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by Jonathan Stone
These are some of the most interesting, adventurous and dangerous documents of a trip. Photographer Michal Huniewicz traveled to North Korea to capture these rare photographs, despite the strict laws and security checks by North Korean officials.
These images offer a view inside the most inaccessible country in the world, or as the photographer best describes it, “quite possibly the most mysterious and weird country on the planet.”
Taken from Huniewicz’ website, these photographs are accompanied with informative captions or comments of the photographer, and we promise you that they are the most interesting thing you’ll see today.
Yalu River
China borders North Korea on the Yalu River. That’s one way to get a taste of North Korea if you have not obtained a visa (also, the only way if you’re South Korean – South Koreans cannot get the visa at all). You take a boat that even takes a detour into a distributary with North Korean soil on both sides.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/8000s.
North Korea vs. China
For it is China now that plays the role of North Korea’s master. In Dear Leader, one of the best non-fiction books on North Korea I’ve read, the author recalls how even the great leader Kim Jong-il was once summoned and humiliated by the Chinese (for saying North Korea might be selling weapons to Taiwan). [2]
The difference between the two countries in terms of wealth is staggering, as this photo demonstrates.
Update: Many people have pointed out to me that I may have exaggerated the influence China has on North Korea, as North Korean trade partners are more diverse than official records would suggest.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/9.0, 1/1250s.
Safari
It’s quite incredible to witness Chinese or South Korean tourists interacting with North Korean fishermen – it reminded me of safaris is East Africa. You keep wondering, what are the North Koreans really thinking?
ISO 200, 70mm, f/4.5, 1/4000s.
Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge
The difference between North Korea and China becomes even more apparent at night, when Dandong becomes a brilliant metropolis, while North Korea plunges into darkness.
In the photo, the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, which connects Dandong with the city of Sinuiju, North Korea. [3]
ISO 400, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/15s.
North Korean Fisherman
The North and South Koreans might be one nation, but after a few generations living completely apart, they have less and less in common. Not only are the North Koreans shorter on average because of malnutrition (Christopher Hitchens called them a nation of racist dwarfs) [4], it also makes one in four of young men too mentally retarded for military service [5] – too slow to even follow orders…
ISO 200, 70mm, f/5.0, 1/1600s.
All Along the Watchtower
And if you’re North Korean, you cannot just leave North Korea. There are watchtowers and guards everywhere. If you’re caught escaping – by North Korean soldiers – you end up in a concentration camp for a few months or years. That’s if you’re an ordinary citizen and trying to escape because of poverty. For more important defectors, death awaits. [2]
If you’re caught escaping by the Chinese, they send you back if you’re a man. But the captured women are referred to as “pigs”, and sold to Chinese men: “They’re graded according to their age and appearance. A grade one ‘pig’ fetches around 200,000 won; grade two goes for 150,000 won; and a grade three will bring in 100,000 won. The brokers, who act as middlemen, take half the selling price as their fee. Grade one is equivalent to about US $1500. If you get sold for that amount, at least you go to a better house.” [2]
ISO 200, 70mm, f/3.5, 1/5000s.
Infrastructure
There is some sparse, 50s-looking infrastructure on the North Korean side of the river.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/4.5, 1/2500s.
Chinese Blocks
… While China shows off these neat blocks of flats on its side.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/4.5, 1/400s.
Dandong Railway Station
This is where you board your train to North Korea. It then slowly moves across the [new] bridge, into North Korea, where a major customs check occurs.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/3.2, 1/800s.
Customs Declaration
At this point, you must already have your North Korean visa issued. Your visit has been approved by the Party, and you have designated guides assigned.
And here’s a North Korean customs declaration form. We only got one for the whole group, and, outsmarted by the rest of us, I was forced to fill it in.
It mentions GPS. My camera doesn’t provide geotagging, but it does have a GPS entry in the menu, in case I’d like to attach a GPS unit. When a North Korean customs officer saw that in the camera menu, she grew very suspicious of my camera and wouldn’t let go of it, even though every time she left our carriage (the checks on your way in are done inside the train) we tried to hide it in various places.
Pro tip: Attach your least conspicious and least professional looking lens (ideally a Sigma, ha ha) to your camera to avoid any impression you’re a pro.
