Eric Lafforgue

Banned Photos Smuggled Out of North Korea

By: Lindsey Charleston | Last updated: Apr 29, 2022

North Korea is one of the most notorious (and secretive) countries on earth. You don’t just waltz in for a vacation. Instead, you join a government tour group, adhere to strict policies, and follow a pre-approved path. You are never far from a tour operator who tells you what to look at and where to go.

With restrictions like that, it’s rare to see candid pics of everyday life. However, some travelers (such as French photographer Eric Lafforgue) manage to do the impossible. The risks are high, though, and it’s never easy. For Lafforgue’s “transgressions” – aka, taking photos of everyday scenes – he was banned from North Korea for life. Below are some of his “illegal” photos.

Power Outage 

When Lafforgue was setting up to take his picture, the power went out. He took the picture anyway. However, that didn’t make him any friends. The tour guide told him that the American embargo caused the electricity to go out.

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Eric Lafforgue

Whether that’s true or not, it’s a sign that not everything is bright and shiny in North Korea. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, it’s believed that only a quarter or so of the population has access to electricity. Often, for only a few hours a day.

Rural Children in Poverty

Plenty of countries are plagued with rural poverty. Often, this means kids have to start working at a young age to bring in the food, money, and water needed to survive. This situation isn’t confined to North Korea.

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Eric Lafforgue

However, North Korean officials don’t want outsiders to know the extent of its rural poverty. So, instead of allowing tourists to take photos of everyday realities, they ban the taking of such photos. That, unfortunately, doesn’t fix the reality of hard living in the countryside.

Smiling Beneath Kim Family Portraits

There is a huge cult of personality that surrounds the Kim family in North Korea. Images of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un are given deep respect. This means there are a strict set of rules for how to show them in pictures.

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Eric Lafforgue

High up on that rule list is to never take a picture of the Kim family portraits when people are “doing silly things” nearby. For the picture above, that means children putting on goofy faces for the camera.

Riding Bikes to Work

The picture that the North Korean government wants to portray of their country is usually very different from the country itself. Rather than a shining beacon of hope and progress, most people (especially in rural areas) live a hard life.

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Eric Lafforgue

Transportation services aren’t the greatest, so a lot of people rely on bicycles to get to work. Often, this involves riding for a few hours each day just to make it to the fields – and then working. Unsurprisingly, the government doesn’t want foreign travelers taking photos of that reality.

Taking Pictures of Unfinished Paintings

Whereas some of the above photos are a bit sad, the one below is a bit odd. Rather than getting in trouble for snapping photos of rural poverty or power outages, the photographer below got in trouble for showing a painting that wasn’t complete.

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Eric Lafforgue

We imagine Lafforgue was probably a bit taken aback when he was told this. Regardless, that’s the rule. No taking photos of paintings that aren’t complete. The government tour operators only want to show finished products.

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Old Buildings Are Not Allowed

Although there are some impressive and modern buildings in the capital of Pyongyang, that level of architecture doesn’t extend to every other city and county in North Korea. In many places, the buildings are out of date and in need of repair.

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Eric Lafforgue

For example, take the above building. Although plenty of other countries have buildings like this and are fine with people photographing them, North Korea is different. The higher-ups don’t want anything but new buildings to be shown to the outside world.

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No Army Photos

North Korea is big on the military. Alongside its “military-first” policy for the economy, it has one of the largest militaries in the world! Nearly 5% of its population is on active duty. For a traveler to North Korea, that means you’re bound to see a lot of uniformed soldiers.

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Eric Lafforgue

Although soldiers are everywhere, it’s a big no-no to take any photos of them. This is one of the strictest rules governing travel in North Korea. However, some photographers may sneak out a few photos, such as the one you see here.

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The Tunnel

North Korea has been ready for battle for decades. Alongside having one of the largest militaries on earth, a military-first policy, and a nuclear weapons program, the country also has plenty of protective measures in place. For example, bomb shelters.

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Eric Lafforgue

In the capital of Pyongyang, the subway system is the deepest in the world. The reason it’s the deepest is that it’s also a bomb shelter in case anything should happen. Unsurprisingly, foreign travelers are not supposed to take photos of the tunnel.

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Photos of Malnutrition

Unfortunately, malnutrition is all-too-common in North Korea. The reasons range from poor management, to natural disasters (droughts and famines), to sanctions imposed by other countries. The result is that a lot of people don’t have enough to eat.

