A photographer visited North Korea 6 times to see what life is really like — here’s what he saw

There's a lot more to North Korea than Kim Jong Un.

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There’s a lot more to North Korea than Kim Jong Un.
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Eric Lafforgue

  • Photographer Eric Lafforgue visited North Korea six times to take photos of daily life in the isolated totalitarian country.
  • Lafforgue was banned after his sixth trip to North Korea, in 2012, after he made an off-handed comment about a group of Spanish tourists visiting the country.
  • Much of what he saw in North Korea was the more privileged and affluent areas of North Korea, like Pyongyang, but he always requested to visit far-flung destinations in the country. He found that the further he traveled, the more he saw the reality of poverty in which most North Koreans live.

After publishing hundreds of photos from six visits to North Korea, it was an offhand comment that got French photographer Eric Lafforgue banned.

Lafforgue had seen Spanish tourists wearing Kim Jung Il shirts and told a friend that they likely wouldn’t wear them in Barcelona. The Spaniards heard it and told the guide. One month after returning from the trip, he received a letter with screen captures of his photos, saying they were not good for North Korea and that he could not return.

That was in 2012.

“They know that when I come, I take pictures. They prefer the tourism money, until it causes a problem for one of the people in charge,” Lafforgue told Business Insider.

Lafforgue has always been well aware of this, but throughout the years, he’s played “their game,” as he calls it, to produce some incredible photography.

“The North Korean regime controls everything that goes out of the country,” he said. “Even me, when they let me take a picture of kids smiling, its because it’s good for the country. I take those pictures because there is a real part of the people that are happy and I want to document that … North Koreans are brainwashed, but they live like everybody in the world.”

Lafforgue shared a stunning selection of photos from his many trips to North Korea with us. Many of the photos are available in a calender Lafforgue produced with North Korea-watching website NK News.


This is Pyongyang airport, where Lafforgue flew into.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

All tourists must go on a guided tour when they visit North Korea. According to Lafforgue, the guides show more to tourists than stated journalists, so he always declared himself a tourist.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

Each time Lafforgue visited, the guides tried to take him on the same “classic” tour to the expected sites.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

To avoid this, he started coming when there were special events like the Arirang Mass Games.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

The Mass Games are held every year to tell the story of North Korea. They include complicated synchronized performances and it is considered a great honor to take part.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

Lafforgue took this portrait on National Day, when citizens celebrate the North Korean declaration of state in 1948.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

On April 15th, North Koreans celebrate the birthday of Kim Il Sung. More than 100,000 dancers perform on Kim Il Sung square.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

Lafforgue says that North Korea has changed dramatically from when he first visited in 2008. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the regime, he says.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

When he first visited in 2008, almost no foreigners visited the country.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

Now, he says North Koreans are far more used to seeing people from all over the world. These women are Koreans that grew up and live in Japan. They were touring the country at the same time as Lafforgue.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

Many North Koreans now have goods from China, like computers, DVD players, and clothes. Despite the backpack one was wearing, Lafforgue says the children he spoke to didn’t understand who Mickey Mouse was.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

Lafforgue says that he was able to have candid conversations with many North Koreans, so long as he stayed away from politics. Many loved to talk about sports teams.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

One of the main tourist attractions in Pyongyang is the War Museum, which depicts the Korean War as the North Koreans’ victorious struggle over the American imperialists.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

Portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il are everywhere in the country, overlooking the people. It’s so prominent that Lafforgue did an entire series on just the “Great Leaders'” portraits.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

Every year, the Pyongyang Floral Festival celebrates the birthday of Kim Jung Il. At the entrance to the Floral exhibition, North Koreans take portraits in front of their leaders.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

There are many “fun fairs” in Pyongyang and other cities now. The fun fairs are amusement parks with many rides for North Koreans to go on and games to play.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

This scene of emotion between two lovers is very rare in North Korea. Most of the time, women and men do not congregate in public together.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

Lafforgue says there are many twins and triplets without parents, like these triplets singing at an orphanage. The official reason is that parents cannot afford to raise 2 or 3 kids at the same time.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

A teacher instructs children at Kim Jong Suk school in Pyongyang, while a child attempts to guess the name of each animal. Other children are forbidden to help.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

Most North Korean kids are enrolled in “pioneer” programs. They must take part in activities, like helping farm the fields.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

North Korean men must stay in the army for at least six years, during which they have minimal communications with their families.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

On special occasions, North Koreans carry a special type of plastic flower called a kimjonglia.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

A soldier stands in front of the Ryugyong Hotel. It has been in construction since 1987 and has yet to open. Egypt-based Orascom has agreed to help finish the tower in exchange for rights to providing mobile phone service in North Korea.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

Many North Koreans now have mobile phones. Orascom says their service covers 75% of North Korea’s population. Still, mobile phones can only call inside the country and no foreign phones are allowed in.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

Lafforgue says that many rural North Koreans are more distrustful of foreigners, because they are less educated. This woman was friendly, however.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

Lafforgue once stayed with North Koreans on the Chilbo Sea. He says that the North Koreans’ houses in the beach village were nice, because they host tourists, but there was a very poor village within walking distance.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

This North Korean couple is one of the families that hosted Lafforgue and the other tourists at the beach village.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

The chief of the Chilbo Sea beach village showed Lafforgue a picture of his son, who he says will stay in the North Korean army “until the reunification of Korea.”

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

Here, North Koreans read the news while waiting in the the Puhung subway station. Puhung means rehabilitation. All 17 subway stations in Pyongyang have names like Rehabilitation, Triumphant Return, Paradise, and Glory.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

Pyongyang may be where privileged North Koreans live…

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

But that doesn’t mean its all up to date. Many buildings are old with no heat or running water.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

Lafforgue often requested to see distant sights in North Korea, because he says that the most unfiltered view of North Korea can be seen while on the road.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

On Lafforgues’ sixth trip, he was finally able to visit Chongjin in the North, where he saw many instances of extreme poverty. The guides took his and other tourists’ cameras during that part of the trip.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

Lafforgue was outright stopped from taking a picture only twice. He says if you act like a tourist would in any other country, it is unlikely that officials will bother you.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News

Lafforgue says that he loved photographing North Korea because he wanted to capture real emotion among the people. “They’re not robots,” he says.

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Eric Lafforgue/Courtesy NK News