A photographer visited North Korea 6 times to see what life is really like — here's what he saw

Eric LafforgueThere’s a lot more to North Korea than Kim Jong Un.
  • Photographer Eric Lafforgue has visited Kim Jung Un’s North Korea six times to photograph life in the totalitarian country.
  • Lafforgue was banned after his sixth trip to North Korea, in 2012, after he made an off-handed comment about a group of Spanish tourists visiting the country.
  • Much of what he saw was the more affluent areas of North Korea, like Pyongyang, but he requested to visit far-flung destinations. He found that the further he travelled from Pyongyang, the more he saw the poverty in which most North Koreans live.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

After publishing hundreds of photos from six visits to North Korea, it was an offhand comment that got French photographer Eric Lafforgue banned.

Lafforgue had seen Spanish tourists wearing Kim Jung Il shirts and told a friend that they likely wouldn’t wear them in Barcelona. The Spaniards heard it and told the guide. One month after returning from the trip, he received a letter with screen captures of his photos, saying they were not good for North Korea and that he could not return.

That was in 2012.

“They know that when I come, I take pictures. They prefer the tourism money, until it causes a problem for one of the people in charge,” Lafforgue told Business Insider.

Lafforgue has always been well aware of this, but throughout the years, he’s played “their game,” as he calls it, to produce some incredible photography.

“The North Korean regime controls everything that goes out of the country,” he said. “Even me, when they let me take a picture of kids smiling, its because it’s good for the country. I take those pictures because there is a real part of the people that are happy and I want to document that … North Koreans are brainwashed, but they live like everybody in the world.”

Lafforgue shared a stunning selection of photos from his many trips to North Korea with us. Many of the photos are available in a calender Lafforgue produced with North Korea-watching website NK News.

This is Pyongyang airport, where Lafforgue flew into.

All tourists must go on a guided tour when they visit North Korea. According to Lafforgue, the guides show more to tourists than stated journalists, so he always declared himself a tourist.

Each time Lafforgue visited, the guides tried to take him on the same “classic” tour to the expected sites.

To avoid this, he started coming when there were special events like the Arirang Mass Games.

The Mass Games are held every year to tell the story of North Korea. They include complicated synchronised performances and it is considered a great honour to take part.

Lafforgue took this portrait on National Day, when citizens celebrate the North Korean declaration of state in 1948.

On April 15th, North Koreans celebrate the birthday of Kim Il Sung. More than 100,000 dancers perform on Kim Il Sung square.

Lafforgue says that North Korea has changed dramatically from when he first visited in 2008. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the regime, he says.

When he first visited in 2008, almost no foreigners visited the country.

Now, he says North Koreans are far more used to seeing people from all over the world. These women are Koreans that grew up and live in Japan. They were touring the country at the same time as Lafforgue.

Many North Koreans now have goods from China, like computers, DVD players, and clothes. Despite the backpack one was wearing, Lafforgue says the children he spoke to didn’t understand who Mickey Mouse was.

Lafforgue says that he was able to have candid conversations with many North Koreans, so long as he stayed away from politics. Many loved to talk about sports teams.

One of the main tourist attractions in Pyongyang is the War Museum, which depicts the Korean War as the North Koreans’ victorious struggle over the American imperialists.

Portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il are everywhere in the country, overlooking the people. It’s so prominent that Lafforgue did an entire series on just the “Great Leaders'” portraits.

Every year, the Pyongyang Floral Festival celebrates the birthday of Kim Jung Il. At the entrance to the Floral exhibition, North Koreans take portraits in front of their leaders.

There are many “fun fairs” in Pyongyang and other cities now. The fun fairs are amusement parks with many rides for North Koreans to go on and games to play.

This scene of emotion between two lovers is very rare in North Korea. Most of the time, women and men do not congregate in public together.

Lafforgue said there are many twins and triplets without parents, like these triplets singing at an orphanage. The official reason is that parents cannot afford to raise 2 or 3 kids at the same time.

A teacher instructs children at Kim Jong Suk school in Pyongyang, while a child attempts to guess the name of each animal. Other children are forbidden to help.

Most North Korean kids are enrolled in “pioneer” programs. They must take part in activities, like helping farm the fields.

North Korean men must stay in the army for at least six years, during which they have minimal communications with their families.

On special occasions, North Koreans carry a special type of plastic flower called a kimjonglia.

A soldier stands in front of the Ryugyong Hotel. It has been in construction since 1987 and has yet to open. Egypt-based Orascom has agreed to help finish the tower in exchange for rights to providing mobile phone service in North Korea.

Many North Koreans now have mobile phones. Orascom says their service covers 75% of North Korea’s population. Still, mobile phones can only call inside the country and no foreign phones are allowed in.

Lafforgue says that many rural North Koreans are more distrustful of foreigners, because they are less educated. This woman was friendly, however.

Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

Lafforgue once stayed with North Koreans on the Chilbo Sea. He says that the North Koreans’ houses in the beach village were nice, because they host tourists, but there was a very poor village within walking distance.

This North Korean couple is one of the families that hosted Lafforgue and the other tourists at the beach village.

The chief of the Chilbo Sea beach village showed Lafforgue a picture of his son, who he says will stay in the North Korean army “until the reunification of Korea.”

Here, North Koreans read the news while waiting in the the Puhung subway station. Puhung means rehabilitation. All 17 subway stations in Pyongyang have names like Rehabilitation, Triumphant Return, Paradise, and Glory.

Pyongyang may be where privileged North Koreans live…

But that doesn’t mean its all up to date. Many buildings are old with no heat or running water.

Lafforgue often requested to see distant sights in North Korea, because he says that the most unfiltered view of North Korea can be seen while on the road.

On Lafforgues’ sixth trip, he was finally able to visit Chongjin in the North, where he saw many instances of extreme poverty. The guides took his and other tourists’ cameras during that part of the trip.

Lafforgue was outright stopped from taking a picture only twice. He says if you act like a tourist would in any other country, it is unlikely that officials will bother you.

Lafforgue says that he loved photographing North Korea because he wanted to capture real emotion among the people. “They’re not robots,” he said.

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