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Eric Lafforgue

The government, as with many other matters, isn’t exactly upfront with this. Instead, they’d rather project the image of a happy and healthy nation. To do that, they ban traveling photographers from taking photos of malnourished people. However, it doesn’t always work as you can see from above.

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Long Queues

As we saw from the picture of workers cycling for many hours a day just to get to work, the transportation system in North Korea isn’t up to date. The line of people queuing for a bus below confirms that.

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Eric Lafforgue

Despite the massive new road, it looks like buses are rare and private vehicles are almost non-existent. So instead, people wait in a very organized line to hop on one of the few buses to get to work. It’s certainly not the simplest and most convenient way to travel around a city.

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Computers But No Electricity

It’s no secret that tours in North Korea are heavily regulated. You go with guides who tell you where to go and what to look at. Most of the time, they want you to only look at a heavily edited version of what life is like.

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For example, the tour guides like to show off that families have access to computers. Although that’s true, not many have access to enough electricity to use the computers. Unsurprisingly, this photo was asked to be deleted.

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Little Boy Breaks the Rules

The perception of North Korea that most foreigners have is that of a highly disciplined society where no one acts out of turn. This is exemplified by the famous Arirang Mass Games they have with highly synchronized dances.

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Although the North Korean government enforces discipline to a degree unseen anywhere else on earth, it doesn’t work flawlessly. There are still some kids and adults who refuse to follow the rules – like the little boy above who stood alone in the middle of the road.

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Not a Lot of Cars

As we saw from the long bus line above, the cities (especially the capital of Pyongyang) are full of newly paved roads. However, those roads are pretty empty when compared to most other cities on earth.

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That’s because private cars aren’t that common. Sure, they might get more widespread as time goes by, but this picture provides a nice little reminder of how rare they are at the moment. Kids (especially kids from rural places) are so used to seeing few cars on the roads that they play as if they aren’t there.

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Poverty Near the DMZ

This next photo was taken near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea. When tourists go to visit it, they’re usually placed inside a highly guarded hotel that’s made up of old houses. If you ask to go outside and look around, tour guides get angry.

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They ask you why you want to leave. Taking a stroll isn’t a good enough answer. Perhaps they’re afraid that you might see unflattering pictures of North Korea – for example, the scene of impoverished children above.

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Tire Boat

Poverty – and especially rural poverty – is something that nearly every country on earth deals with in its own particular way. For North Korea, that mostly means denying that it exists and promoting the idea that everything is great.

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The reality is far different. Even though tours are highly monitored, sometimes you can manage to see an unregulated scene or snap a picture the government would be angry about. The one above shows a fisherman using an old tire as a boat.

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First Time on an Escalator

When tourists go to visit North Korea, they’re often taken to the Pioneers Camp in Wonsan to have a look at summer camp life. Kids from all over the country (and the world) come to the camp to play sports and enjoy some leisure time.

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For many of the pioneers, it’s a new experience. That’s doubly true for some of the kids from rural areas where infrastructure is lacking. The kids above were scared (or at least skeptical) of using the escalators as they had never seen them before.

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A Sleeping Official

When you travel in North Korea, there are rules –- a lot of them. As you saw above, it seems that photos showing anything but happy smiling citizens are against the rules. That’s why the below photo was a big no-no. It showed an official in a bad light.

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Meaning, it showed an official taking a light nap in a church. Although it may seem extreme (everyone sleeps), North Korea is very concerned about PR, and sleeping (or napping) officials look bad.

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Unexpected Details

When tourists visit, they often visit North Korean families so they can meet local people. However, these meetings are far from spontaneous encounters on the street – the government carefully picks families and homes that reflect well on the government.

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Although they manage to do that most of the time, some of the time a few unwanted details shine through. For example, in the rural house above, we can see a cistern in the bathroom because regular water might not be so regular. Times are tough.

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Filming the Filmers

When you want to film in North Korea, the restrictions increase ten-fold. Not only are there rules for what you can and can’t shoot, but there are also people watching you all the time. Sometimes it gets very meta (and a bit ridiculous).

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The camera crew in the middle was filming a North Korean factory, and the cameraman on the right was filming them to make sure they followed the rules. On top of that, the government sent their own guy to film the local guy who was filming the foreigners.

