What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear about North Korea? Kim Jong-un, right? Well, it is because North Korea is really strict when it comes to its privacy and there are many bans and restrictions which is the reason many North Korean knows little or have no idea of the world. Under the dictatorship of the Supreme Leader of North Korea, it has become difficult and risky for Western photographers to take photos of the poverty-ridden country. However, there are some incredible photos that were smuggled out of the country. So, let’s have a look at them:
1. Spending a Fortune on Armed Forces
It is difficult to get an exact figure of how much fortune is spent on armed forces due to various bans and restrictions on media; it is believed to be a lot. No wonder why the country uses lasers and missiles that are banned in other countries.
The country has an impressive cyber warfare unit which shows that Kim Jong-un doesn’t mind spending a huge chunk of the country’s budget on armed forces. In addition, it is also mandatory for every North Korean (even women) over 18 to enlist in the army.
2. Approximately 97% Unpaved Roads
From the first point, it is clear that the government doesn’t spend a lot on the infrastructure of the country. And a clear example of that is only 3% of paved roads in the country.
There are 120,538 square kilometers of roads in North Korea and only about 2.83% of roads are paved. If you travel through the country, don’t be amazed to find unpaved roads (travel at your own risk).
3. Among The Most Corrupt Countries In The World
Okay, this isn’t a big surprise to many because there is authentic news that confirms that corruption has increased so much under the dictatorship of Kim Jong-un that the country was tied with Somalia at the most corrupt country in the world in 2015.
North Korea and Somalia are among the top 5 countries in the list of Corruption Perceptions Index with 14 points for North Korea and 10 points for Somalia. The rating is between 0 (highly corrupt) and 100 (very clean).
4. Child Labor?
You may not believe it but then again we’re talking about North Korea, students are required to have their own desks, chairs, and heating during the winter season. They are forced to work while studying at school so that they can produce goods for the government.
As children are forced to work at school, parents are only left with the option to either bribe the schoolteachers or stop their children from getting any further education.
5. North Korea’s GDP is Lower Than Net Worth of Bill Gates
The net worth of Bill Gates as of 2019 is 102.4 billion USD, which is way more than the North Korea’s GDP of $17.4 billion (these are estimated stats). The people of the country mostly rely on their government even when it comes to fulfilling their basic needs.
As North Korea’s GDP is way lower than America’s GDP of over 19.39 trillion USD, the government of North Korea has control over everything from production, distribution, prices and so forth.
6. A Country That is About The Size of Pennsylvania
There is a perception that North Korea is a big country but in reality, it isn’t. As Korea used to be one nation, it divided into North and South Korea after World War II. North Korea is just slightly bigger than Pennsylvania.
The total area of North Korea is 120,538 square kilometers, which is just slightly bigger than the U.S. state. It is interesting to notice here that only 19.5% of the land of North Korea is sustainable to growing edibles.
7. Marijuana Smokers’ Paradise?
Marijuana buying and smoking are pretty much legal in the country and it might attract some people to visit North Korea. Some reporters who visited the country were amazed to see that there are almost no rules against marijuana.
According to reporters, there are some rules against marijuana but they are not enforced at all. It is not clear whether the same rules apply both North Korean citizens and tourists. However, the government takes severe action against people who consume methamphetamines.
8. Western Tourists Are Assigned Guides
If you ever decide to visit North Korea, keep in mind that a guide will be assigned to you once you’re approved by the party. You cannot say “no thank you” to your guide and he/she will accompany you wherever you go.
It is hard to enjoy your stay in North Korea when there is a guide who is too clingy and won’t leave you. Photographer Michal Huniewicz shared his experience of visiting 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.”
9. Taking Public Service to Next Level
In this picture, you can see uniformed girls sweeping one of the walkways at Mansu Hill Grand Monument. This is observed as a form of public service in the country (it is something that you won’t see anywhere in the U.S.)
