Photography by Tianxiao Xu
Presentation and writing by Linus Hoeller
North Korea is closed off from the outside world like no other country. It consistently ranks at the very bottom of freedom indices – no free press, no free elections, no freedom of movement, assembly, speech. For three generations, the Kim dynasty has ruled the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as it is officially known, with an iron fist. At the time of writing, prison camps house roughly a quarter of a million people, the vast majority convicted of political “crimes” – and a large number of inmates who were deemed guilty simply by association.
In light of the Orwellian nature of the Korean Workers’ Party’s regime, its missile tests and the United Nations sanctions against it, it is easy to forget the 24 million people who live and go about their everyday lives under North Korea’s “communist” system.
Though some things have changed under Kim Jong-Un, North Korean citizens are still expected to show unwavering loyalty to their leaders and the country continues to struggle with many of the same problems that have accompanied it since the very beginning of its existence, including shortages of just about everything from food to electricity.
A large part of the economic output is used to maintain one of the world’s largest standing armies, as well as to keep moving forward the development of nuclear weapons which the regime considers essential for its own survival. For Kim Jong-Un, not ending like Gadhaffi or Hussein is an absolute priority over his subjects’ lives.
The World Uncensored’s Tianxiao Xu got permission to travel into the world’s most reclusive country. Here are his photos, annotated but 100% unedited.
The portraits of the two deceased leaders of North Korea are omnipresent in the country to this day. (Tianxiao Xu/The World Uncensored)
The Chinese border town of Dandong lies at the Yalu River, which makes up most of the border between the People’s Republic of China and North Korea. (Tianxiao Xu/The World Uncensored)
Chinese tourists eat at a restaurant in North Korea as state television plays in the background. (Tianxiao Xu/The World Uncensored)
Sinuiju, shown here, is a North Korean border town just opposite of the Chinese city of Dandong. (Tianxiao Xu/The World Uncensored)
Traveling across North Korea is notoriously difficult – not just for tourists, but also for locals. Streets lie deserted as a side effect of, among other reasons, fuel shortages. (Tianxiao Xu/The World Uncensored)
The Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge connects China’s Dandong to North Koreas Sinuiju. Despite sanctions, there is plenty of traffic. (Tianxiao Xu/The World Uncensored)
Foreigners visiting the DPRK are often invited to watch performances by schoolchildren. The curriculum taught at schools is entirely based on the line of the Korean Workers’ Party and the thoughts of its leaders. Children receive special ideological schooling and are taught to worship the country’s leaders and the exploits of the North Korean nation, as well as of Western aggression and imperialism. (Tianxiao Xu/The World Uncensored)
Under Kim Jong-Un, cautious liberalization has taken place in some sectors of the economy. Private markets, which emerged during the great famine (“Arduous March”) of the 90s now operate largely with authorities’ turning a blind eye. Recent changes to legislation mean that they now lie in a legal grey area, while a decade ago any private business was strictly prohibited and owners severely punished. (Tianxiao Xu/The World Uncensored)
Chinese tourists visit a museum praising the North Korean leaders. (Tianxiao Xu/The World Uncensored)
North Korea places some effort into how it portrays itself to its neighbors, investing in modern buildings both at the Chinese (pictured here) and South Korean borders. Near the South Korean border, there exists an uninhabited “perfect village.” (Tianxiao Xu/The World Uncensored)
A view over the North Korean countryside. The country is commonly described by foreign visitors as having great natural beauty. (Tianxiao Xu/The World Uncensored)
Kim’s dream. Like all images depicting any of the leaders, this picture was created at the Mansudae Art Studio in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. (Tianxiao Xu/The World Uncensored)
Though some very limited economic liberalization has taken place, it seems unlikely that Kim Jong-Un will open his country much more in the years to come. It is a matter of the Kim family’s personal survival to keep up with the almost 70 years old tradition of iron-fist control.
A hungry population doesn’t typically have the resources to revolt. And one that isn’t connected through the internet but is divided by a pervasive secret service and internal travel restrictions will find it difficult to organize.
A population that practically doesn’t receive outside information can be brainwashed and pacified with propaganda that paints a rosy image of the world despite the dire realities.
And the international community will be unlikely to engage in armed conflict with a country that owns nuclear weapons and will have no reason to refrain from their use when invaded.
China, North Korea’s most important ally and the country through which roughly 90% of the DPRK’s trade flows, has no interest in the Kim’s regime toppling, either. Dealing with 24 million Korean refugees hardly seems appealing, nor does a nuclear war on its border or a reunification with South Korea, which would bring American troops right up to the Yalu River – something China fought in the Korean War for to prevent from happening.
But amid all the geopolitical considerations and calculations, there is one factor that is forgotten regularly: 24 million North Koreans. 24 million people, each with their own lives, thoughts and stories, caught up in the middle of this dictatorial relic of the Cold War, having grown up under the North Korean style of dictatorship and having to play along with it for their entire lives. Let us not forget the people behind the story.
Linus Hoeller, Tianxiao Xu