Pro tip: Change the menu language to something other than English to confuse them and slow them down.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/160s.
List of Belongings
Ah, your typical list of belongings (?).
We were told that if we bring any porn into the country and they find out, they will show it to our travel companions to embarass us, and confiscate the device. They also searched the laptops for any Korean films, for the Interview comedy, books about North Korea. Books about North Korea (even travel guides) are going to be confiscated. They didn’t even look at my Kindle though.
The whole check lasted 3 hours, and one of us had his film about the fall of Yugoslavia deleted for some reason.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/160s.
Blood Ant
And this form to sign, too.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/160s.
First Photo in North Korea - Sinuiju
This is the first photo I took in North Korea, from the train. It felt like landing on another planet, and looked like an Oriental version of Eastern Europe from before 1989. The city is Sinuiju.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/5000s.
North Korean Children
I forgot to mention – you’re not allowed to take pictures from the train. There are ordinary North Koreans on the train with you, but they didn’t say anything when I took these pictures. There are also uniformed North Koreans, and I avoided taking pictures when they were around. It was very much like a stealth video game. However, if they do catch you, they will probably just get upset and have you delete the photo.
Pro tip: You can override the firmware on your camera, so that the Delete button doesn’t really delete the photos, it simply hides them so that it appears the file is gone, but it is still on the card.
Pro tip: If you don’t override your firmware, even if your files are deleted, you can still most likely recover them, so long as you don’t write to that card any more.
ISO 200, 31mm, f/2.8, 1/5000s.
From the Train
After crossing the border, you spend a few hours on the train before you reach Pyongyang. The other option is to fly from China – and that is your only option if you’re American. Americans are not allowed on this train.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/1250s.
Fields of North Korea
Rice fields of North Korea. Bicycle and own two feet are the most common means of transport for ordinary people.
ISO 200, 70mm, f/2.8, 1/5000s.
Leaders
Giant portraits of Kim Il-sung, the Eternal President of North Korea, his son Kim Jong-il, the Eternal Secretary of North Korea, and Kim Jong-suk, the wife of the former. I asked our guide about the wife of the latter. “We don’t talk about her”. Okay…
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/5000s.
Railway Crossing
Railway crossing and pretty neat blocks of flats.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/6400s.
On His Way to Work
People on their way to what looks like a factory. “(the Korean Workers’) Party is never going to forget the comrades of Rakwon (city)” – Kim Il-so’ng. [8]
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/5000s.
Student
“If you survive a thousand miles of suffering, there will be ten thousand miles of happiness” – party slogan. [2]
ISO 200, 36mm, f/2.8, 1/4000s.
Train Station
“‘I rule through music and literature.” – Kim Jong Il. “Anyone who composes a work that has not been assigned to the writer through this chain of command is by definition guilty of treason. All written works in North Korea must be initiated in response to a specific request from the Workers’ Party.” [2]
It was Kim Jong Il who decided that Kim Il-sung should be smiling in his funeral portrait.
ISO 200, 42mm, f/2.8, 1/5000s.
In the Fields
North Koreans supposedly believe that the entire world is in awe of their achievements. [2]
ISO 200, 36mm, f/2.8, 1/6400s.
On the Bus
Pluralism and individualism are regarded as the greatest enemy. I understood the significance of being able to drive a car anywhere you want, when you please, where you please – as our guide told us in North Korea you only travel big distances by bus or train, when you get permission.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/4000s.
Laundry in the River
After the Korean War, North Korea was economically a more attractive destination than South Korea, and many people, including 100,000 ethnic Koreans from Japan, were welcomed into North Korea.
ISO 200, 52mm, f/2.8, 1/4000s.
Bullock Cart
Juche, or self-reliance, is the ideology of North Korea. But the omnipresent poverty that even your guides won’t dispute, makes one doubt about how self-reliant North Korea really is, especially with its dependence on international aid (which is explained to ordinary North Koreans as the spoils of war…).
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/4000s.
North Korean Soldiers
Doubly-illegal photo – North Korean soldiers.
ISO 200, 29mm, f/2.8, 1/2500s.
