Haunting Photos Show What Life Is Really Like in North Korea

Not many people understand what life is like in North Korea. Everyone is taught to worship the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, basically from birth. From a state distributed food program to a lack of electricity, restrictions on religion, and a country-wide lack of internet or access to popular culture, living in North Korea is about as different from America as you can get.

The citizens of North Korea may not realize that their lives are so foreign compared to the rest of the world. Ahead, check out some rarely seen photos that depict how life is in one of the strictest and most secretive countries in the world.

1. The photos you see don’t show the real North Korea

North Korea

Kim Il Sung Square in North Korea | Carl Court/Getty Images

First, a disclaimer: any photograph you see from North Korea is meant to show the country in the best possible light. Journalists and photographers are forbidden from visiting or photographing areas that would show any negative images. That means even though the pictures are jarring, they’re far from the worst things you’ll find in this strange country.

Above, a citizen walks past oversized portraits of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Jong Un. Totalitarianism in North Korea means that the leaders aren’t just heads of state — they’re also seen as deities.

Next: Here’s one way North Korea controls citizens.

2. You don’t have many options in North Korea

North Korea

Approved hairstyles in North Korea | Carl Court/Getty Images

North Korean citizens have absolutely no freedom of choice. Women must pick from a selection of hairstyles and can never deviate from those specific options. Married women are expected to keep their hair short while single ladies can have their hair a little longer. Young men may not have hair longer than 2 inches.

Next: This is something surprising about work in North Korea.

3. Women make up most of the workforce

Women working in North Korea

Women working in a silk factory | Carl Court/Getty Images

In North Korea, there’s a solid workforce of women, though they’re not getting paid any kind of fair wages. Those workers get rations from the state but it’s not near enough to live on. If North Koreans desire “luxuries” such as protein, fat, or sugar, they have to get it using the cash they earn from side gigs, like making things at home to sell.

Next: This aspect almost seems like a perk.

4. There are no daycares

Babies in North Korea

Employees’ babies sleep in the nursery at the Kim Jong Suk Silk Factory | Carl Court/Getty Images

Childcare in North Korea is highly regulated and people operating illegal, non-state-sanctioned daycare centers or preschool are liable to be expelled to rural regions, where food and jobs are either scarce or non-existent.

While it may seem like a perk to enjoy “free” childcare at work, the reality is that the employees aren’t paid anywhere close to what they deserve.

Next: This is why there’s hardly anything fun to do.

5. Entertainment is almost non-existent

North Korea

North Korean men at an arcade | Carl Court/Getty Images

Look at any satellite image of North Korea and you’ll see that most of the country is dark. That’s because very few areas have the benefit of electricity and even those that do are subject to a practice known as, “alternative suspension of electricity supply.” This is when one side of the street has power while the other goes dark.

Even in the cities, all the power is out and streets are deserted after 8 p.m.

Next: Child labor laws don’t exist.

6. Even the students have to work

Children playing in North Korea

Children playing in North Korea | Carl Court/Getty Images

Don’t let photos of kids at play fool you — even they’re forced to work. Former North Korean refugees admitted that schools force children to work on a farm for free a few times per year. All North Korean families must send at least one family member to work for at least two hours per day six days per week.

Next: Female soldiers have it the worst.

7. North Korean soldiers go through horrible trials

A North Korean soldiers stands before spectators during a mass military parade.

North Korean soldiers | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Many men, especially those from rural areas, join the North Korean army in hopes of getting a guaranteed meal every day. But even life in the military isn’t very enviable. Still, the military employs 4.7% of the total population.

Female soldiers have it the worst, however. Often no provisions are made for their menstrual cycles, which forces them to reuse menstrual pads. One former soldier said that it doesn’t matter anyway — malnutrition and constant physical activity means that most women stop getting their periods eventually. Rape and sexual assault are also common, though the incidents usually go unreported.

Next: Cities are better than the countryside — but not by much.

8. Apartment living is cramped

apartment blocks in North Korea

Apartment blocks in Pyongyang | Carl Court/Getty Images

Multiple families often cram into one apartment building because housing is hard to come by. Work assignments dictate where you live, meaning a limited number of units are available in prime locations. Neighbors are encouraged to monitor each other’s behavior and report any rule breaking. Many apartments are outdated and lack basic comforts like running water and heat.

Next: Elections are beyond rigged.

9. There are elections — though everyone knows who’s going to win

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un visiting a school

Kim Jong Un visits a school | STR/AFP/Getty Images

It may seem odd that a dictatorship like North Korea bothers to hold elections — the ballot only has one name on it, though citizens can vote for or against Kim Jong Un. However, negative votes can count as an act of treason, an offense punishable by prison or even death.

