At the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, all eyes have been on the country’s neighbour to the north.
Government leaders from North Korea and South Korea have begun to embrace themes of peace and harmony at the Pyeongchang Games. But international observers have offered a mix of scrutiny and praise as they watch the totalitarian nation warm to its southern neighbour.
We still know very little about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The North Korean government is notoriously secretive. Upon entering the country, visitors are instructed on what they can and cannot take pictures of. Customs agents inspect your mobile phone and other digital devices, including cameras, tablets, and storage cards, for banned content.
In 2015, these restrictions prompted Getty photographer Xiaolu Chu to travel by train through the country, documenting everyday life through his phone lens. He told Business Insider it was too risky to use a high-end camera because locals would report him to the authorities.
While some images were deleted during run-ins with the police, Chu shared some snapshots with us. Take a look at life inside North Korea.
Chu took the long way around during his visit to North Korea.
Most Chinese tourists enter by train through Sinuiju or by plane through Pyongyang. He instead travelled to Russia so he could access the northern port at Tumangang.
The train ride from Tumangang to Pyongyang — the capital of North Korea — lasts a day. It was canceled because of a dispute between North Korea and South Korea.
“Fortunately, we had a whole day to go out and take some pictures in the village,” Chu said.
He saw scores of people living in abject poverty. Many begged for money.
“There are nearly no fat people in North Korea, everyone looks very thin,” Chu said.
Many of the residential buildings looked run down and in need of repair.
When he later returned to the train station, he noticed portraits of the country’s former leaders and the words “long live” hanging overhead.
At night, these shrines were the only lit structures in the village. Other buildings sat in darkness.
The next day, he boarded a train for the nation’s capital.
A customs agent on board checked his tablet to make sure it wasn’t GPS-enabled. The government also jams signals as a security measure.
The customs agent also checked his laptop and DSLR camera. Chu said the agent had no trouble operating the devices, with the exception of the MacBook.
The train chugged along, giving Chu glimpses of everyday life. This boy collected corn cobs beside the tracks.
Many people rode bicycles to get around.
Some scenes were quaint. Children took an afternoon dip in a river.
Anytime the train pulled into a station, there were painful reminders of the country’s poor living conditions. This little boy begged for money at a station in Hamhung.
Korean People’s Army soldiers rested on the tracks.
Whenever he hopped out, Chu shot photos on his phone. “DSLR is too obvious to take pictures in that condition as people in the village were extremely vigilant,” he said.
Several locals reported him to the police. “A policeman and a solider stopped us and checked our mobile phone. I hid most of the pictures, [but a] few pictures were deleted,” he said.
The tourism bureau encourages visitors to take photos of student-exercise groups. These kids rehearsed for a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
Photography of anti-American protests is also welcomed. These students were marching against South Korea and the US.
Eventually, Chu reached the railway station in Pyongyang.
We asked Chu if he was scared of retribution for publishing the photos from his trip.
“No, absolutely not,” he said.
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