31 photos of North Korea that Kim Jong Un wouldn't want you to see

ReutersNorth Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
  • As speculation grows around the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, all eyes are on the Hermit Kingdom – one of the most closed-off places in the world.
  • Propaganda runs rampant and presents a very different outlook on day-to-day life for North Koreans.
  • But much of the country lives in poverty, thousands of people are held as political prisoners, and the government controls most aspects of life.
  • In recent weeks, life inside the country has appeared even grimmer than usual as the coronavirus pandemic has struck North Korea’s already-fragile economy.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un keeps a close watch over the media in his country, controlling much of what citizens know of the outside world, and vice versa.

Though Kim has fought to present the Hermit Kingdom to the world as a bastion of military might, nuclear power, and anti-West sentiment, the reality of daily life is grim.

Much of the country lives in poverty, tens of thousands of people are held as political prisoners, and the government tightly controls most aspects of life.

Here’s what North Korea really looks like, as Kim hasn’t been seen in public since April 11.

Day-to-day life in North Korea can be bleak. Sanctions put in place to punish the nation for its nuclear weapons tests have crippled the economy.

Wong Maye-E (Associated Press)A young girl playing on a safety rail at the carpark in front a department store in Pyongyang.

Source: Business Insider

As the coronavirus outbreak hits, life has become even grimmer. Recent photos taken inside the country show residents wearing masks, walking through even emptier streets than usual.

Source: Foreign Policy

The country initially said there were no coronavirus cases — a highly unlikely scenario. But North Korea took preventive measures nevertheless, such as implementing quarantines, shutting down tourism, and closing its border with China.

Source: Brookings Institution

The Hermit Kingdom, one of the most closed-off places in the world, has experienced increasingly severe food shortages in recent years.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Source: Business Insider

Childhood in North Korea can be difficult. Many children in rural areas have to work on farms, and forced labour drives much of the country’s economic output.

Damir Sagolj/ReutersA boy in a cornfield in an area damaged by floods and typhoons in the Soksa-Ri collective farm in North Korea’s South Hwanghae province in September 2011.

Sources: Business Insider, Human Rights Watch

Malnutrition affects a shocking number of North Korean children — roughly 28% of kids under 5 have stunted growth.

REUTERS/Choi Bu-SeokA South Korean man holds photos of what he says are starving North Korean children in December 2009.

Source: New York Times

Poverty and hunger are most acute in North Korea’s countryside. An estimated 41% of the population, or 10.5 million people, are believed to be undernourished.

Wong Maye-E (Associated Press)A North Korean woman rests by the Pothong River in July.

Sources: Business Insider, New York Times

Xiaolu Chu, a Getty photographer who travelled through North Korea by train in 2015, said he noticed scores of people in rural villages begging for money. He shared some of his photos with Business Insider.

Xiaolu Chu/GettyA boy begs for food on a Hamhung Railway Station platform in Hamhung, North Korea, in August 2015.

“There are nearly no fat people in North Korea,” Chu told Business Insider. “Everyone looks very thin.”

Xiaolu Chu/GettyPeople cool down at a train carriage door in North Korea in August 2015.

But even North Koreans in cities face poor living conditions. Many live in densely packed high-rise apartments and often experience electricity shortages and elevator breakdowns.

Wong Maye-E (Associated Press)An apartment block in Pyongyang.

Source: Business Insider

And there’s not much access to the internet — people make do with a closed-off computer network system accessible in only a handful of places, like this library in Pyongyang.

Wong Maye-E (Associated Press)People at the Grand People’s Study House.

Source: BBC

But there are some signs that even despite the slew of economic sanctions on North Korea, its economy is beginning to stabilise, and market forces are taking hold. A number of North Korean defectors and recent visitors told The Wall Street Journal that factories in the country are expanding their output and living conditions in certain areas are better than they were.

Associated Press/Dita AlangkaraAn employee stands inside a bedroom at a dormitory provided for textile factory workers as portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hang above the beds in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

In an effort to prove that Kim is improving citizens’ standard of living, the government even overhauled its public transportation system in 2019 to include new electric trams throughout Pyongyang.

Source: Associated Press

Much of North Korea’s populace must rely on public transportation, as they are too poor to afford their own cars or even pay taxi fares. But even the new subways and trams look old-fashioned and worn down.