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Soldiers Pushing a Bus

North Korea has one of the largest armies on earth with well over a million soldiers. When it comes to taking pictures of them, it’s best to avoid that. That’s especially true if the photos show the army in an unfavorable light.

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For example, the picture above shows a relatively common scene. Due to economic sanctions and other reasons, gas isn’t widely available in North Korea so cars and buses often run out. However, this makes it look like the army doesn’t have the resources it needs.

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Grey Markets

Black markets have been banned – though not effectively – in one way or another for a long time in North Korea. However, there aren’t enough well-paid and stable jobs to go around, so many people rely on so-called “grey markets.”

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They set up small stands (as you can see above) and sell cigarettes, candy, and other goods. Usually, this provides just enough for them to make it through the day by purchasing food and paying for shelter. They’re becoming more and more common.

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Hitchhiking Soldiers

As we saw from the massive line earlier in this article, public transportation in North Korea is lacking. Even in the major cities, people have to wait a long time to get a bus. In the countryside, it’s even more difficult.

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Regular routes between rural towns are rare, so a lot of people (including soldiers) rely on hitchhiking to get from place to place. On top of the difficulty of moving, their right to travel is often restricted by the need for permits.

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Sideways Hat

As we saw from the boy standing in the middle of the street, not everyone is as controllable as the government would like them to be. However, the government still makes a strong effort to put that image out to the world.

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That’s why the tour guide had a problem with the image above. He said the teenage boy was wearing his baseball hat in a weird way (aka sideways). Also, that soldiers could be seen in the background.

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Displays of Wealth

Showing images of poverty is against the rules because it makes the North Korean government look bad. For pretty much the same reason, it’s also taboo to show off big displays of wealth – probably because the gap between haves and have-nots is so extreme.

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Also because most of the haves are government officials. Despite this, it’s not hard to find Pyongyang elite driving around in Mercedes Benz or parking them in the local park to have a Sunday barbecue with co-workers and family.

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Sorting Grains

A lot of tour groups come to Begaebong, a region in the north of North Korea, to get some skiing in or to visit Mt. Paektu. Like any other spot on a tour, the sights are heavily regulated. However, this photographer managed to snap a picture of what daily life is actually like.

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As you can see, it involves a lot more poverty than the North Korean government is comfortable admitting. These two kids are collecting and sorting through grains on the streets of Begaebong.

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Coal Truck Out of Gas

If you remember the pictures of hitchhiking soldiers and long bus lines, then you’re well aware that North Korea has public transportation problems. In particular, problems with making sure that each vehicle has enough gas.

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That seems to be the problem with the coal truck above. The driver sits on the side of the road waiting for someone to come with a bit more fuel so he can continue his journey. Unfortunately, he probably had to wait a long time for that.

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Poverty in Chongjin

Quite a few of the pictures above have shown scenes of rural poverty. The photographer who captured them is lucky to have gotten them out. The North Korean government would rather delete them than share them with the world.

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This picture was taken in Chongjin, a huge city in the north that’s known for its steel and fiber industries. However, sanctions and other hardships wreaked havoc on the area and caused widespread hunger and economic devastation. The government isn’t keen to show that.

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Soldiers and Animals

If you’re traveling in North Korea, rest assured that you are allowed to take pictures of animals. However, you’re not allowed to take photos of soldiers. When a few dozen soldiers are in the crowd watching an animal at a theme park, that makes it difficult.

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Just capturing the animal would look a bit weird because all it shows is water and a railing. However, pointing your camera just a few inches above that immediately causes you to snap an illegal photo of a soldier.

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New Restaurants

As the North Korean economy grows a bit, some luxury goods and services are making it into the secretive state. For example, quite a few restaurants have opened up in Pyongyang nearby the Taedong River.

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That being said, they’re certainly not for everyone. Like the luxury supermarkets shown above, only the well-to-do are allowed (or can afford) to eat in these places. The average meal is a few euros, but that’s out of reach in a country where the average annual salary is very low.

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Bathing in a River

People all over the world wash their clothes and bathe in rivers. These rivers aren’t always clean. For example, although the Ganges River in India is severely polluted with industrial and human waste, people still take regular dips to clean off physically and spiritually.

