North Korea has been in the news a lot, lately. Last year, it was because we were worried that North Korea would nuke the US. Now, all eyes are on President Trump and North Korea's dictator ruler, Kim Jong-un. The two leaders have agreed to meet for a historic summit, one that gives us all hope that 1) North Korea won't be nuking us anytime soon and 2) the people of North Korea may benefit from relaxed tensions between their government and the rest of the world.
It's hard to imagine the kind of terror and poverty North Koreans live in daily. The oppressive regime of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (the irony of the name isn't lost on anyone) creates a very bleak life for its citizens. A couple of brave photographers risked it all to smuggle out pictures from inside of North Korea, so now we get to actually see a glimpse into the daily lives of North Koreans.
One of these photographers is Michal Huniewicz, who has taken two series' worth of photographs in North Korea: Road to North Korea documents Huniewicz's journey into the country, and Ostensibly Ordinary: Pyongyang documents his travels through the capital city.
Huniewicz shot many of the photos illegally, and they depict images the North Korean government surely doesn't want seen. If he had been caught, there's no telling what his punishment would have been, but he risked his life so that he could share the information with the world.
This is the first photograph Huniewicz took of North Korea while in the country. Just one look at this photo gives you an idea of the very sterile, regimented designs of North Korean cities. And I'd wager it's not anybody's dream to live in a place that looks like this.
"It felt like landing on another planet, and looked like an Oriental version of Eastern Europe from before 1989," Huniewicz said. "The city is Sinuiju."
Huniewicz snapped this from his train, which is illegal to do. Fortunately, no one caught him, because his trip would have come to a very, very fast end before it had even begun.
"China borders North Korea on the Yalu River," Huniewicz writes. "The difference between the two countries in terms of wealth is staggering, as this photo demonstrates."
On one side, you have people who barely have enough money to put rice on the table every day, while on the other side, you have people living in lavish penthouses. This is a striking photo, as it reveals the stark contrast between China and the socialist, isolated state of North Korea. And many of its citizens aren't even aware of just how poor their living conditions are, because they have been exposed to nothing else.
Once at the hotel, the tour guides confiscated Huniewicz's and his fellow tour members' passports.
Huniewicz recounted the experience: "Our North Korean guide said, `Because you no longer have your passports, you will not be allowed to walk on your own, since if you are wounded in a car accident, hospital staff will not know who you are.'"
All of the buildings look like types of prisons, which in effect, they are. Even in their own homes, North Koreans do not have the freedom that we have. They are always being monitored and their entertainment is strictly censured.
Here's Huniewicz breaking yet another rule. He cut off the rest of the leaders' statues in this picture, and that does not fly in North Korea.
"The place is called Mansu Hill Grand Monument," Huniewicz wrote, "and you are informed that 'visitors who take photos of the statues are required to frame both leaders in the entirety of their picture.'"
This is a photo of the the Grand People's Study House, which is located in center of the capital, the Central District."
"The library inside that building has some foreign books, but one needs a permission to get them, because otherwise they would contaminate the North Korean minds with Western ideas," explained Huniewicz.
So much of what North Korea portrays to the world is smoke and mirrors. They put on a show for visitors to show that the country is powerful and wealthy and that its citizens are happy and healthy, but once the visitors leave, all of that changes. This photo depicts a scene Huniewicz is convinced was staged for the benefit of tourists.
"We looked at a surreal scene that appeared like something out of a theatre in its perfection and artifice," he wrote. "Elegant men, beautiful women, walking in a simulated hurry, travellers without a reason (ours was the only train that day), all to impress us and so that the station doesn't look empty."
Huniewicz stayed at the Yanggakdo Hotel, where most tours put up Western visitors during their time in Pyongyang. The Yanggakdo is situated on an island in the Taedong River, and hotel guests cannot leave the island on their own. The island has been appropriately dubbed the "Alcatraz of Fun."
Huniewicz snapped this photo of Pyongyang from his hotel room.
"On the left, the Koryo hotel, supposedly on fire quite recently. This is where you will stay if you are Chinese - the Chinese are given a lot more freedom than anyone else. The hotel is in the city centre, and the tourists staying there can walk around the block on their own, and get away with crossing the streets (although it's officially not allowed)."
On the right, there's the Ryugyong, also known as the Hotel of Doom. This tall building sits empty, since North Korea doesn't have the money to complete the construction, which started in 1987.
At the Yanggakdo, there is no elevator button for the fifth floor. The mystery surrounding this hidden hotel floor has sparked rumors that the fifth floor is dedicated to monitoring "hotel rooms via video and phone taps."
While touring the city, Huniewicz and his fellow tour group members were not allowed to walk anywhere without their tour guides.
The tour bus driver, however, was courteous enough to slow down whenever he felt that "the surroundings were impressive." Likewise, he hit the gas whenever they drove through less impressive areas, just in case one of the passengers was trying to snap an unflattering photo of Pyongyang.
Huniewicz quickly realized that there was nothing humorous about the communist country.
"You see, when I thought of going to North Korea, I worried I wouldn't be able to keep a straight face seeing all that absurdity all around," Huniewicz said. "But when you actually are in North Korea, it's just not funny. It's utterly horrible."
In a split-second rebellious decision, Huniewicz snuck off to snap a photo of this off-limits grocery store, and it's hard to ignore the nearly-empty shelves. Huniewicz noted that an apple cost about 5 dollars, which may help explain why malnutrition has stunted millions of North Koreans' growth.
Another photographer, Eric Lafforgue, was able to sneak some telling photographs out of North Korea, such as this one, which shows a man with severe malnutrition. North Korea tries desperately hard to maintain a specific image.
"It is also forbidden to photograph malnutrition," Lafforgue explained. But he did it anyway, because he wanted to know the truth lying behind North Korea's borders.
Power outages are common in North Korea. Lafforgue explains, "In the art centre of Pyongyang, we experienced a power outage, a daily event the North Koreans hate to show. When it happens, they tell you it’s because of the American embargo."
These pictures featuring the poverty in the nation are especially heart-breaking.
"The North Korean officials hate when you take this kind of picture. Even when I explain that poverty exists all around the world, in my own country as well, they forbid me from taking pictures of the poor," Lafforgue wrote.
Lafforgue quickly noticed just how paranoid North Koreans were. If there was any chance that a photo of their country could be interpreted in a negative way, they would stop it right away.
"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."
Research based on those who have defected from the North has shown that the average height of people born after the Korean War is two inches shorter than their southern counterparts, likely due to the widespread malnutrition in the country.
Even your haircut isn’t free from government control in North Korea. There are only 28 approved haircuts you can get, and Kim Jong-un's 'do isn't on the list. Older men can have their hair as long as 2 ¾ inches, however.
The North Korean government built the town of Kijong-dong right along the border with South Korea after the Korean War. It's meant to look like it's inhabited by a couple hundred families, when in reality, no one actually lives there at all. It was built to encourage defectors to come to the North.
Lafforgue explained that this is somewhat of a common scene in North Korea. Citizens still aren't used to seeing so many cars on the roads in Pyongyang (cars are a more recent development in the city), so you can still find children playing in the middle of the street.
This is a photo North Korea definitely wouldn't want getting out. Lafforgue snapped this photo of a child in the middle of the road, which proves that disciplining children is hard, even under a dictatorial regime.