A photographer captured these dismal photos of life in North Korea on his phone

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Children walk to school in Tumangang, North Korea, in August 2015.
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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

As North Korea continues its saber-rattling about nuclear strikes, we still know very little about the country.

The North Korean government is notoriously secretive. Upon entering the country, visitors are instructed on what they can and cannot take pictures of. Customs agents inspect your cellphone and other digital devices, including cameras, tablets, and storage cards, for banned content.

These restrictions prompted Getty photographer Xiaolu Chu to travel by train through the country in August 2015, documenting everyday life through his phone lens. He told Business Insider it was too risky to use a high-end camera because locals would report him to the police.

While some images were deleted during run-ins with the police, Chu shared some snapshots with us. Take a look at life inside North Korea.


Chu took the long way around during his visit to North Korea.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

Most Chinese tourists enter by train through Sinuiju or by plane through Pyongyang. He instead traveled to Russia so he could access the northern port at Tumangang.

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Google Maps

The train ride from Tumangang to Pyongyang — the capital of North Korea — lasts a day. It was canceled because of a dispute between North Korea and South Korea.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

“Fortunately, we had a whole day to go out and take some pictures in the village,” Chu said.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

He saw scores of people living in abject poverty. Many begged for money.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

“There are nearly no fat people in North Korea, everyone looks very thin,” Chu said.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

Many of the residential buildings looked run down and in need of repair.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

When he later returned to the train station, he noticed portraits of the country’s former leaders and the words “long live” hanging overhead.

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At night, these shrines were the only lit structures in the village. Other buildings sat in darkness.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

The next day, he boarded a train for the nation’s capital.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

A customs agent on board checked his tablet to make sure it wasn’t GPS-enabled. The government also jams signals as a security measure.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

The customs agent also checked his laptop and DSLR camera. Chu said the agent had no trouble operating the devices, with the exception of the MacBook.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

The train chugged along, giving Chu glimpses of everyday life. This boy collected corn cobs beside the tracks.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

Many people rode bicycles to get around.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

Some scenes were quaint. Children took an afternoon dip in a river.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

Anytime the train pulled into a station, there were painful reminders of the country’s poor living conditions. This little boy begged for money at a station in Hamhung.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

Korean People’s Army soldiers rested on the tracks.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

Whenever he hopped out, Chu shot photos on his phone. “DSLR is too obvious to take pictures in that condition as people in the village were extremely vigilant,” he said.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

Several locals reported him to the police. “A policeman and a solider stopped us and checked our cellphone. I hid most of the pictures, [but a] few pictures were deleted,” he said.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

The tourism bureau encourages visitors to take photos of student-exercise groups. These kids rehearsed for a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

Photography of anti-American protests is also welcomed. These students were marching against South Korea and the US.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

Eventually, Chu reached the railway station in Pyongyang.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

We asked Chu if he was scared of retribution for publishing the photos from his trip.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty

“No, absolutely not,” he said.

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Xiaolu Chu/Getty