If you’ve been keeping up with International news lately, you may have noticed how much the media is talking about North Korea. With nuclear tests and increased activity around a research facility in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, some are saying that Kim Jong-un is on the brink of launching World War 3. Everyone knows about the threats Kim Jong-un has issued against the United States and its allies. And everyone knows how much most North Koreans suffer.
The elite class of the Hermit Kingdom can enjoy things such as pricey department stores, coffee shops, restaurants, horseback riding, and more, all in the capital. But leave Pyongyang and you won’t have to go far to find poor, starving citizens who can only dream of having the same things the wealthy throw their money away on like it’s nothing. The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer.
Earlier this year, a photographer traveled to North Korea to take photos of what was going on in the country. But it wasn’t without risk. If he was caught snapping photos, he would be charged with espionage and sent to a concentration camp. While the regime likes to say that every citizen is well-fed and happy, we know better. The pictures don’t lie. Here are 15 rare photos that show what’s really happening in North Korea.
15. The Train Stations Are Mostly Empty
Train stations in other countries are usually a lot busier than this, but not in North Korea. Citizens in the country are closely monitored and aren’t allowed to travel out of their town or village, at least not without written permission from the regime (and written permission is nearly impossible to get). And even if someone does manage to get permission to leave, they’re likely to get arrested on false charges of espionage.
The average North Korean citizen probably won’t ever leave their town or village in their lifetime due to the close watch that the government keeps on them. There really isn’t much infrastructure for traveling outside of Pyongyang, the nation’s capital, because of this. A railroad stop in rural North Korea is a hole in a wall and a simple dirt path that leads to the tracks.
14. The Kids Work In The Fields
There really doesn’t seem to be any child labor laws in North Korea. Children as young as six years old will go to work in communal farm fields. This usually happens during harvest season when there is a heavy economic downturn, a downturn that, according to a tour guide provided by the government, is America’s doing. It seems that North Korea needs every able-bodied citizen out in the fields working during this time, even young children.
North Korean children do get leisure time and somewhat of a chance at a normal childhood, though. Or the rich ones, at least. One of the most enjoyed activities enjoyed by wealthy North Korean children is rollerblading. Yes, rollerblading is a sign that you’re wealthy.
13. There Are “Ghost Towns”
There are no limits to what the regime will do to illustrate North Korea as a prosperous and thriving country. Scattered all over the country are plenty of towns and cities, but weirdly enough, many of them aren’t populated, at least only part of the time. The government will regularly command for the entire population of a town or city to pick up everything and move to a different town or city.
This is done to fool those looking at North Korea from far away–namely foreign satellites and spy planes–into thinking that everything is fine and dandy in the country. North Korea even has a completely empty town that’s always been empty and solely exists to show how great and modern life is in the country, despite their claims that the town is a 200-family farming community.
12. The Buildings Are Boring And Half-done
North Korea, particularly Pyongyang, follows the old Soviet-style of design when it comes to their architecture. That means boring cement gray for nearly all of their buildings. The government says that every citizen is equal, and that rule extends to the architecture as well. All the buildings more or less follow the same dreary-looking design. But due to international sanctions, a lack of skilled architects, and inferior craftsmanship, a large number of the buildings are far from structurally sound.
Downtown Pyongyang has some flashy-looking buildings, but those are just there for tour guides to show off and trick tourists into believing that North Korea is just as up-to-date as a highly modern city like Tokyo. Most of those buildings are practically empty or incomplete on the inside. The buildings that are complete don’t have electricity, which means no elevators. That’s a lot of walking.
11. Public Transportation Is In Short Supply
I bet you won’t complain about your daily commute ever again after seeing this picture, huh? Public transportation is only available in Pyongyang and buses don’t come very often. And when they do, you get scenes like this, where groups of people will wait in line for the few buses that do come. Sometimes, they have to wait for hours on end just to get picked up. And since demand is a lot higher than supply, buses will become overcrowded very quickly as people clamber on trying to find a place to sit or stand.
North Koreans don’t really have any other transportation options outside of bicycles or carriages. Private car ownership is very low so there’s hardly ever any traffic on the road, which means that people can walk all over boulevards that were clearly meant for car traffic.
10. The People Are Starving Badly
It’s no secret that many North Koreans are undernourished and underweight. A substantial amount of the population is malnourished, and many have taken to eating rats and squirrels out of desperation. Millions of children are underfed, which has resulted in tens of thousands of them as victims of stunted growth due to extreme malnutrition. The country is in the process of trying to increase its arable farmland so citizens can farm for food, but they’re using outdated farming methods straight out of the 1700’s which, unsurprisingly, isn’t working out.
There is photographic evidence of men fishing for their dinner on the banks of the Taedong River. North Koreans who manage to escape to China are easily noticeable because they’re so emaciated, and they’re inclined to eat everything they see.
9. The Government Keeps A Close Eye On Everyone
This isn’t an uncommon sight. Military watchtowers are stationed all around the country so the regime can keep a watchful eye on its citizens. Hidden microphones and cameras are located everywhere, from parks to homes to even buses and cars. Anything you say and whatever you do in North Korea is liable to be picked up by those watching or listening, so you have to stay on your best behavior, lest you get arrested and thrown into a concentration camp.
