Under-The-Radar Cell Phone Photos Show The Real North Korea

An unplanned stop in a small village yields a glimpse behind the facade.

02/04/2016 7:40 AM AEDT | Updated 02/04/2016 7:40 AM AEDT
Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images
Photographer Xiaolu Chu snapped photos of dire scenes in the North Korean village of Tumangang on his cell phone during a transit stop. Here, workers rest at Tumangang railway station.

A photographer whose train journey into North Korea was unexpectedly halted got an unusual glimpse into the Hermit Kingdom.

Last August, Beijing-based photographer Xiaolu Chu boarded a train in Moscow bound for Pyongyang. But his trip was stalled halfway due to disputes that had erupted between North and South Korea, Chu told The WorldPost, giving passengers a whole day to explore Tumangang, a small North Korean village on the Russian border where the train had stopped.

There, Chu encountered scenes vastly different from those the North Korean government prefers foreigners to see. Beggars and peddlers often showed up to the village's train station, only to be mistreated by railway staff, Chu said. There were almost no lights in the village, except for those shining on the portraits of the country's past leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. 

"There are nearly no fat people in North Korea. Everyone was thin," Chu said. However, he said he saw many people doing physical exercises and that many people appeared strong.

Over 10 million people, or 78 percent of the population, in North Korea are undernourished, according to the United Nations' 2015 State of Food Insecurity of the World report.

Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images
Chu deliberately used his cell phone instead of his professional camera to snap the photos to avoid getting in trouble with North Korean authorities, who would go through his device and delete photos.

Chu deliberately used his cell phone, a Lenovo Z90-7, to snap photos of the bizarre scenes. Using his professional camera would have been "too obvious" in that situation, Chu said.

"People in [the] village [were] extremely vigilant," Chu wrote. "Even so, we still were reported to police by local people." Chu said a policeman and a soldier stopped him and deleted a few of the photos on his phone, but he salvaged some that he had hidden.

Getty Images via Getty Images
Chu said there was almost no light in the village at night, with the exception of the bulbs shining on the portraits of the country's past leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

"Conductors on train, custom officer, policeman and soldier in village, tourist guide, these people all have rights to delete photo from your camera and cellphone," Chu wrote. Customs officers, in particular, had the right to examine devices including cameras, cell phones, laptops and flash drives.

In a travel warning, the U.S. State Department issued a long list of actions considered criminal in North Korea, including taking unauthorized photos and shopping in stores not designated for foreigners. Less than three weeks ago, North Korea sentenced American college student Otto Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly trying to steal a sign with a propaganda slogan in Pyongyang.

Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images
North Korean authorities, from train conductors to local police officers, can examine digital devices such as cameras, cell phones and laptops, Chu said. A customs officer inspects a passenger's laptop at Tumangang railway station.

When Chu finally arrived in Pyongyang the next day, his guides prevented him from taking photos of normal daily life, but encouraged him to take photos of scenes including anti-American protests, group performances and tourist attractions.

"Every tourist [had to] show respect to leaders' sculptures under [the] tourist guide's [guidance]," Chu said.

See a collection of Chu's Tumangang photos, available via Getty Images, below. To see more of his photos, visit his portfolio here.

  • Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images
    Local women rest in an alley in Tumangang, North Korea, on Aug. 19, 2015.
  • Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images
    A customs officer checks a passenger's camera on a train from Moscow to Pyongyang at the Tumangang railway station.
  • Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images
    A customs officer checks a passenger's mobile device.
  • Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images
    A general view of the village.
  • Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images
    Children walk to school on Aug. 20.
  • Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images
    A child rests in the village.
  • Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images
    "There are nearly no fat people, everyone was thin," photographer Xiaolu Chu says.
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