Candid Moments Shine Through in New North Korea Photos

Get a glimpse into life in North Korea’s capital as people gather to celebrate a national holiday.

The world’s eyes have long been on North Korea—but rarely in North Korea. The “hermit kingdom” is a perpetual flashpoint of global tension, yet it remains more difficult to get a look inside North Korea than any country on Earth.

Glimpses of everyday North Korean life are fleeting and highly sanitized, often coming courtesy of state-sanctioned photos of major political events.

Other glimpses are entirely artificial. Guided tours near the DMZ offer foreign tourists views of Kijong-dong, or Peace Town, a village built in the 1950s that features brightly colored homes—and no inhabitants. Widely believed to be a blatant display of propaganda, the town is fascinating in its own right, but hardly representative of real life behind the North Korean curtain.

Ed Jones, based in Seoul, South Korea, is one of the few photographers with regular access to North Korea. When the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, made global headlines in February, Jones was in the capital city of Pyongyang. He was photographing the celebration of a major national holiday: the 75th anniversary of the birth of deceased leader Kim Jong Il—the victim’s father.

The photos are striking. They feature grand pomp and circumstance but little open jubilance. In many ways, it’s North Korea as we expect to see it: Austere, orderly, melancholy. But amid the rigid solemnity, there are candid cracks of life: Women huddle together in conversation. People film fireworks on their smartphones. A young boy flails his arms as he roller-skates in a public square.

This is a glimpse into a small portion of the country—people who are relatively privileged in comparison with countless others who remain entirely hidden from view, in labor camps or far from the capital, deprived of their most basic needs.

This is North Korea—one side of it—in winter.

Birthday-celebration fireworks illuminate a baby’s face in pink. Known as the “Day of the Shining Star,” the holiday is still celebrated with fanfare, five years after Kim Jong Il’s death.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

A boy roller skates in Kim Il Sung square, named for the country’s founding leader.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

A woman films a fireworks display on her smartphone. Over 3 million North Koreans own smartphones—but the state-run wireless network does not allow incoming or outgoing international calls, nor does it connect to the Internet.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

A man stands on the stairs of an underpass to direct visitors to a flower show for the Day of the Shining Star.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

A woman carries discarded silk strands at the Kim Jong Suk Silk Mill in Pyongyang. The factory employs 1,600 people—mostly female—and is named for the grandmother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

Figure skaters wait to perform at the Paektusan Prize International Figure Skating Festival in Pyongyang. In recent years, the annual festival has attracted competitors from China, Russia, and even Canada.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

Women perform a synchronized swimming routine as part of the Day of the Shining Star festivities.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

Kim Su Min, 11, poses for a portrait before taking part in a holiday tradition: offering flowers to the statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung (top left) and Kim Jong Il (top right) at Mansudae Hill in Pyongyang.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

Children carry flowers to the leaders’ statues. Although February 16 is celebrated as Kim Jong Il’s birthday, his actual date of birth is unknown.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

High-rise apartment buildings punctuate this east Pyongyang skyline. The capital city is home to about 2.5 million people, or 10 percent of North Korea’s population.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

A civilian woman stands in front of a sea of soldiers amid the birthday festivities. North Korea has one of the world’s largest armies in the world, at about 1.2 million active troops.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

A man peers out from behind a curtain at the Paektusan Prize International Figure Skating Festival in Pyongyang. This marks the 25th year of the annual festival—the first competition was held in 1992.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

Visitors make their way into one of the main halls at the flower show. The red blossoms are a breed of begonia, dubbed Kimjongilia, after the fallen leader. North Korea claims that the flower was bred to bloom on the leader’s February 16 birthday.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

Two young North Korean figure skaters perform at the Paektusan Prize International Figure Skating Festival.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

Pak Han-Song, 11, poses on a beginner's slope at the Masikryong ski resort near Wonsan, in eastern North Korea. The resort opened in 2013, charging around 40 USD for a one-day lift pass for North Koreans—double that for foreigners.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

Women walk past a dormitory at the Kim Jong Suk Silk Mill. The mill introduced living quarters in 2013, as well as a daycare facility, which supervises around 200 children every day while their mothers work.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

People pack an exhibition hall at the flower show. An estimated 700,000 people visited the exhibition hall in Pyongyang over seven days in celebration of the anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s birth.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

Women perform a synchronized swimming routine as part of the Day of the Shining Star festivities.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

A group of students walk past the Korean Central History Museum in Pyongyang. The museum was founded in 1945 and offers a tour of Korean history and culture through the lens of Northern propaganda.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

A man and woman pause to talk next to their bicycles in Pyongyang. Few North Korean citizens own cars, instead relying on bicycles to get around.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

Shooting instructor Kim Su-Ryon poses for a portrait at the Meari Shooting Range in Pyongyang. Kim is holding a Paektusan target pistol, gifted by late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. Visitors to the range can pay 10 USD to shoot ten rounds.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

Workers sort and process silkworms at the Kim Jong Suk Silk Mill in Pyongyang. The worms are farmed in the countryside south of Pyongyang and then boiled at the facility. Officials at the mill say that they produce about 200 tons of silk every year.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

Smoke billows from the chimneys of a Pyongyang power station. In February, China announced that it would ban all coal imports from North Korea for the rest of 2017. It’s a blow to the North Korean economy: Coal accounts for about 40 percent of all exports, most of it being shipped to China.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

Women and men sit separately in the audience of the figure skating competition. The women are wearing Joseon-ot—known as hanbok in South Korea—a traditional Korean costume dating back to the 12th century. It’s one of the many shared cultural traditions between the estranged countries.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

A typical North Korean apartment building in southern Pyongyang, seen from Juche tower. The tower was built for former leader Kim Il Sung and is named for North Korea's official state ideology, Juche, or "self-reliance".
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

A security guard poses in a courtyard of the Kim Jong Suk Silk Mill following snowfall.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

Two women cycle on a path in suburban Pyongyang. Despite being the primary mode of transportation for most North Korean citizens, bicycling in the country has not come without controversy: women were banned from riding bikes in urban centers for nearly two decades, starting in the mid-1990s.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

On the South Korea side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a young girl offers prayers for relatives in the North. It’s tradition for South Korean families separated during the Korean War to visit the DMZ during the Lunar New Year to pray for their relatives and ancestors.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

A pedestrian passes the illuminated portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung (left) and Kim Jong Il (right) in Pyongyang.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

Header Image: Young women prepare to perform a synchronized swimming routine in Pyongyang, North Korea. The event was part of a celebration for the 75th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. PHOTOGRAPH BY ED JONES, AFP/GETTY

 

 

 

 

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