Incredible Photos Of Life In North Korea

North Korea is a place of deep contradictions.

It confirms our worst fears with its nuclear belligerence, only to reveal its romantic folkloric past.

It confirms a taste for criminal delights – then seduces us with its unexpected charms.

Functioning cities are just a short bus ride from unimaginable prison camps. Those prison camps are only miles from the beautiful sights of Korean mythology, which tell of magical birthplaces and undead leaders who still rule.

These paradoxes make North Korea what it is. Here we present the wonderful contradictions of North Korea.

Pyongyang appears relatively prosperous, well-maintained and happy.

Ryugyong Hotel north korea

Joseph A. Ferris III

Ryugyong Hotel

But Pyongyang is in many respects a Potemkin Village.

Eric Testroete

Fun fact: North Korea does in fact maintain an actual Potemkin Village: Kijŏng-dong, located in the DPRK’s half of the Demilitarized Zone. According to intelligence, Kijŏng-dong was built in the 1950s to encourage South Koreans to defect to the North, and is now home to a small number of people whose sole job is to keep the place up.

Want to know what it’s like to land in Pyongyang? Read about the first day of the journey »

North Korea is extremely poor.

poor boy north korea

Photo: Eric Testroete

But the country is sitting on one of the world’s greatest caches of natural resources.

entrance to Pyongsan Fluorite Mine north korea

Photo: North Korea Blog

North Korea is open for business. Here are 5 awesome ways to make money from North Korea »

The de-militarized zone, a 160 mile-wide stretch of land separating North from South Korea, has largely maintained peace since the 1953 armistice.

north korean government guid

Photo: Andrew Lombardi

But the de-militarized zone is hardly de-militarized. There are nearly 1 million soldiers poised and leaning forward on either side.

demilitarized zone north and south korea

Joseph A. Ferris III

North Koreans despise Americans. That is what they are taught in school, that is what state newspapers preach, and that’s what we’re told in the West.

north korean solider

Joseph A. Ferris III

But North Koreans are actually fascinated by Westerners. And we found that most of them — especially the young ones — absolutely love Americans.

north korean kids

Photo: Joseph A. Ferris III

North Korea was founded by Kim Il Sung and ruled by Kim Jong Il — demigods who are as quintessentially Korean as you can get.

kim il sung and kim jong il north korea photos

Photo: Joseph A. Ferris III

Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and now lies in state — perfectly preserved — at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace.

kim il sung burial north korea

Photo: The North Korea Blog

But Kim Il Sung — despite being dead for almost 20 years — is still “Eternal President” of North Korea.

great leader kim il sung north korea

Photo: Joseph A. Ferris III

We were there for Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday bash. Read the American in North Korea’s account of the crazy centennial »

But Kim Il Sung was born in the USSR, and Kim Jong Il’s birthplace (now closed off to visitors) was invented at Mount Paekdu. Both died of natural causes.

kim il sung speech north korea

The Marxist-Leninist

Kim Jong Un is ushering in a new era for North Korea.

north korean citizens walking

Photo: Joseph A. Ferris III

But Kim Jong Un’s first year as dictator has been a general continuation of his father’s policies — and in many cases, even more brutal and focused on keeping the regime alive.

kim jong un north korea

The North Korea Blog

North Koreans are generally kind, modest, humble people.

north korean men

Joseph A. Ferris III

But they sure know how to party. It’s a huge part of the culture.

north korean 'partying' flash mob

Photo: Andrew Lombardi

There isn’t much civilian technology in North Korea.

north korea pushing person in cart

Photo: Joseph A. Ferris III

But cell phones are everywhere — over 1 million of them across the country.

cell phone use north korea

Joseph A. Ferris III

North Korea considers itself a unique, exceptional nation.

Tower of the Juche Idea

Joseph A. Ferris III

But the regime is obsessed with mimicry and competition.

north korean imitation arc de triomphe

Photo: Andrew Lombardi

Most North Koreans have never played frisbee.

north korea frisbee

Photo: Joseph A. Ferris III

But they’re *amazing* at it.

north korean boy frisbee

Photo: Joseph A. Ferris III

Certain North Koreans are actually actors playing the part of “happy citizen” for Western visitors.

north korean family mother and son

Photo: Andrew Lombardi

But even those “actors” are just real people living out their lives, with little control over their career choices.

north koreans on bikes

Joseph A. Ferris III

At the same time, the country employs true career actors to perform in North Korean films.

north korean actors

Photo: Joseph A. Ferris III

north korean film set

Photo: Joseph A. Ferris III

The DPRK continues to be a strange and wonderful enigma. Heartbreaking and inspiring, terrifying and charming, bizarre and familiar — it is the last bastion of extreme, unapologetic, definitional contradiction left in the world.

Now you know why we go back every year.

Because as William Blake wrote,

Do what you will this life’s a fiction,

And is made up of contradiction.

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