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However, the North Korean government – or at least the tour guides – is uncomfortable with foreigners showing snapping pictures of people bathing in rivers. This photo above went against the image the government wants to give off to the outside world. So, it was banned.

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Public Projects

Public projects are a big deal in North Korea. Each year, thousands of people flood the countryside to take part in everything from painting mile-markers to cleaning up the roads. At first, the tour guides thought these were positive pictures. So, they allowed them.

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Then, it was found that these images could easily be misconstrued as images of forced labor. Since North Korea is very concerned with how it looks to the outside world, they decided to make rules against photos like this one.

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Not Dressed Well Enough

Similar to the restrictions on showing poverty or basically any hardship going on in North Korea, there is also a restriction on showing people who are not well dressed. This includes anyone who is not clean and manicured.

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That’s what got the photographer in trouble after taking the picture above. Apparently, the man carrying a tank of gas on his back didn’t look clean enough for the tour guides. Although it may seem silly, these kinds of restrictions are commonplace for those going to North Korea.

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Messy Shirt

This next photo is similar to the picture above. It’s all about dressing well – prim and proper. Apparently, the man’s shirt was a bit too messy for the tour guides. So, they straightened out the shirt until it was deemed acceptable.

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During the process, however, the photographer managed to snap a photo. And, to be honest, it’s a good photo – the guy seems to be pretty happy as he waits for the woman to readjust his shirt enough to be photo-worthy.

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Picking Grass

North Korea had a devastating famine during the 1990s that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and plenty of lingering malnutrition. Although things are much better nowadays, they’re far from perfect. People still have to be resourceful.

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The picture above seems to show a man picking grass to eat. That’s the caption that gets spread around the world. However, it’s untrue. The man is picking edible greens to eat later. Due to the possibility of misrepresenting it, the North Korean government bans these kinds of images.

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Soldiers Relaxing

As we learned above, North Korea has one of the biggest armies in the world. That means, when tourists go to visit the country, they’re bound to see plenty of soldiers. Although they may want to snap a few photos, there are strict rules surrounding that.

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The basic rule is don’t take pictures of soldiers. Not soldiers pushing a bus down the road, soldiers watching an animal show, and certainly not soldiers relaxing with a cigarette. It’s seen as disrespectful.

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Rare Wheelchairs

North Korea has had a rough history full of famines and sanctions. This has made it difficult to get the nutrition or medical care they need, which often causes problems as people get older. Just like in other areas of the world, this causes some people to need to use wheelchairs – especially as they age.

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However, North Korea isn’t exactly up to date with its infrastructure. That ranges from public transportation to building codes to basic wheelchairs. Above is a rare sight of a wheelchair stowed away at a game.

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Building Safety Standards are Low

A lot of things could be improved in North Korea. The economy is under tight sanctions that make it hard for them to provide people with what they need in terms of food, shelter, and basic safety. The photo below shows a construction site – one with pretty questionable safety standards.

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As you can see, the scaffolding is very lopsided and looks like it’s going to fall over. It’s held up by some ropes and no one has (or is required to wear) a hardhat.

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Flash Cameras

As anyone who has seen the satellite picture of the Korean peninsula at night knows, North Korea does not have stable electricity. It’s relatively rare and power outages are common. On a bus ride back to the hotel, the photographer was taken on a special route.

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The normal route was blocked, so they went down a less touristy route full of old buildings. The photographer wanted to snap a photo, so he turned on the flash. However, he was reprimanded because the tour guide said the flash would scare people.

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Shopping for the Elites

North Korea – like many other countries, to be fair – has an extreme level of wealth inequality. Decades of sanctions and the famine of the 1990s led to a situation where most of the 25 million citizens don’t have the basics. However, people at the top have basic plus a lot more.

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The photo above was taken in a supermarket in the capital city of Pyongyang. The well-dressed woman is part of an elite sector of society that shops at stores that take both Euros and North Korean Wons as payment.

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The Backside of a Kim Family Statue

North Korea is a society built around a reverence for the Kim family. In particular, the grandfather Kim Il-sung, the father Kim Jong-il, and the son (and current leader) Kim Jong-un. The country is filled with statues of the Kim family.

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As you might have guessed, there are plenty of rules for taking pictures of the statues. One of the biggest prohibitions is taking pictures of the statues from behind. Officials regard it as extremely rude. Hence, they were not happy about this one.

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