According to North Korea refugees, the government has divided the citizens into various groups based on their level of loyalty to the government. The loyalty of a citizen is determined on his/her social status, behavior, political background and even the behavior of their family and relatives.
10. You’ll Find Soldiers Everywhere in the Country
With over 1.2 million active soldiers, the North Korean army is considered one of the biggest armed forces in the world. The soldiers of the army named The Korean People’s Army or KPA can be found almost everywhere in the country.
It is believed that 1 in every 25 North Korean citizens is an enlisted soldier. One of the largest KPA branches is the Ground Force that has about one million army personnel.
11. No Need to Get A Funky Haircut
We can assume that the barbers in North Korea have a pretty boring job. After all, they can only give a certain haircut to their customers even if they want something else. All male citizens have to model their hairstyles after Kim Jong-un.
According to an anonymous source, men in the country are ordered to cut their hair so it isn’t longer than 2 centimeters. Women are also not spared and they have to follow hairstyle of Kim’s wife or choose from a selection of 14 approved styles.
12. Locals and Tourists Can’t Shop in the Same Shop
When photographer Michal Huniewicz had a chance to get away from his guides, he went to a shop and took this photo. He was quickly removed from the shop because there is a rule that tourists and locals can’t shop from the same shop.
Western tourists cannot just go anywhere in the country as they please. In fact, they have to let the authorities know about their plans ahead and have to do everything under the surveillance of guides, even if it's shopping.
13. Keeping the Streets Clean
The cleanliness of Pyongyang is quite noticeable. It is mainly because heavy fines are imposed on anyone who breaks the rule. Photographer Michal Huniewicz was lucky enough to take a picture of a man relieving himself on the side of the road.
North Korea spends a lot to ensure that they have clean capital to show to the world. However, it doesn’t really hide the fact that the physical state of the country’s capital is really bad.
14. It Isn’t Easy To Leave the Country
If someone is caught leaving the country, they’re heavily punished for their actions. There is one way to avoid, but it would require you to manage $8000. Given that half of the country is living in extreme poverty, it seems impossible for most people.
Even if someone is able to afford $8000 to get out of the country, this amount of money can only take them as far as China. And China doesn’t give them the refugee status as well.
15. Military Trucks In the Country Are Not What You Think They Are
Discard the picture of a military truck that you have in your mind because North Korea has military trucks that are just used to transport soldiers from one place to another.
This photo is illegal in the country and taking a photo of army personnel can definitely take you jail. The photographer took this photo from a distance and escaped some serious trouble.
16. Regulated Music
Jazz music was prohibited in the time of Kim Il-Sung (country’s previous leader) and he ordered that all music acts must be ideologically correct. His successor Kim Jong-il was more encouraging towards music and even allowed western music to be played in the country.
This is a picture of North Korean musical sensation, Moranbong Band, or Moran Hill Orchestra. They are handpicked by Kim Jong-un and they perform only at formal events and televised concerts.
17. Hardworking State Workers
It seems pretty obvious from the picture that state workers do not have access to trucks or another mode of transportation and they have to do the heavy work all by themselves.
The country spends most of its budget on the army and that’s why it is not a big surprise that there isn’t enough financial backing for other projects. In the end, common people have to suffer.
18. Even North Koreans Can’t Travel Freely
Yes, you’ve read it right. The government keeps tabs on everyone and doesn’t allow anyone to travel without getting a permit.
If any citizen wants to travel outside of his city/town, he needs to get a permit. Moreover, people are not allowed to travel long distances on their cars and they are required to take a bus or a train.
19. Everyone Loves Public Transport
Majority of people do not have cars in the country. The most common way people commute from work to office is public transport. The bus is the most popular way of traveling.
Even if you own a car, you cannot travel outside of your city without getting a permit. That’s why most people prefer taking a bus.
20. County Takes Pride in its Capital City
Pyongyang became the capital of North Korea in 1948. It was almost destroyed in the Korean War. Today, this is the largest city in the country and they take pride in it.