The military stations soldiers in every city and every farm to make sure that every citizen keeps his/her toes in line. Soldiers will even hang about street corners and closely watch pedestrians in the street, reporting any suspicious activities to the state authorities.
8. Running Water Is Scarce
Running water is hard to come by in North Korea. Even if you have a faucet in your house, there’s a good chance that there won’t be any water being pumped through the pipes. And without running water, it’s impossible to take a shower or bathe. What most people have to do is go into a river with soap and let the flowing water wash away all the dirt from off their bodies. So you should probably never drink water from a river if you can help it.
The government bans images of its citizens bathing in the river because they believe it paints the country as a poor backwater country which doesn’t provide running water to its people. It actually doesn’t, but they don’t want you to know that.
7. An Electric Fence Surrounds The Country
If the government claims that all its citizens are happy living in the country, then why does it put up an electric fence to prevent anyone from leaving? Earlier this year, the regime set up high-voltage electric fencing around its border with China. One source says that just coming within a meter of the electric fence brings you into contact with the electricity.
“Not even an ant can afford to loiter around the border nowadays,” the source said. “Since electricity was deployed, many people have been shocked, and it’s been said some have died. A woman from Wiyon-dong [Hyesan city] was electrocuted and her eardrums ruptured.” It should be noted that citizens in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province are only supplied electricity for 3-4 hours a day. North Korea has an electric fence that surrounds its borders but can’t afford to provide electricity to all its citizens 24/7.
6. The Grocery Stores Are Practically Empty
Thanks to intense droughts and international trade sanctions, North Korea has been dealing with a serious food shortage problem. While the government claims that all its citizens are well-fed and that they have access to all the food they could ever want, the picture above would beg to differ. The picture was taken at a supermarket where above-average citizens in Pyongyang shop but not the wealthy.
Most of the supplies in the store consist of apples, turnips, and leeks, which isn’t a lot to choose from. Fresh meat and fish are extremely hard to come by. Many have argued that the international trade sanctions are hurting the population and not the regime. The citizens continue to be malnourished while the privileged elite continue to prosper, treating the sanctions as a minor inconvenience.
5. The Citizens Are Not Happy At All
North Korean propaganda will love to tell you that all the citizens of the country are cheerful, content, well-fed and that they never want to leave (not that they have the option to). But in real life, it’s the exact opposite. It’s not exactly the land of smiling faces. The people are angry, resentful, malnourished, and they would probably want nothing more than to leave if the government wasn’t controlling everything and keeping everyone on a short leash.
That’s not to say that North Koreans aren’t happy at all. Like us, North Korean citizens are able to find enjoyment in the simpler things in life, like eating ice cream, taking a trip to the zoo, rowing on the river, and more.
4. Plumbing Is Practically Nonexistent
Only the elite class in North Korea can enjoy amenities that are considered basic here, such as plumbing. This picture was taken inside the bathroom of one of the houses the poor North Koreans have to live in. In the picture, you can see a hand pump that is used to pump water from underground, but the water is going into the bathtub. The bathtub is used as a water storage tank to store drinking water and isn’t mean to be bathed in.
While some houses readily have access to running water, there are others that don’t have flushing toilets. In less up-to-date neighborhoods, every block has public toilets that the inhabitants have to share. In other neighborhoods, tap water is impossible to come by, so the people in the neighborhood have to share a public water pump if they want water.
3. Propaganda Plays Everywhere Constantly
There’s a reason why North Korean children are brainwashed into hating America. Pro-North Korean and anti-American propaganda pretty much plays everywhere and there really isn’t any way to escape it. All that’s on TV are patriotic country music videos and propagandist history shows. North Korean law mandates that you keep these on if you have a TV or radio at all times. If you don’t listen to the propaganda, then you’ll be thrown in jail or face worst consequences, such as execution.
Each week the government screens propaganda-only movies to show its people. That’s not even including the overwhelming amount of billboards, murals, newspapers, and more that depict the North Korean leaders and military as strong and mighty and portrays America and South Korea in a negative light.
2. People Worship The Country’s Leaders
According to the regime, death didn’t end Kim Il Sung’s reign. Even though he died 23 years ago, he is regarded as the country’s “Eternal President.” North Korea is the only “necrocracy” in the world, a country that will be ruled forever by its dead eternal president. Every citizen is required to worship Kim Il Sung. And every house must have well-kept photos of Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il. Before eating any meal, families will look up at the photo and pray, “Thank you, Father Kim Il Sung, for this food.”
There are severe penalties for anyone who criticizes or doesn’t show the proper respect for the regime. In fact, there is a famous story of a young girl who died while trying to save the pictures of the Kims from a flood, and she is celebrated as a hero.
1. People Have Resorted To Eating Grass
Many North Koreans are too poor to go to the grocery store. And for those who can afford to go to the grocery store, they won’t exactly be leaving with ingredients to make five-star meals. So, what do they do? Forage for what they can find, which includes scraps, rats, birds, and yes, grass. And the government isn’t discouraging this practice either; they’re encouraging it. They released a cookbook on what types of grasses taste the best and how eating grass isn’t all that bad.
In the early to mid-1990’s, the government advocated for the population to scour the countryside for wild foods, such as grasses, roots, and stalks, claiming that they were healthy sources of nutrients. A couple of months ago, Putin said that Kim Jong-un would rather have his people eat grass than give up his nuclear weapons. If only he knew they were already doing that.
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