt-free country according to the Corruption Perceptions Index.
6. North Korea is about the size of Pennsylvania
Looking at these pictures, you might think that North Korea is a big country but in truth, it is about the size of Pennsylvania. North Korea’s area is about 120,538 square kilometers, which is only slightly bigger than the U.S. state.
Unlike PA, though, only about 19.5% is suitable for growing crops. What’s more, several natural disasters that occured in the 1990s hurt the country’s agriculture severly, after being considered one of the most productive agricultural systems in the world in the 1980s.
7. Western citizens can’t walk by themselves in North Korea
If you decide to visit North Korea, after your visit has been approved by the party, they will assign a guide to you. To be clear, you can’t say “no thank you.” For the rest of your stay, the guides will be with you at all times and your tour will rarely leave the minivan.
Photographer Michal Huniewicz explains his first step in the capital city. “We were intercepted by our guides, who we could not leave during the entire stay, and who’d tell us when to sleep and when to wake up.” Doesn’t seem like a good vacation is you feel watched all the time!
8. Soldiers are everywhere in North Korea
The North Korean army, named The Korean People’s Army or KPA, is one of the biggest in the world, with over 1.2 million people in active duty. It has been reported that one in every 25 North Korean citizens is an enlisted soldier.
The largest of all KPA branches is the Ground Force, with a staggering one million personnel and an equally impressive number of weapons and fighting vehicles. North Korea’s navy is also a large one, and holds the largest number of submarines in the world.
9. Smoking Marijuana is legal in North Korea
According to reporters who’ve visited the country, you can both consume and purchase cannabis pretty freely and not worry about being prosecuted anywhere in North Korea. It is unknown wether there aren’t any rules against marijuana altogether, or there are rules that aren’t being enforced.
It is also unknown if the same rules apply for both tourists and North Korean citizens. According to an American NGO named Open Radio for North Korea, severe actions were being taken against North Koreans who consumed methamphetamines, but not against those who used marijuana or opium.
10. North Korean public service is tough
The below photo was taken at the Mansu Hill Grand Monument. The uniformed, hardworking girls are sweeping one of the walkways as a form of public service. Not something you would see in the U.S. that’s for sure.
According to North Korean refugees, the citizens of North Korea are divided into groups according to their level of loyalty to the government. Their loyalty is determined by their own behavior, their political background, their economic and social status, and the behavior of their family and relatives going back three generations.
11. All male citizens are forced to get a certain haircut
According to an anonymous source from Pyongyang, who contacted South Korea newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, Men in North Korea were ordered to cut their hair so it wasn’t longer than 2 centimeters. They were also told to model their hairstyles after Kim Jong Un, whose hair has been described as “ambitious.”
Women were also required to keep their hair at a bob length and model it after Kim’s wife, or choose from a selection of 14 approved styles. Married women were supposed to wear their hair short, whereas single women were allowed to wear their hair longer and curlier.
12. It costs $8,000 to leave North Korea
It isn’t easy to leave North Korea and you will be punished if you are caught trying to escape. There is a way to defect, but it would cost you $8,000 to do so. That will only get you to China, though and very few North Koreans would actually be able to afford it.
North Koreans who manage to make it to China are not granted refugee status, however, because of the already fragile relationship between the two countries. China regards these defectors as illegal economic migrants. Most of what we know about North Korea comes from such defectors, who provide valuable information about the secluded country.
13. Locals and tourists can’t shop in the same shops
Even Western tourists aren’t allowed to go where they please in North Korea. When Michal Huniewicz, the photographer who took this photo, managed to get away from his two guides for a minute, he stumbled upon a local shopping area. He was soon removed by a cop as it was for locals only.
Most North Koreans rely on their government to supply them with food and housing, though there are several supermarkets and department stores available in Pyongyang. Black markets and small scale farmers markets are also available, though the government regulates them heavily.
14. Military truck aren’t what you think
When you picture military trucks in the United States, this is probably not the kind of truck you have in mind. Well, in North Korea, these are the vehicles that transport soldiers around. This is definitely an illegal photo to take! Any photos of military personnel would get you in serious trouble in North Korea.
Though its trucks don’t seem to be in very good shape, the North Korean army also has several types of fighting vehicles – some 3700 tanks and 2100 infantry fighting vehicles and personnel carriers, according to reports.
15. You have to keep the streets clean
While traveling around Pyongyang, its cleanness is very noticeable. The government spends a lot of time making sure their capital city is one they would proudly show. However, the physical state of the country’s capital does not represent what life in other parts of North Korea is actually like.
Photographer Michal Huniewicz managed to capture the reality as we see this man relieving himself on the side of the road. This could have probably gotten both him and the man in serious trouble had he been caught.
16. Music in North Korea
North Korea’s previous leader, Kim Il-Sung, required that all music acts be ideologically correct. Jazz music was especially prohibited. His successor, Kim Jong-il, was more encouraging towards music, and allowed more western music genres to be played and enjoyed.
Pictured above is North Korean musical sensation, Moranbong Band, or Moran Hill Orchestra. The group, known as North Korea’s answer to the Spice Girls, consists of female members that were specifically chosen by current supreme leader, Kim Jong-un. The group performes in formal events and televised concerts, and is widely popular among North Koreans.