This picture was taken by photographer Michael Huniewicz. The photographer felt that his guide was persistent in telling him how much North Koreans take pride in their capital for its cleanliness.
21. The Basic Architecture
The country has a very basic architecture. The reason behind their modest architecture is still unknown. Except for a few important and monumental buildings, the country’s architecture is not too attractive.
This kind of basic architecture can even scare some people, but this is where most North Koreans live and have no other option.
22. Empty Entry Points
Most entry points to board a train in the country are empty. Although most people use public transportation, the majority of entry points do have crowds.
This entry point was empty when photographer Michael Huniewicz took its picture. He was of the opinion that most entry points are deserted. We guess these places are perfect to make a good horror movie.
23. Normal Looking Streets
Photographer Michael Huniewicz was able to take a shot of everyday life. As there is no much traffic, lots of people walk in the streets.
According to the photographer Michael Huniewicz, the guide would slow down the car whenever there ware pleasant surroundings and speed up whenever the surroundings were less pleasant.
24. Nowhere to Go
The people in North Korea do not have the freedom to leave their country. If caught, you will be thrown into a concentration camp for torture or even be put to death.
When some lucky people are able to escape, they are caught by the Chinese who then send back the men and hold back women to later sell them to Chinese men.
25. Staged Train Station?
Photographer Michael Huniewicz wanted to take a photo of the train station but he found it a bit strange that there were a lot of people who were all dressed nicely. But the odd thing was that there was no scheduled train for that day except for one.
Given that it was the only train scheduled for that day, the photographer believed the train station was staged as most people were walking here and there aimlessly.
26. Vast Farmlands
When you are traveling through the countryside in North Korea, all you can see is the miles and miles of farmlands.
You can see the locals tending the rice fields. As the South Korean government has cut off fertilizers, the farmers have to use feces to make fertilizers.
27. No Taxis for Tourists
Photographer Michael Huniewicz really wanted to travel around the city in these colorful taxis, but he couldn’t because of the law that prevents tourists from using taxis.
The photographer had to travel in the minivan of his guide because only locals are allowed to travel in taxis. This is really shady because taxi drivers can earn more with tourists paying them.
28. Watching Over
Perhaps this is one of the few photos that aren’t illegal. There are two 22 meters high bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il at the Grand Monument on Mansu Hill.
North Koreans take pride in these statues and believe that father and son are watching over them. The building behind the statues is the Korean Revolution Museum.
29. China and North Korea are Really Close (Distance Wise)
In this photo, you can see China (right) and North Korea (left). You can see there is a big difference between both countries.
As China borders North Korea on the Yalu River, one can see how much developed one country is as compared to the other.
30. Letting the Train Pass
The photographer was able to take a photo of people waiting for the train to pass. Although the train takes some time to arrive, people have to wait for a few minutes in advance.
The activity on the road stops for a few minutes whenever a train is about to pass. There is a guard on every stop to ensure everything goes smoothly.
31. Can’t Take Pictures of Certain Places
Although locals and tourists are not allowed to take pictures of certain places, the photographer did it. Even the guide told him to not take the picture; he did it without letting the guide know about it.
This is a picture of a rundown pink tower block. Given that it is an abandoned community, taking its photo wasn’t allowed. Well, the only good thing in this picture is the crops and children.
32. Even Cars Are Considered A Luxury
As half of the population is living in extreme poverty, having a car is considered a luxury. Not many people are able to afford cars or trucks.
Most people in North Korea have to walk or use bike/carriages. One thing is for sure that no one makes the excuse of getting stuck in the traffic.
33. Everyone is Supervised By Soldiers
This photo was taken by Michael Huniewicz in one of the parks in Pyongyang. We can see that a soldier is watching over some women who appear to be street cleaners.
