The View From Pyongyang: An Exclusive Look at the World’s Most Secretive Nation

One photographer journeyed into North Korea to catch a unique glimpse of a country under a dictatorship

Statue at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, a museum of the Korean War located in Pyongyang. Exhibits include a 360-degree diorama of the Battle of Daejon. In addition to the many statues, murals and artifacts contained in the museum is the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy ship that was captured by North Korean forces when it allegedly entered North Korean territorial waters in 1968. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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On Sunday, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test with a blast more powerful than the bombs the United States dropped on Japan in World War II. The explosion triggered a magnitude 6.3 earthquake. It's the latest in a string of provocative moves, including firing a missile over Japan late in August and threatening to attack Guam earlier that same month. While world leaders from Russia President Vladimir Putin to South Korea President Moon Jae-in have called for peaceful dialogue, President Trump has urged harsher sanctions.

But putting geopolitics aside, what does one see on a visit to North Korea?

That’s what British photographer Tariq Zaidi was eager to uncover. “I have wanted to go to North Korea for years,” Zaidi says by email. Having visited over 100 countries, Zaidi was determined to make his way into one of the most secretive countries in the world. On his journey, Zaidi traveled with two North Korean minders, deleting photos as they requested and getting “well-rehearsed answers” to the questions he asked. “Overall, if you put politics aside, it is a scenic beautiful country, probably one of the cleanest you will ever visit with remarkably hospitable people who will go out of their way to help you,” Zaidi says. 

The scenes he captured offer a tantalizing, albeit sanitized, glimpse of life in a country that’s now inaccessible to nearly all Americans. On September 1, the U.S. State Department enacted a travel ban for U.S. citizens, citing the risk of detention and the recent death of Otto Warmbier, 22, a University of Virginia student who was detained for 17 months and returned home in a coma. Since 1995, at least 18 foreigners have been detained in North Korea, 16 of them Americans; three Americans are still in North Korean custody. The State Department had previously warned tourists eager to visit the “Hermit Kingdom” to consider what their dollars went towards.

“The DPRK funnels revenue from a variety of sources to its nuclear and weapons programs, which it prioritizes above everything else, often at the expense of the well-being of its own people,” the State Department states. In fact, the most recent population census from North Korea, released in 2008, showed that only 58 percent of households have flush toilets, while a 2002 nutrition study revealed that 39 percent of North Koreans exhibited symptoms of chronic malnutrition.

“North Korea from the outside looked just like any other place, but very different at the same time,” Zaidi says. “The only question I can’t answer is whether that is all staged or real.”

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Pyongyang city view taken from the Yanggakdo International Hotel. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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Old traditional houses in central Pyongyang surrounded by newly built high rises. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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Mansudae Grand Monument. An enormous bronze statue of President Kim Il Sung and Leader Kim Jong Il, downtown Pyongyang. Image taken the day before Liberation Day, when military personnel are visiting the monument to lay flowers for the leaders. Liberation Day is one of the most important days in North Korea, celebration their liberation from Japan at the end of WWII. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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Flower seller outside the Mansudae Grand Monument, downtown Pyongyang. People visiting this monument usually lay flowers for the former leaders President Kim Il Sung and Leader Kim Jong Il. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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A woman in traditional clothes wearing the ubiquitous red badge of President Kim Il Sung and Leader Kim Jong Il, Pyongyang. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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Morning commuters on one of Pyongyang's many tram buses. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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Pyongyang Metro - One of the deepest metro systems in the world, with stunning artwork reflecting the name of each station. Due to the depth of the metro and lack of outside segments, its stations can double as bomb shelters, with blast doors in place at hallways. A statue of the late leader Kim Il Sung is at the end of the platform. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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Female military guide at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, a museum of the Korean War located in Pyongyang. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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Billboard poster of President Kim Il Sung, southeast North Korea. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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Billboard poster, southeast North Korea. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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A private moment between the entrance guards at the Grand People's Study House. The Grand People's Study House is the central library located in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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One of the many reading rooms at the Grand People's Study House, the central library in Pyongyang. The library was opened as the 'center for the project of intellectualizing the whole of society and a sanctuary of learning for the entire people.' It has a total floor space of 100,000m2 and 600 rooms. The building can house up to 30 million books. Foreign publications are available only with special permission. The writings of Kim Jong Il are also included. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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Woman at the reception desk of a small beach hotel near Wonsan, the east coast of North Korea. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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A man in military uniform watches beach-goers near Wonsan, east coast North Korea. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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Boys watching videos at the Pyongyang Sci-Tech Complex - a science and technology center housed in a large atom-shaped building in Pyongyang. The complex also features an 'earthquake experience room,' 'virtual science laboratory,' and various halls equipped with projectors and large touch screen computers. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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Girls trying the flight simulator game at the Pyongyang Sci-Tech Complex - a science and technology center housed in a large, atom-shaped building in Pyongyang. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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Men riding Segways outside the Pyongyang Sci-Tech Complex, a science and technology center in Pyongyang. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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Street food bar and restaurant located near the youth fun-fair, Pyongyang. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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Locals watch one of the rides at the Youth Fun-Fair (also called the Kaeson Youth Amusement Park), an amusement park popular with locals in the evening, Pyongyang. (Tariq Zaidi / ZUMA Press)
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