17. You can’t travel around the country freely
Even if you are a citizen of North Korea, you aren’t allowed to roam around the country freely. You are required to get a permit if you want to travel outside of your city/town. This is so the government can keep tabs on where everyone is.
They are still not allowed to travel big distances in their own car—they have to take a bus or train.
18. North Korea takes pride in Pyongyang
This is the capital city of Pyongyang and is the largest city in North Korea. It was destroyed during the Korean war and eventually rebuilt with Kim II-Sung’s plans.
Photographer Michael Huniewicz mentioned that his guide kept taking him to this location so clearly, it is a place of pride.
19. State workers work very hard in North Korea
Here we see state workers carrying some unknown object across a bridge. Looks like they don’t have access to a truck or something that could carry the heavy object or at least transport the workers to their construction site.
Notice the brown uniforms. I guess it needs to be obvious that they work for the government.
20. Public transportation is very popular
Public transportation is the most common way people commute to work and home. Not that many people have cars so the bus is a popular way of traveling. They still need a permit if they want to leave their city/town.
I guess taking the bus is a whole lot better than walking or biking!
21. North Korean architecture is basic
Except for maybe a couple of buildings/monuments, the architecture in North Korea is pretty basic and modest. Here we have blocks of flats where the people live. This is what they call their home.
They look more like prisons than places to live.
22. North Korean streets only look normal
Driving around the capital city, it looks like a normal populated city. Lots of people walk in the streets since there isn’t heavy traffic. While his guide drove him around, the photographer managed to get a shot of everyday life.
“He would conveniently slow down whenever the surroundings were impressive, and speed up whenever they were less pleasant, to make them more difficult to photograph.”
23. Train station picture was staged
This was the train station in Pyongyang and it certainly was a strange sight for the photographer. His train was the only train that day, so you would expect the station to be pretty much empty, but it wasn’t. Photographer Michael Huniewicz said the station looked staged, like a theatrical performance.
Everyone was dressed nicely and looked like model citizens going on a train ride, which struck him as very unusual.
24. The empty entry point
This is the entry point to North Korea where you board the train to take you there. When Michal arrived, it was pretty much deserted.
I guess traveling to North Korea isn’t a popular thing to do.
25. Even the Chinese are watching
North Koreans don’t have the freedom to leave the country whenever they wish. The government has watchtowers and guards everywhere to make sure that their own people don’t escape. If caught, you will be thrown in a concentration camp and you could even be put to death if you are revealed to be a traitor.
If the Chinese catch you escaping, the men will be sent back and women will be sold to Chinese men.
26. North Korea’s vast farmlands
While traveling through the countryside of North Korea, all you are going to see is miles and miles of farmland. Here we can see rice fields being tended to by the locals.
They have to use feces to make fertilizer after South Korea cut them off.
27. The two leaders watch over
Now this photo of the two statues isn’t illegal as both of the statues are in the picture! The Grand Monument on Mansu Hill features two 22 meters high bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, also known as father and son.
The building behind the statues is the Korean Revolution Museum.
28. Waiting for the train to pass
The photographer is passing by the countryside of North Korea by train. Here we can see people waiting for the train to pass so they can continue on their way.
Notice the guard making sure everything runs smoothly.
29. North Korean Taxis aren’t for tourists
The photographer didn’t get a chance to take one of these colorful taxis as he was always toured around in his guide’s minivan. He couldn’t anyway since the taxis are for locals only so tourists aren’t allowed to use them.
Taxis, however, are actually pretty expensive so they are only used by the wealthy class.
30. You aren’t allowed to photograph certain places
You aren’t actually allowed to take pictures from the train but obviously, that didn’t stop photographer Michael Huniewicz. This is a picture of a rundown pink tower block the photographer saw through his window.
It looks like an abandoned community but I guess the crops are still taken care of.
31. North Korea and China are surprisingly close
Here we can see both North Korea (left) and China (right) as China borders North Korea on the Yalu River. As you can see, there is a big difference between the two nations.
This would be the only way South Koreans can see North Korea since they aren’t welcome.
32. Cars are a luxury
You don’t see very many people driving cars and trucks. It is pretty much a luxury to have one, which is why people have to walk places, bike, or use carriages.
I guess you can’t use the traffic excuse as a reason to be late for work!
33. Soldiers supervise your every move
This photo was taken in one of the parks in Pyongyang. The two women (and maybe a son) are street cleaners, sweeping the streets for dust and what not. The soldier standing there is required to watch them to ensure make sure the job gets done properly.
Work is stressful enough without having a soldier constantly watching you.
34. North Korea also has a different calendar
The North Korean calendar, also known as Juche calendar, borrows from both traditional Korean tradition and the Gregorian calendar used in most parts of the world.
The Juche calendar begins in 1912, which is the birth year of North Korean leader and grandfather to current leader, Kim Il-Sung. It was adpoted in 1997, three years after the beloved leader passed away. This means that the year 2017 is “Juche 106” in North Korea.
35. There story behind Kijong-dong (Peace Village)
Kijong-dong is a village located next to the South Korea border. It is one of the two villages permitted to be in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, that was established after the Korean war in 1953.
Kijong-dong is considered a ‘propaganda village’ by outsiders, meant to act as a front to intimidate the South Koreans. It is surrounded by cultivated fields and contains high-standard multi-story buildings, though many say they are only there for show and aren’t actually populated.
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