Platform
Turns out that the North Korean language has two distinct registers of speech, one relating to the Leader, and one for everyone else. For example, you’d never use words such as “dear” to refer to your loved ones. You are supposed to truely love the Leader alone, and the North Korean song “Mother” tells you how motherly love is nothing compared to the love of the Communist Party.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/3200s.
Patiently Waiting
Patiently waiting for the train to pass.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/5000s.
Elderly Couple
Elderly couple.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/3200s.
Across the Country
Across the country.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/3200s.
De Niro
The man has some genuine dignity.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/4000s.
North Korean Landscape
Unspoiled North Korean landscape made us speculate about what it would be like to visit the country once it shakes off its shackles, but before it’s overrun by tourists.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/2500s.
Pyongyang Railway Station
This was one of the most strange moments – when we finally arrived in Pyongyang. Through the courtains of the compartment window, we looked at a surreal scene that appeared like something out of a theatre in its perfection and artifice. 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.
We arrived in North Korea.
Pyongyang
A few steps on the platform and we were intercepted by our two guides, who wouldn’t leave us until the end of the stay, except sometimes in the hotel. As you leave the train station, Pyongyang seems like an ordinary city, although quite extrordinarily clean and not very loud or busy.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/3.2, 1/2500s.
In the Minivan
They didn’t let us walk anywhere – within maybe a minute or two from leaving the train we were all squeezed into a minivan that would be our second home for the entire stay.
As you can see, it’s now OK to take your smartphone with you, although there will be no reception and no wifi anywhere. Your phone will be thoroughly searched on your way out.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/4.0, 1/500s.
From the Minivan
This was how most photos would be taken – through the minivan window.
Pro tip: Take your polarising filter with you to minimise reflections.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/4.0, 1/640s.
Crowd
You have to be fast. Soon we noticed that while Pyongyang is meant to be a utopian showcase for foreign visitors like ourselves, there are more glamorous bits, and there are less glamurous bits. What’s more, our mute driver was perfectly aware of this, so 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.
One of us said that taking photos in North Korea was therefore like Olympic archery.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/4.0, 1/160s.
Brutalist Architecture
A honeycomb of flats reminded me of socialist architecture in Eastern Europe.
ISO 200, 48mm, f/4.0, 1/500s.
Pyongyang Cityscape
This is what Pyongyang looks like from the Yanggakdo Hotel.
On the left, the Koryo hotel, supposedly on fire quite recently. [1] 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, the Ryugyong, aka the Hotel of Doom. The 330 m tall buildigs stands largely empty, as North Korea doesn’t have the funds to finish its construction (started in 1987). [3]
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/250s.
Yanggakdo
Non-Chinese will be staying here, in the Yanggakdo Hotel, which happens to be located on an island. I believe I read somewhere (Pyongyang comic book?) that you used to be to leave the hotel and walk around the island freely, but that’s no longer the case. You can leave the building and walk the small area in front of the entrance between the hotel and the parking lot (literally 5 metres by 20 metres).
Update: It has been brought to my attention that, at least historically, non-Chinese foreigners were allowed to stay in hotels other than Yangakkdo.
ISO 1600, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/30s.
Juche Tower
Before entering North Korea we were told by our Chinese guide (who did not enter North Korea with us) what would happen if you decided to ignore the limitations and take a stroll outside of the allowed area. Provided they don’t stop you immediately, you’d be arrested, threatened, and then forced to pay in order to be released (the person who actually did do it had to pay $10,000 USD). If you are American, all bets are off though.
ISO 1600, 66mm, f/2.8, 1/40s.
Dear Leaders
On of the people that was part of my group told the story of visiting Albania when it was still part of Communist Yugoslavia a Communist state (thanks to Igor Kolonić for pointing this out). As soon as they arrived in the hotel, their guide said, “Now we will take your passports away. Because you will 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.”
In the hotel, 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.”
ISO 200, 48mm, f/7.1, 1/200s.
Reception
Meet our guides. We could not leave the hotel area without them. She was clearly the good cop, and even sang a song for us. He was the bad cop, and we reasoned he must have had some military authority, as soldiers would salute him upon inspecting his papers.