It is a really scary feeling that you’re being supervised at any given moment. Even street cleaners are supervised by soldiers to ensure that they are doing their work. We wonder who supervise the soldiers then.
34. Commuting To Work
In this photo, we can see people commuting to work and they do not seem too much excited about it. One can only wonder how anyone can be happy when they’re living in such harsh conditions.
It can be observed from the picture and uniform of the girls that most people are a public servant (as we saw earlier). The photographer really captured some emotions here (or no emotions at all).
35. A Different Calendar From the Rest of the World
North Korea has a different calendar which is the North Korean Calendar (aka Juche calendar). The calendar borrows from both traditional Korean tradition and the Gregorian calendar used in most parts of the world.
Although the calendar was adopted in 1977, it begins in 1912 which is the birth year of North Korean leader and grandfather to the current leader, Kim Il-Sung.
36. Story Behind The Peace Village (Kijong-dong)
Located next to the South Korea border is a village called Kijong-dong. Established in 1953, this is one of the two villages that were permitted to be in the Korean Demilitarized Zone.
As the village contains high-standard multi-story buildings and cultivated fields, many believe that Kijong-dong is a “propaganda village” that is created to intimidate the South Koreans.
37. The Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge
Now this is one sight that may seem pleasant to many. The Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge connects Dandong with the city of Sinuiju, North Korea. This is actually the last brightly colored lights you will see before entering North Korea.
The dark left side of the picture shows North Korea at night time. It looks depressing and it is actually really gloomy in reality as well.
38. Digital Propaganda
Imagine listening to someone everywhere you go. Thanks to the televisions, the government is able to manipulate the minds of its people with propaganda messages.
In this picture, the waitress is just shown as working but in reality, everyone is forced to listen to propaganda messages of the government. People have no option and this can be considered as their national background music.
39. Equality Laws Better Than Most Countries
Believe it or not, North Korea has some better equality laws as compared to most countries in the world. The equality laws provide women’s rights to sharing and inheriting property, at work rights and also to free marriage and divorce.
Although there are sex equality laws, most women on high posts are wives and relatives of the country’s leaders. Nevertheless, these laws are more than in Western countries.
40. Customs Declaration Form
Photographer Michal Huniewicz got a North Korea customs declaration form before he started his trip. He was searched for anything illegal and he had to list all of his belongings.
With the customs declaration form, you are made clear that you cannot bring in anything illegal in the country along with other items such as GPS, Korean films, books about North Korea (even guidebooks), and pornography.
41. Shorter in Height
North Koreans are actually shorter than South Koreans. As we know that good nourishment is important for gaining height, 24% of North Korea’s population is malnourished. It is mainly because North Koreans eat pickled cabbage and corn.
According to The World Food Programme, many North Koreans have lack of food and people born after the Korean War are 2 inches shorter than South Koreans.
42. Impressive At The Olympics
It is easy to expect that a poor country such as North Korea would not think about participating in an international event, but you’ll be surprised to know that they not only participate in Olympics but also show good results in it.
The country has participated in almost all of the Summer Olympic Games since 1964. North Korean athletes have won 56 gold medals for judo, volleyball, weightlifting, gymnastics, and wrestling, among other things.
43. There are Even Photo Taking Rules
Photographer Michal Huniewicz visited the Mansu Hill Grand Monument and was surprised to know when he was told “visitors who take photos of the statues are required to frame both leaders in the entirety of their picture.”
When a photo doesn’t meet the statue photo-taking rules, it is immediately deleted. As Michal Huniewicz was able to take so many unauthorized photos, he wasn’t going to let any rules dictate how he is going to take a picture.
44. North Koreans Play Some Unusual Instruments
It is hard to think when was the last time we saw someone play the accordion. Well, it might be a rare sight in other parts of the world; it isn’t in North Korea because they like to play some unusual instruments.
It was made mandatory in the 1990s for all school teachers to learn how to play the accordion. That explains why the instrument is still very popular in the country.