A Brave Photographer Smuggled These Banned Photos Out of North Korea

A Brave Photographer Smuggled These Banned Photos Out of North Korea

North Korea is currently one of the world’s most mysterious nations. Lorded over by the notorious Kim Jong-un, North Korea is a major player on the world stage thanks to its suspected nuclear capability and Jong-un’s relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump. However, even with North Korea being in the news on a daily basis, relatively little is known about life inside the country due to the strict regulations regarding tourist visas. In addition, the government of North Korea banned photos and videos from leaving the country unless they were approved.

Photographer Eric Lafforgue took it upon himself to share what life in North Korea is like with the outside world. He had the chance to visit the mysterious nation six times and snapped breathtaking photos along the way. Laffourgue then illegally smuggled the camera’s memory cards out of the country. Along with the photos, Laffourge included personal anecdotes about his experiences to flesh out what everyday life is really like for the country’s citizens.

Government Approved

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Before looking at Eric Lafforgue’s photos, it’s important to see the types of images that the North Korean government chooses to release.

Above, we see Kim Jong-un touring a modern factory, surrounded by smiling North Koreans. The truth is much less rosy.

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Less a needle in a haystack and more a sore thumb, this image of a woman in bright purple standing in the midst of North Korean soldiers is striking for several reasons.

Not only is she seemingly entirely surrounded by male soldiers, taking photos of the military in North Korea — which is one of the world’s largest armies, totaling 1.2 million men —  is strictly prohibited.

The Army’s ‘Real’ Job
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Despite being the world’s fourth-largest army, whose fighting prowess and large army often are touted in propaganda videos and feared by the West, soldiers inside the country often do small tasks.

According to Lafforgue, “The North Korean army is said to be one of the most important in the world. But if you travel there, you’ll often see soldiers doing menial tasks like helping farmers.”

‘Secret’ Shelter?

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While on the surface this photo of two friends in the Pyongyang subway station appears to simply be a cute photo, it’s also hiding one of the highly militarized country’s secrets in plain sight.

Lafforgue has explained that, “Pyongyang’s subway system is the deepest in the world as it doubles as a bomb shelter. Someone saw me taking this picture and told me to delete it since it included the tunnel.”

Grey Market
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Due to poverty, especially in the nation’s countryside, many North Koreans have taken to selling goods from so-called “grey market” stands (meaning the goods are not contraband like on a black market, but aren’t being sold completely legally either).

From these mostly roadside carts,  citizens sell everything from cigarettes to candy and food in order to get some money in their pockets.

Empty Streets
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For many years, cars in North Korea were limited solely to military officials or high-ranking party members. However, recently vehicles have become more common in some  areas, which has led to a learning curve for many North Koreans.

Lafforgue observed,  “As cars have become more widespread in Pyongyang, the peasants are still getting accustomed to seeing them. Kids play in the middle of the main avenues just like before when there were no cars in sight.”

For Show
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During one of Lafforgue’s trips to North Korea, the nation was celebrating its 50th anniversary. Part of the festivities involved giving tours of homes and other areas.

While each of these homes were carefully selected by the government to be shown off, occasionally you see something like the above, where the bathroom doubles as a cistern.

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According to Lafforgue, poverty wasn’t the only economic strata off limits.

He explained, “Showing poverty is forbidden, but displaying wealth is also a big taboo in North Korea. In a park on a Sunday afternoon, I found this car that belongs to one of Pyongyang’s elite. The owners were having a BBQ.”

Smoke Break

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While taking any pictures of the military is off limits, it is particularly frowned-upon to document soldiers enjoying any type of leisure time.

These two soldiers, caught having a smoke, betray the tight, faceless images of the North Korean military that the country’s propaganda tries to spread.


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In most areas of the world, a trip to the supermarket is a throwaway trip for many. However, like many things, it’s totally different in North Korea.

As Lafforgue explains, “You can find all kinds of food and drink in Pyongyang’s two supermarkets where things are sold in both euros and wins. They even have Evian water. Only the elite can shop there.”

Unsafe Working Conditions

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While the above scene may look to the naked eye like a Hollywood stunt or highly choreographed Cirque du Soleli routine, it’s actually a real0life picture of the unsafe working conditions with which North Korean workers deal.

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North Korea does have amusement parks and entertainment that would be recognizable to Western audiences.

For example, this Delphinium allows citizens to get up close and personal with sea creatures.  They’re even allowed to take photos of the animals, though not the soldiers who make up most of  the crowd.

Rural Transportation

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Due to the lack of access to cars and relatively little public transportation, many North Koreans have to find different ways to travel.

For example, this Pyongyang resident has found a low-tech way to get around. As an added benefit, traveling like this often help one avoid government checkpoints.


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In this shot, Eric Lafforgue captured a student studying on a computer at Pyongyang’s Studies Palace.

However, learning and expanding one’s mind only allow one to go so far; the twin paintings above looking over everyone serve as a reminder of this.


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In this heartbreaking shot, a group of women rest on the side of the road after a long day’s work.

The looks of exhaustion and weariness on their faces transcend any language, political, or national barrier.

Just an Average Shopper

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This candid photo was actually taken by redditor u/M1ckey, who stated that on their trip to North Korea they were required to have two guides at all times – one in front of them and one behind. However, when both guards stopped paying attention for a brief minute, u/M1ckey was able to run off for about 15 seconds to snap this photo of a North Korean woman making a purchase at an average shop that foreigners aren’t supposed to see.

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