His voice would tell us to go to sleep and wake us up with a morning call.
ISO 280, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/40s.
What About Floor Five?
The rumour is, the fifth floor of the hotel is entire dedicated to the surveillance of the guests. Some people managed to visit it (the door is usually closed when you take the stairs), so it’s worth googling.
ISO 1000, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/40s.
Waitress
The waitresses serving us often seemed a little terrified.
This was our first night in North Korea. We dined in the hotel’s basement, in a small room, debating whether it was bugged, and wondering whether we could trust one another (the whole group was 7 people).
ISO 450, 56mm, f/2.8, 1/40s.
Flags
And then this awkward moment happend in the hotel. Suddenly, the bad cop shows up. We all go silent.
“You want to know the one, most important rule of being in North Korea? The number one rule?”
We go, “Uh, yeah, sure”.
Waitress interrupts him, whispers something, he excuses himself, disappears for two minutes, comes back.
“All right, breakfast’s at eight”, begins to walk away.
“Excuse me, you said something about the most important rule…?”
“The most important rule? Ha ha”, hollow laughter, becomes totally serious. Then walks away looking indifferent.

I don’t know.

ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/3200s.
Across the Bridge
The city centre sports also these colourful skyscrapes, unlike any other buildings I’ve seen. Various bits of infrastructure, like the bridge, look seriously neglected though.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/5000s.
Blue
I think they were really proud of this area, as they were taking us there constantly.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/4000s.
Electricity
Blaine Harden, in his book about the only known prisoner to have successfully escaped from a “total-control zone” grade internment camp in North Korea, Shin Dong-hyuk, writes that the Kim family dynasty has failed to build or maintain a reliable national electricity grid, even though the mountains of North Korea are crisscrossed with swift, large and small rivers. Prior to the partition, 90% of the electricity on the Korean Peninsula came from the North. [4]
Although Pyongyang has two power stations, the electricity supply is in a perpetual state of emergency. Neither power station produces enough power to supply more than one district at a time. [2]
What does that mean for the Yanggakdo Hotel rotating restaurant? It only rotates very rarely!
ISO 200, 66mm, f/2.8, 1/3200s.
Grand People's Study House
In the centre of the capital – the Central District – at the Kim Il-sung Square, the Grand People’s Study House stands big and proud, exactly in front of the Juche Tower on the other side of the Taedong River. The library inside that building has some foreign books [5], but one needs a permission to get them, because otherwise they would contaminate the North Korean minds with Western ideas. Also, did I mention that the official name of North Korea is Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? [6]
Where once Marx and Lenin were displayed, now the two – with all due respect – usual suspects are smiling at us with kindness.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/5000s.
The Badge
It seems that everyone living in Pyongyang has to wear this badge, and you cannot just buy it. Supposedly they may give it to you if you’re obedient and don’t ask stupid questions – or you can buy a counterfeit one in China.
Where are all those people coming from, I hear you ask.
ISO 200, 26mm, f/2.8, 1/2000s.
Flowers
Not unlike the Old Testament gods, the Eternal President of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, expects worship. Hence an endless flow of people with flowers to place at the foot of his statue. Well, my dad was arrested by the Communists for opposing them, and I’m not bringing any flowers!
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s.
My Flowers
… They even made me pay for them. Fine.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/5000s.
Father and Son
Here they are, the father significantly more elegant than the son, who, unlike in real life, isn’t wearing shoes with heels. Initially, he was wearing a coat too, but they replaced it with the parka.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/5000s.
Father and Son
The place is called Mansu Hill Grand Monument, and you are informed that “visitors who take photos of the statues are required to frame both leaders in the entirety of their picture.” [7] Well, my friend Ammar took a selfie where they were both showing in their entirety, and yet it was deleted on the border on our way out of the country. Because we are talented hackers and computer geniuses, we recovered it, and I can show it off here:
Ammar selfie
(Ammar’s home address upon request.)
ISO 200, 24mm, f/4.5, 1/1600s.
Sweeping
What’s the last time you saw a kid in the West cleaning anything? Also, the statue on the left features a North Korean soldier stepping on an American flag.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/7.1, 1/640s.
