Rare Look Inside North Korea's Massive Military

A rare look at the most unpredictable fighting force on Earth.

By headcount, the North Korean military is one of the largest in the world. And much of its power relies on how it is seen. National Geographic's David Guttenfelder has the rare credentials of being a western photographer allowed inside the so-called Hermit Kingdom. His mobility in the country is often restricted, but not as much as you’d think, especially when it comes to the military.

“You see them everywhere, they’re not just the country’s defence, they’re part of North Korea’s entire identity,” he says. Soldiers do development projects, they build infrastructure, and they keep life in Pyongyang running smoothly under the country’s regime. Guttenfelder’s access also included invitations to the annual Mass Games, the highly choreographed military demonstrations of goose-stepping soldiers and artillery on parade. Everyone at the event has a role to play, including the spectators, who use colour flip-books to make grand mosaics from the stands. The images are usually tributes to the country’s leaders, or simply, the military at large.

Newly built health club and body building centre in Pyongyang.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFLDER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE, AP

North Korean soldiers and civilians stand on a footbridge to look at goldfish in a moat as they tour the grounds of Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the mausoleum where the bodies of the late leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lie embalmed, in Pyongyang on Thursday, April 25, 2013. North Korea on Thursday marked the 81st anniversary of the founding of its military, which began as an anti-Japanese militia and now has an estimated 1.2-million troops.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFELDER, AP

A military guide leads a tour to the mystical Mount Paektu.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFELDER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE, AP

North Koreans flip pages of a coloured book to create a mass mosaic during a performance of the Arirang Mass Games at a stadium in Pyongyang in 2008.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFLDER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE, AP

North Korean soldiers march in front of flower waving civilians during a mass military parade in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square to celebrate 100 years since the birth of the late North Korean founder Kim Il Sung on Sunday, April 15, 2012. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un delivered his first public televised speech Sunday, just two days after a failed rocket launch, portraying himself as a strong military chief unafraid of foreign powers during festivities meant to glorify his grandfather.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFLDER, AP

North Korean soldiers gather at a cemetery for military veterans near Pyongyang as they observe Chuseok, Korea's traditional Thanksgiving holiday.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFLDER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE, AP

A North Korean choir sings during a concert in Pyongyang.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFLDER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE, AP

North Korean soldiers, foreground, and North Korean traffic police, background, tour the birthplace of Kim Il Sung.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFLDER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE, AP

North Korean soldiers pose for a photograph in front of bronze statues of the late leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the Mansu Hill area of Pyongyang, North Korea on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012, to celebrate the country's National Day.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFELDER, AP

North Korean veterans of the Korean War enter a cemetery for Korean War veterans during an opening ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended hostilities on the Korean peninsula.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFLDER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE, AP

New North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, waves at Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang after reviewing a parade.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFLDER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE, AP

Header Image: Members of North Korea's military pack a stadium in Pyongyang in 2012 during celebrations honouring North Korea's first leader, Kim Il Sung. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID GUTTENFLDER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

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