Next: Few outsiders know what really goes on in North Korea.

10. They’re cut off from the rest of the world

North Korea

North Koreans pay their respects to the Mansudae Grand Monument | Carl Court/Getty Images

The founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, created the concept of “self-reliance” to cut the country off from the rest of the world. Now they don’t accept help for famine or any natural disasters. Meanwhile, a huge percentage of the citizens are starving or malnourished and suffer from preventable diseases.

Next: Not all kids go to school.

11. North Korean kids don’t have charmed childhoods

Young ballerinas in North Korea

Young ballerinas in North Korea | Carl Court/Getty Images

Not all children have the spend their days in the fields or doing manual labor. The lucky ones, like the offspring of high-ranking government officials, can avoid having to do hard labor by going to better schools in the cities. But even these kids are exposed to extreme violence, like watching public executions or watching their neighbors get arrested for minor offenses.

Next: Propaganda is prevalent.

12. Propaganda is introduced at a young age

Children in North Korea

Children in North Korea | Carl Court/Getty Images

Schoolchildren are taught to hate Americans and the Western world from a young age. They’re also taught a version of revisionist history that has little basis in reality. Since most people have no internet access or access to media other than state-sponsored newspapers, there’s no way for citizens to know that the information they’re being fed is wildly inaccurate. Still, secret networks pass information amongst one another, even though it’s dangerous.

Next: The country may not survive much longer.

13. North Korea is on the bridge of collapse

North Korea

North Korea | Carl Court/Getty Images

Jamie Metzel, a former US National Security Council and Senate Formal Relations Committee member, predicted that the entire country will collapse within the next decade. He said so far that the continued success of the regime has depended on the government’s ability to terrorize citizens, their economic resources, and their possession of nuclear weapons. However, those extreme tactics can only last for a limited amount of time.

Next: Photos don’t tell the whole story.

14. The press can only see a limited glimpse of North Korea

North Korea

A man massages his wife’s back at the beach | Carl Court/Getty Images

Even though certain members of the press are permitted to visit the country, they’re not even getting close to the full picture. Journalist Isaac Fish wrote in the New York Times that North Korea is, “an information black hole.” He said, “After months of research I have to admit that I have no idea what is actually happening inside North Korea.”

Next: This celebration takes over the city.

15. The Mass Games shut down the city

North Korea

70th anniversary of the founding of North Korea celebration prep | Carl Court/Getty Images

The Mass Games take over the city four nights a week for three entire months in the summer. Ten thousand performers, including many children, perform a celebration of the history and modernity of North Korea. The entire event is based on misinformation and propaganda, stressing the collective over the individual. It’s seen as a great honor to be chosen to participate in the festivities.

Next: Not everyone is allowed to live here.

16. You need permission to move to Pyongyang

North Korean citizens | Mark Ralson/AFP/Getty Images

It’s not like North Koreans can just rent a moving truck and head to Pyongyang, the capital city with the most opportunity and rations. City residents need permission to be there and there are roadblocks to prevent any unauthorized access. The majority of the people living there are members of the Working Party of Korea (WPK) and higher ranking in society. Most of the population lives in dirt-poor rural areas.

Next: This is how most people know what life is like in North Korea.

17. Refugees admit what life is really like in North Korea

A student cleans the blackboard under portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

North Korean school | Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

Escaping from North Korea is almost impossible, especially since Kim Jong Un, who’s also known as the “Great Successor,” tightened security on the borders. But some North Koreans are able to escape the oppressive regime and find freedom. They describe a former life that’s in stark contrast to the happy photos being published from North Korea.

Next: This is the unique thing about North Korea.

18. North Korea is like nowhere else on earth

North Korea

North Korea | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

HuffPo’s Tim Urban put it this way: “If you merged the Soviet Union under Stalin with an ancient Chinese Empire, mixed in The Truman Show and then made the whole thing Holocaust-esque, you have modern-day North Korea. It’s a dictatorship of the most extreme kind, a cult of personality beyond anything Stalin or Mao could have imagined.”

That’s what makes North Korea a, “true hermit kingdom.”

Next: Most citizens don’t have this one regular thing.

19. Almost no one has cars

Pyongyang North Korea Metro

North Korea | Sze Soong Teoh/iStock/Getty Images

There are roads in North Korea — but almost no one uses them because hardly any citizens besides high-ranking government officials can afford to own cars. Citizens of Pyongyang use public transportation to get to work or other places while people in rural area do it the old-fashioned way — they walk.

Next: Here’s the horrible thing that happens to babies.

20. North Korea does not treasure their children

a maternity ward in pyongyang north korea

Newborns in the hospital | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Considering that they want to become a world superpower, it seems strange how North Korea treats their future generations. Escapees from the communist country tell horrific tales of forced abortions in prisons. Any women who gave birth in the prison would have the infants taken away and killed, or would be compelled to murder the newborns themselves.

