33 North Korea Pictures That Reveal Things You’ve Never Seen Before

Published December 5, 2017
Updated January 7, 2019
Published December 5, 2017
Updated January 7, 2019

The Hermit Kingdom has carefully cultivated their public image: a pastiche of military parades, patriotic songs, and smiling faces. These rare photographs have none of those things; they reveal the harsh realities of life in North Korea.

North Korea Smog

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty ImagesPeople make their way in the early morning along a road near Chongjin on North Korea’s northeast coast. Nov. 18, 2017.

North Korea remains one of the nations most isolated from the larger global society — and North Korea pictures are the most elusive evidence of the harsh realities of daily life there.

With a despotic ruler hellbent on projecting an image of strength and prosperity both inside and outside his nation, it is often impossible to see the true North Korea past the propaganda images approved by the government.

But a few have managed to slip past stringent government censorship to document what daily life is really like for the citizens of the Hermit Kingdom.

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33 North Korea Pictures That Reveal Things You’ve Never Seen Before
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Photographing The Real North Korea

Most images Westerners have seen from North Korea are carefully cultivated by the government and reflect the most modern and prosperous part of the nation, the capital city of Pyongyang.

But these North Korea pictures only show a tiny part of the true story of how most people in the nation live.

In a tense conversation, videographer Rob Whitworth and his interviewer debate the merits of his recent video of Pyongyang: did he really capture North Korea, or did he just see what the government wanted him to?

Pictures from the countryside are strictly controlled and usually only allowed when shot during spring and summer months to avoid showing the effects of the harsh winters of the region.

These images fail to show the reality of North Korea, a nation with stunted industrial development and some of the worst living conditions in the world.

Half of North Korea's population lives in extreme poverty, and even those in the middle class of the nation live without many standard modern amenities.

Defectors have reported that well-off North Koreans aim to have "five chests and seven appliances." "Chests" are simply basic storage units, like a closet, a shelf, or a cupboard for kitchenware, while the coveted appliances include a washing machine, a refrigerator, a sewing machine, an electric fan, a TV, and a tape recorder and camera for family photos.

Few people have all five chests or all seven appliances.

Pyongyang is in better condition than much of the rest of the country. It is Kim Jong Un's showpiece, a sleekly modern city (in some places) that boasts flashes of luxury and hides poverty behind carefully manicured greenery and pristine streets and plazas.

And yet many people still don't take the elevator to their apartments in the city's high-rises, because power outages are common — and nobody wants to be caught in an elevator for twelve hours at a time.

Food shortages are a severe problem. Staple items frequently disappear from the shelves, and what's available in a store one day will almost certainly be gone by the next.

The World Food Programme says most households have borderline or poor food consumption.

A CNN correspondent goes inside a North Korean home in Pyongyang, where living conditions are usually better than in the countryside.

Why It's Almost Impossible To Get North Korea Pictures

Despite these rough conditions, the North Korean regime has continued to tell its populace that they live in conditions that vastly exceed those of most Westerners. The government also wants to project an image of strength to the rest of the world, papering over its inability to provide for its citizens.

Photographers who visit the country are carefully chaperoned. A request to visit a fancy new department store is usually granted — but expressing an interest in a local market will often result in a polite but firm denial: the area is under renovation, closed, or otherwise mysteriously inaccessible.

The images the regime releases are carefully crafted: the outside world sees masterfully organized military parades, enthusiastic women singing their leader's praises, and shiny new buildings.

This is the picture the government projects to its citizens, too, with its state-run newspaper. There is no access to the World Wide Web in North Korea; those lucky enough to have phones (banned until 2008) or computers can access only state-sponsored sites.

International phone calls aren't permitted, and communications are monitored by government agencies.

The photographer who took these photos had his work deleted several times by North Korean government officials because he kept taking pictures of things he wasn't supposed to see.

The televisions so coveted by North Korean citizens come pre-set to government channels, and the use of analog TVs makes it impossible to receive clear broadcasts from anywhere beyond North Korea's own borders.

Radios are similarly pre-tuned, and the buttons to re-tune them are taped over. The penalty for tampering with a radio's seal is severe.

In that climate, it's a wonder that any information from within the country makes it out — which is why these North Korea pictures are so remarkable.

These images go past the shining staged scenes the regime would like you to see and delve into the everyday lives of North Koreans across the country. Some live in Pyongyang. Others make their homes in and around smaller cities. And still others live near no cities at all, in the harshest and bleakest parts of the Hermit Kingdom.

These images show the real lives of North Koreans.


Enjoy these North Korea pictures? Next, read up on North Korea facts that prove the Hermit Kingdom is stranger than you thought. Then, check out more North Korea photographs.

Gabe Paoletti
Gabe is a New York City-based writer and an Editorial Intern at All That Is Interesting.