Photoblog: Faces of North Korea

Posted on June 26, 2012 by

Before our trip to North Korea, we didn’t know what to expect; after all, so little of North Korea is known to the outside world. All we knew about the country was based on what we saw on television or read in the newspapers – but we weren’t there to seek out the truth in the political debacle; we were there to learn about the country from a humanized point of view and do so, we wanted to meet and interact with its people.

Despite having been shut out of the outside world for centuries, the North Koreans we met were surprisingly curious and friendly towards us. Out on the streets, we smiled and waved at people – many of them coyly giggled, while others waved back enthusiastically. Riding on the subway, we were aware that locals were slightly intimidated by us, but we smiled and talked to them – and they quickly warmed up to us. At a park, we even played finger guessing games with a big group of school children who had crowded around us and poked curiously at our cameras.

While this trip to North Korea left us with more questions than answers, it definitely gave us a chance to get to know its people – who, in my opinion, show us what the country is really all about. Here’s a photographic tribute to the North Koreans, who kindly showed us a rare and heartwarming glimpse of their country.

A group of children

At Mount Ryonggak, we were having a barbecue lunch and enjoying the musical performance our waitresses put up for us – when a big group of school children crowded around to watch the spectacle (us!). We started talking to them, and I even played a few rounds of rock, paper, scissors with them – it ended with tons of laughter and possibly the best memories from the trip.

A group of soccer boys

As we climbed up to a temple on Mt. Ryonggak, we stumbled upon a group of soccer boys who had just finished a match. We were surprised to find that they knew plenty of famous soccer players – like Ronaldo, David Villa, Zidane etc. Apparently these children learn about international footballers when studying sports.

Bride and groom out to take wedding photos

At the foot of the mountain, we found a bride and groom taking wedding photos – our guide had taught us how to say congratulations in Korean (North Korean version is more formal), and upon hearing our greetings, “Chuka Hamnida!” the couple looked thankful.

Children practising in the Children Palace

Children at the Pyongyang Children Palace practice long and hard – as we went around for a tour of the complex, we met talented and bright kids playing on their sitar and working on handicraft.

A waitress poses for our camera

We met this beautiful, young waitress at our hotel in Kaesong. She has such gentle and kind eyes. At this town, we got a better glimpse into other parts of North Korea – where there were no tall buildings, just small Korean-style houses, dusty roads and people paddling on bicycles.

Couples rowing boat on the river

One of my favorite parts of the trip was our walk along Taedong River in downtown Pyongyang. We were used to following our guides and not loitering around on our own, but suddenly, we were given the freedom to stroll along the riverfront and interact with fishermen and kids by the water – it was a liberating feeling. We saw this couple rowing on boats, enjoying their leisure time, and we couldn’t help but snap a photo.

Military guide in Korean War Museum

At the Korean War Museum, we met this military guide who maintained a stern and serious look despite her gentle demeanor. During a conversation with one of our American group mates, she said, “Our country is divided into two because of the Americans. Without them, we would still be one country.” The moment was intense but it was clear that while both had starkly different opinions, they both respected their differences.

Military guide

On board the U.S.S Pueblo, we took a tour of the American espionage ship with this lady military guide. In the cabin, she pointed out the exact spot where one of the American spies was killed – it was right beneath my feet – I shuddered and left with shivers in my spine.

military guide at DMZ

This was our military guide at the DMZ, with our well-spoken guide Miss Pak by his side. Having worked at the demilitarized zone for more than a decade, this guide has all his life experiences written on his face.

Guards at the DMZ

To end this photo essay, I leave you with a photo of two military guides at the DMZ – on the North Korean side. Separated by a small concrete line, they stand just steps away from the boundary that divides their country permanently into two.

Disclaimer: Our experience was made possible by Koryo Tours but all opinions expressed above are my own. 


About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is a professional travel writer and blogger with a special interest in off-grid destinations and adventure travel. Her mission is to visit every country in the world. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Iceland, swam with sealions in the Galapagos, built a school in Tanzania, waddled with penguins in Antarctica, crossed into North Korea and drank beer in Palestine.

17 Responses to “Photoblog: Faces of North Korea”

  1. Maddy @ I'm Not Home June 26, 2012 6:22 am #

    There's definitely something behind the eyes… What an amazing collection. I've always wanted to go there.

  2. Eric June 26, 2012 9:36 am #

    That looks like an amazing tour. I've been living in South Korea for a few years now and would love to see the other side of the peninsula. Thanks for sharing.

  3. A Montrealer Abroad June 26, 2012 5:30 pm #

    Love the wedding shot – so unusual, and rarely seen.

  4. Mark Wiens June 26, 2012 10:54 pm #

    Great photos Nellie! I think I might have been a little scared too when the lady military guard showed the exact spot the American spy was killed – right beneath your feet.

    • Nellie June 27, 2012 4:44 pm #

      Thanks Mark! Yes and the way she said it was so matter-of-fact and almost unfeeling – maybe that\’s what being a (North Korean) military guide does to you.

  5. Gary Taylor June 28, 2012 3:38 am #

    Thanks for an interesting photoblog. We had very much the same experience at the start of the month! I recognise at least a couple of the faces in your pictures :) It would be great if more people could be persuaded to go to this most unique of counties!

  6. Petri Ojala October 3, 2012 3:29 pm #

    I can remember those places :) Great photos! Quite an experience. I just booked us flights around Asia in December and January and we'll be visiting the DMZ/JSA from the other side as well. Dropped by to see any hints for our itinerary.

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    I love Guild Cafe.. I was thinking of joining one of these days. Should I?

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  12. John Conway May 12, 2013 11:15 am #

    When I saw you visited North Korea, I was really shocked! I didn't even know that was possible. What tour guide did you go with? I would love to go myself now that I know it can be done! Really awesome pictures too – I can really see the emotion of the people and their characters.

    • John Conway May 13, 2013 9:57 pm #

      Well, I should have read the other articles before asking my questions! I now have the answers I was looking for. Thanks so much!

  13. Teaching Jobs Korea July 19, 2013 11:16 pm #

    Ok, I've been cruising the web looking into teaching jobs in Asia, but this article jumped out at me. There are a lot of places in the world that kinda freak me out, and North Korea comes in near the top of that list. Respect for going there and checking it out for yourself.

    And also, thanks so much for the pictures. There are so few normal images coming out of North Korea as it is so demonized elsewhere. It was great to see ordinary people doing ordinary things like playing soccer and boating. Not many of the adults seemed very happy, though, and that kind of made my sad. Kids will find a way to be goofy no matter what, but there was something in the faces of the grown ups that was… off.

    Thanks so much for sharing this story!


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