If there were some people left on the planet unaware of the horrible political climate in North Korea, it all changed once the news of the 22-year old American student who died after being detained by Kim Jong-Un for stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel room circled the globe.
It left many people wanting to take a peak into this country’s reality, but sadly, apart from the staged theatrical show they put on for tourists when they visit Pyongyang not much digital material has surfaced of the most isolated country in the world.
However, the same year the American tourist was condemned to forced labor, photographer Michael Huniewicz and a number of other tourists miraculously managed to smuggle out into the ‘free world’ over 70 candid photos depicting the tragic reality of North Koreans.
Just by looking at this seemingly normal photo we doubt that anyone would suspect it was taken in one of the most oppressed countries in the world. The people seem to go about their ordinary lives just like in any other country in the world, but most of them have either been victims of or know someone who suffered abuse in the form of enslavement, imprisonment, forced abortions, and torture.
Michael recalls playing with fire when deciding to snap this photo of North Korea’s countryside showing villagers next to their bikes waiting for the train to pass. In spite of photography being encouraged in controlled conditions, it is absolutely prohibited to take photos of uniformed officers such as the one of the picture.
Another photo that appears to be normal,shows North Koreans during their daily commute. Every other country in the world would not find this photo threatening, but Kim’s administration is notorious for being very secretive and does not allow unstaged photos like this one to be taken. Tourists are encouraged to photograph only “designated places that are well-maintained”.
Michael remembers that all of the places their group was taken seemed to be nice and stage-managed, thus he was surprised to see this weird slum which reminded him of ‘communist era Eastern Europe’. The North Koreans on this photo surrounded by socialist architecture of North Korean leaders are waiting to sell human waste which is used as fertilizer.
Why this photo most of us would find staged and ridiculous is because these street cleaners seem to be sweeping paths in of the biggest parks in Pyongyang which are perfectly clean. There’s also that soldier in the photograph who tourists are not allowed to take photos of.
Michael along with six other people went to a restaurant as part of his tour where he managed to take a photo of this terrified waitress who refused to interact with them apart from taking their order. He reports that while they were there the TV was constantly on playing propaganda. The rest of the guests in the restaurant pretended as though they could not see them and did also not initiate any sort of interaction.
These well-dressed people would not be considered an unusual sight in any other country, but North Korea is a different story. Even though Michael is unable to prove that this particular scene was staged, he strongly believes that it was the case as there were no other trains scheduled to arrive or depart that very same day. The station also had a waiting room which, of course, is typically empty.