Source: Associated Press

The country’s economy is largely fuelled by the mining industry — particularly the coal trade, which is believed to rely at least in part on illegal shipments to China, according to a confidential United Nations report.

Source: Bloomberg

In 2019, the United States even intercepted one of North Korea’s largest bulk carriers, which prosecutors alleged was used to “illicitly ship coal” in violation of international sanctions.

Source: Department of Justice

Photos of old North Korean mining towns show just how much the country’s economy has crumbled in recent decades. The coal-mining towns of Kilju and Kimchaek were built around a once-vibrant ironworks complex, but an Associated Press reporter who visited in 2014 said the area had “become a rust belt, gritty and relentlessly grey.”

Source: Associated Press

One of the most telling aspects of North Korean life is its military. The country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, loves to show off its military might, holding flashy parades and distributing propaganda photos of vast armies of marching soldiers.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters

But it’s rarer to capture photos that show the flipside of military life. North Korean soldiers are often malnourished or ill because of rigorous training and a lack of food.

REUTERSA North Korean soldier kicks a goat on the banks of the Yalu River in July 2009.

As one soldier defected in 2017, others shot him five times. Surgeons in South Korea then made a shocking discovery as they rushed to treat his wounds: He was riddled with parasites.


Source: Business Insider

The parasitic worms, some of which 11 inches long, illustrate the poor conditions in North Korea. The country still uses human excrement to fertilize its crops, a practice that can spread parasites.

CNNThe defector’s surgeon presents his findings.

Sources: The New York Times, Business Insider

Defections aren’t uncommon, though the number of people who did so dropped by 21% in 2017, to 1,127.

Reuters/Kim Jong-HiA North Korean soldier keeps watch in front of a guard post next to a spot where a soldier defected.

Source: Quartz

South Korea attributes the falling number in part to tighter border security. North Korean soldiers are ruthless when they see people escaping — here are bullet holes from when they tried to shoot a defector in November 2017.

Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

Another disturbing aspect of life in North Korea is the country’s notorious prison camps, where citizens — some of whom were found to have committed minor infractions that wouldn’t be considered crimes in other countries — can face appalling conditions.

Google EarthThe Jongori prison camp in North Korea.

Source: Washington Post

Prisoners in these so-called re-education camps are often starved and forced to do hard labour. Some survivors have reported harsh interrogations and even torture. Though there aren’t photos of the camps, they’re visible on Google Earth.

Google EarthThe Kaechon ‘re-education’ camp in North Korea.

Source: Washington Post

The regime also keeps a tight control over what information the public can consume. For instance, North Korean propaganda said in February 2019 that Kim was a frontrunner for the Nobel Peace Prize, ahead of his summit with President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Kyodo News via Getty ImagesPeople in Pyongyang read a report of the official newspaper of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party on Feb. 27, 2019, about the country’s leader Kim Jong Un’s arrival in Vietnam for his second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Source: Radio Free Asia

Despite what North Korean propaganda claimed, the summit was widely regarded to be a failure after talks collapsed and the summit ended early without any meaningful progress on nuclear disarmament.

Source: Business Insider

The international community has long condemned North Korea’s human-rights record. The US has highlighted victims of especially egregious brutality, like Ji Seong-ho, who attended Trump’s State of the Union address in January 2018.

Associated Press/Pablo Martinez MonsivaisJi holds up his crutches during Trump’s speech.

Source: Business Insider

Ji left his homeland in 2006. He said he crossed thousands of miles on crutches after enduring years of hunger, grievous injuries from falling on train tracks, and torture at the hands of North Korean police.

Reuters/Leah MillisJi gives an interview in the White House briefing room in January.

Source: The New York Times

“I understand you still keep those crutches as a reminder of how far you have come,” Trump said during his State of the Union speech, adding: “Seong-ho’s story is a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.”

Reuters/Kim Hong-JiJi’s crutches, which he used when he defected.

Source: White House

Today, that freedom is far from reality for many still in Kim’s North Korea.

REUTERS/Damir SagoljA schoolgirl walks by as students and volunteers work to repair the water supply system in Haeju, North Korea, which was hit by floods and typhoons in October 2011.

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