Supervision
But then it doesn’t seem like they volounteer to keep the place clean.
Since South Korea is no longer providing fertiliser, North Koreans are charged with collecting their faeces in winter for spring planting. This is used to produce toibee, a fertiliser in which ash is mixed with human excrement. Factories and public enterprised have been ordered to produce two tons of toibee. [4]
ISO 200, 70mm, f/2.8, 1/2500s.
Girls
Shin Dong-hyuk recalls students working in winter – handling metal rods without gloves, which sometimes meant ripping skin from one’s hands, and a punishment for complaining was sticking one’s tongue to a freezing piece of metal so that it would stick. [4]
ISO 200, 31mm, f/8.0, 1/640s.
Woman
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. But when you actually are in North Korea, it’s just not funny. It’s utterly horrible.
ISO 200, 34mm, f/2.8, 1/4000s.
Volleyball Game
Socialism supports sport activities, especially the team ones, to build a sense of community. Here, a group of people playing volleyball at the Kim Il-sung Square.
ISO 200, 55mm, f/7.1, 1/1250s.
Little Horseman
We also saw this nice scene.
ISO 200, 70mm, f/7.1, 1/1000s.
Shop Off-Limits #1
In North Korea, there are places you can visit and places you cannot visit, and the latter are far more numerous. Well, this is one of them. Usually, we were accompanied by our guides, one in the front, one in the back. But at one point they were both in the front, which allowed for a literally 15-second long detour into this ordinary shop for North Koreans. That gave me maybe 10 seconds to take this and the following picture, before being kicked out by the bad cop, and the atmosphere became rather unpleasant. I’m not sure if he saw me taking these pictures.
ISO 450, 24mm, f/7.1, 1/40s.
Shop Off-Limits #2
That’s more than $5 USD for those apples. But you never get to handle the local currency called Won. From you, they will accept Chinese Yuan, Euros, or the currency of the Great Enemy, allmighty Dollar.
ISO 800, 24mm, f/7.1, 1/30s.
Pyongyang Times
Pyongyang Times is a weekly magazine that was launched in 1965, and is published in English and French. The front page is usually dedicated to the ruling Kim visiting various places and handing precious advice. The magazine claimed that “if the Olympic Games were to be held in South Korea, many sportsmen and tourists of the world would meet death, infected with AIDS”, as so many people had been deliberately infected by American soldiers. [8]
ISO 200, 32mm, f/2.8, 1/50s.
Encyclopedia of Kimjongilia
This was in a shop with souvenirs: books (Kim Jong-il’s aphorisms andsuch), postcards, posters, etc.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/40s.
Guide
There were many guides in the shop. Some of the guides was watching over us inside, another making sure we don’t leave the shop.
ISO 200, 62mm, f/2.8, 1/5000s.
Scultpure
Social realism in sculpture.
ISO 200, 40mm, f/8.0, 1/500s.
Through the Snow
They took us to this spot over and over again, maybe they were really proud of the mural.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/4000s.
Traffic
There was never much traffic in Pyongyang. How were we supposed to participate in a car accident? …
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/5000s.
Tram
The tram and buildings reminded me of Sarajevo.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/5000s.
Workers
Workers carrying an object across the bridge.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/4000s.
Wee Wee
All the modest elegance and cleanness of Pyongyang… and now this!
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/2000s.
Arch of Triumph
Built to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japan from 1925 to 1945, this is the second tallest triumphal arch in the world. The first tallest one is in Mexico. [9]
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/8000s.
Mural
Another socialist mural in Pyongyang.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/4000s.
Men and Women
Men and women in Pyongyang. We were told old marriages in North Korea were arranged. In fact, most marriages in the world are arranged.
ISO 200, 60mm, f/2.8, 1/6400s.
Oppressive
I find socialist architecture brutal and oppressive.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s.
Commute
Inhabitants of Pyongyang commuting.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/2000s.
Red
Blocks of flats in Pyongyang.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/3.2, 1/2000s.
On the Bus
More commuters.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/500s.
Blocks of Flats
Compare to those in Sarajevo.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/2500s.
Soldiers
Soldiers in Pyongyang.
ISO 200, 70mm, f/2.8, 1/500s.
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