Forced abortions and infanticides in prisons date back to the 1980s.

Next: Not everyone is starving — but they’re still depressed.

21. Many people in North Korea have no hope

a woman in uniform directs traffic in north korea

A traffic cop directs cars in the capital city of North Korea | Ed Jones /AFP/Getty Images

Most citizens of North Korea aren’t attempting to flee because they’re starving, which was the case for the decade following the famine. Now they are trying to leave because they’re disillusioned with their futures there. With no freedoms and no prospect for advancing their stations in life, existence often feels pointless. This is one of the major flaws of socialism in general.

Next: Weddings are very different.

22. Weddings are unique events in North Korea

Hu Kwang Rim and his wife Hwang Ju Ok celebrate their wedding at the Monument of Party's foundation of DPR Korea on October 19, 2007 in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

A wedding in North Korea | Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

You’ll never attend a wedding ceremony on April 15 or February 16 — those days are sacred as the birthdays of former leaders. Generally, weddings are dramatic events featuring live chickens at the ceremony. Couples bring flowers to a statue of Kim Jong Il and take their picture with it immediately following the nuptials.

Next: Breaking small rules has harsh consequences.

23. Simple offenses are punished harshly

North Korea

Crowded subway | Carl Court/Getty Images

In North Korea, getting caught watching a smuggled film from China or America could get you sent to a work camp, where an estimated 400,000 people have died from inhumane conditions. These films are snuck into the country on USB sticks. Still, some people are willing to take the risk for a few hours of entertainment.

Next: There’s no benefit to being honest.

24. No one can say how they’re really feeling

North Korea

Pyongyang metro station | Carl Court/Getty Images

Worship of the Kim family — Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un — isn’t just expected, it’s mandated. But despite the hymns and constant outpouring of praise, every citizen knows that they’re liars who don’t have the people’s best interest at heart. The tricky thing is that no one can say so out loud since citizens are encouraged to tattle on one another. North Koreans are led to believe that even the walls of their own homes have ears to hear any negative talk.

Next: Innocent kids go to prison for this reason.

25. Children suffer for the sins of their parents

North Korea

A kindergartner in North Korea | Carl Court/Getty Images

Even innocent children can bear the brunt of their parents’ crimes. One former North Korean resident says that when his mother got arrested on suspicion of a secret business, he was found and beaten by the secret police. He was sent to a work camp and starved for her alleged offenses.

Next: This is a huge issue in the whole country.

26. Drug addiction is a big problem in North Korea

North Korea

Kindergarten teacher in North Korea | Carl Court/Getty Images

Though it’s hard to estimate exactly how many drug users there are in North Korea, one estimate found that up to 30% of the citizens use illegal drugs such as opium and crystal meth to escape the horror of daily life. Sources claim that the North Korean government is responsible for manufacturing and distributing the drugs.

Next: You need this one thing to travel through North Korea.

27. No one can travel through North Korea without a guide

North Korea

Artist Jon Ryong Guk works on a painting | Carl Court/Getty Images

One photographer noticed that saying you’re just a tourist gains you more access to North Korean sites than admitting you’re a journalist. But no matter who you are, you’ll never be allowed to travel through the country without a government-approved tour guide. That’s why photographs of the real situation in North Korea are basically nonexistent.

Next: Here’s why more people have been going to North Korea.

28. Tourism is expanding

North Korea

Chief engineer in North Korea | Carl Court/Getty Images

Twenty years ago, you never would have seen tourists roaming the streets of North Korea. Now the destination is more popular, with people visiting from places like America and Japan. Many citizens are distrustful of outsiders, however, especially in rural sections of the country.

Next: There’s no choice for this huge aspect of life in North Korea.

29. There is no freedom of religion

North Korea

Buddhist monk in North Korea | Carl Court/Getty Images

North Korean rule is based on Juche philosophy which is based on Marxist materialism. The ruling party is critical of organized religion. Christianity is almost non-existent and anyone caught practicing religion illicitly is subject to work camps.

Many North Koreans follow spirit guides or visit fortune tellers as their form of spiritual practice. While this is also frowned upon, even high ranking officials are known to seek the guidance of mystics.

Next: This is how North Korea is becoming up to date.

30. Technology is emerging in North Korea

Teacher in North Korea

A teacher conducting a lesson in North Korea | Carl Court/Getty Images

Many North Koreans now have mobile phones if they can afford to purchase them. Egypt-based company Orascom provides the cellular service, which they claim is accessed by 75% of the population. Still, even with those advancements, citizens are not allowed to call outside the country. No foreign phones are allowed in.