Inside North Korea: bleak photos capture rare glimpse of life in closed-off hermit nation

Between rusting factories and peeling housing blocks were glimpses of everyday life, as North Koreans eked out their living by hauling timber and burning crop fields. In one town, two goods trucks waited patiently on a bridge into China – a sign of resumption in the cross-border trade crucial to Pyongyang’s moribund economy.

Trucks cross a border bridge connecting the Chinese town of Changbai (left) and North Korean’s Hyesan. Photo: AFP

Beyond the eagle-eyed guards, portraits of the ruling Kim dynasty watch over the populace, while monumental propaganda banners laud their socialist ideology. One slogan, written in huge red and white letters on a hillside, simply states: “Our country is the best!”

North Korea was founded in 1948 under Kim Il-sung as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), inspired by strict Marxist-Leninist principles.

North Korean soldiers patrol the Yalu River in Chunggang County, as seen from Linjiang in China’s Jilin province. Photo: AFP
Its population of roughly 26 million people lives largely in isolation from the rest of the world in the austere communist state, barred from going abroad without permission from the government and subjected to state-run media that blare propaganda praising the nation and its supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.

North Korea’s self-imposed isolation is largely due to its guiding principle of “juche” – or “self-reliance” – the idea that it should be able to function completely independently and remain separate from the rest of the world.

North Koreans burn crop fields as seen from Tumen in China’s Jilin province. Photo: AFP

In practice, this has achieved little other than to stifle the country’s economy and trade, and many of its citizens face high poverty levels and severe food shortages. The CIA says North Korea “remains one of the world’s most isolated and one of Asia’s poorest.”

North Korea’s chronic food shortages are believed to have grown more acute during the pandemic, and campaigners say authorities have strengthened border defences to prevent escapes to its vast, wealthy neighbour.

Since the 1950s, it is estimated that around 31,000 North Koreans have sought to escape and defected to South Korea.
The North Korean town of Chunggang with a sign reading “My country is the best” as pictured from near the Chinese border town of Linjiang. Photo: AFP

That number surged last year amid what the unification ministry in Seoul called “worsening conditions in North Korea”.

Pardo’s photos, which show North Korean soldiers gazing across an icy river towards China and occasionally descending from looming watchtowers to prowl border paths behind barbed wire and sharpened sticks, present a unique look into life in one of the world’s most secretive communist states.

This article was first published by Business Insider. Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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