For travelers visiting North Korea, taking the wrong photo can be a punishable offense.

Professional photojournalists are rarely allowed to even enter the country.

Two years ago, despite the danger, German photographer Julia Leeb flew to North Korea.

She hid the fact that she was a journalist, and ended up with a stunning collection of photos.

Her new book, North Korea: Anonymous Country, will come out this week.

Leeb was drawn to North Korea out of deep curiosity. "What do we know about this profoundly isolated country?" she says.

She spent a week traveling the entire country, documenting celebrations for the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, giant synchronized dances, nearly empty streets, and oddities like a children's museum featuring a nuclear missile.

2014-08-11

Co.Exist

Secret Photos From Inside North Korea Show Life In The World's Most Isolated Country

German photographer Julia Leeb hid the fact that she was a journalist when she traveled to North Korea, and ended up with a stunning collection of photos.

For travelers visiting North Korea, taking the wrong photo can be a punishable offense. Guides stay close to tourists, letting them know when it's okay to snap the shutter, and North Korean citizens are supposed to report any photography they see. Professional photojournalists are rarely allowed to enter the country.

Despite the danger, two years ago, German photographer Julia Leeb flew to North Korea. She hid the fact that she was a journalist, and ended up with a stunning collection of photos. Her new book, North Korea: Anonymous Country, will come out this week.

©Julia Leeb

Leeb was drawn to North Korea out of deep curiosity. "What do we know about this profoundly isolated country?" she says. "International headlines report about military parades and the 'great marshal,' but what about the 24 million inhabitants?"

North Korea: Anonymous Country by Julia Leeb is available now from teNeues

She spent a week traveling the entire country, documenting celebrations for the 100th birthday of Kim Jong Un's grandfather Kim Il Sung, giant synchronized dances, nearly empty streets, and oddities like a children's museum featuring a nuclear missile.

While she traveled, accompanied by two friends and the rest of a tour group, she was completely disconnected from the rest of the world. "We had no television, no phone line, no Internet, and there were almost no other foreigners," she says. "Most of the time we were the only guests in a hotel, sometimes the only foreigners in an entire city."

Just before the trip began, North Korea announced they were dissolving their armistice with South Korea, and the U.S. started gearing up for a potential war. But Leeb had no idea what was happening. She also didn't know what might happen when the group's passports were taken away after she took photos out of a bus—and she couldn't talk about the situation with anybody else.

©Julia Leeb

"We were monitored constantly, we were quite sure that our rooms were bugged, so we did not communicate our concerns within the group," she says. "After they confiscated our passports everybody had to deal alone with these 'what-if' moments."

In the end, nothing went wrong. After an evening of bowling and North Korean beer and some cross-cultural bonding, the guides returned the passports, and eventually Leeb flew home to look through the hundreds of photos she'd taken and think about everything she'd seen.

"Traveling the 'hermit kingdom' is a constant surprise," she says. "This communist dynasty is untouched by the outside world. The surreal cult of personality, North Koreas own calendar combined with the anachronistic architecture makes you feel like being in a parallel universe."

[Photos:©Julia Leeb]

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15 Comments

  • John Scott Harrison

    This article bothers me for a few key reasons:

    1. As LHINCKS mentioned, these photos are not "secret" at all. If you go on a DPRK Tour (which, by the way, are open for everyone, even Americans) then you will also have the same photos, or something very similar. Upon exiting the country they rarely check SD cards nowadays.

    2. Having also completed a DPRK tour, I am bit appalled that the photographer specifically broke the rule that photojournalists should not enter. This is something that EVERY tour group (Koryo included, which is probably the one she used) strongly advises against. In doing so she basically jeopardized the future of her tour company, as well as any other tour company's privilege of being allowed to enter the country.

    3. The sensationalism. Taking photos is not a "punishable offense" unless you're a dick about it; they usually just politely ask you to delete them. And the passports being taken? Pretty sure most tour groups do this to ensure you don't lose it.

  • lhincks

    These are not secret photos.. they are basic tourist pictures. Anyone can take these, and they do. North Korea is not easy to get into, but its not that difficult either. I have, and my friends have much more in-depth pictures than this. Obviously her minder did a very good job of keeping her in line.

  • Wait a minute.... a skyscraper "you never have to leave"?? PLUS, it contains a nuke???? And just how is this sustainable? Ah, must be the micro-footprint rice paddies on the roof, solar collectors and wind turbine. Sounds like tokenism to me. I think the architects would do well to actually study the basic tenets of sustainability before their next greenwash. Come to think of it, so should the author of this ludicrous article.

  • Nice! VICE on HBO did an episode in North Korea, and it's everything you describe. Great visuals to support your piece too. Stunning and so surreal at the same time.

  • Harinda Katugaha

    I was there for the same celebrations and have plenty of photos and videos. I agree with what Julia says in terms of the bugging. Its an eerie country where you're constantly debating on which side of the line between reality and surreality you are standing. The people go on about their days as we do in North America/Europe etc. But, the difference is in the mind, and what they have been told. The newspapers spew out propaganda that baffles the mind and as the only source of media, I believe people would ingest it without question... at least the vast majority of them. Of course what happens in terms of abuse and camps.... who knows.

    I also went to a Military Circus which is far more impressive by standards of physical strength and execution than anything I have ever seen in my life. And a concert at the National Children's Music auditorium where the performances were truly spectacular. There is talent there which will not be seen by most of the world. Unbelievable experience.

  • Wait, have you actually been? I feel like this is how East Berlin was marketed to the West, as isolated, weird, etc. I'm not defending the country, but it is the opposite of homogeneous; here we have difference looking like it is unvaried.

  • Navid Sakhai

    Someone might have just got killed over this article, possibly a north Korean secret agent.

  • esp321

    The article is about a book that is about to come out. I have no doubt there will be people punished, possibly even executed, but it will be over the book, not the article.

  • trokeefe1

    Keep quaffing that relativistic Kool-Aid and fine-slicing the third tier Poli-Sci major undergrad baloney. By any mortal measure, North Korea is a nightmare beyond your abstract Western-'comfy ken.' Oy vey!

  • FJ PCedeño

    The state owns all means of production and private property is severly limited. So yeah...