This Is What Daily Life in North Korea Looks Like

In a country where behavior is tightly controlled, a photographer captures individuality on the streets and in the businesses of Pyongyang.

This story appears in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

There are 25 million people in North Korea, but the only visible portraits are of its leaders. Regular people are rarely photographed unless they are in a large group—even on their wedding day.

In 2017 French photographer Stéphan Gladieu went to North Korea to discover its citizens’ individuality. At factories and farms the cleanest workers were trotted out for him. “In a country where ‘individuals’ don’t exist, I was doing something crazy by asking people to stand alone,” says Gladieu. He was repeatedly reminded of this by his minders, who chose the facilities he visited. He picked his subjects—though sometimes the minders would argue the person was too ugly, old, or unkempt.

Taken alone, each portrait could look like smiling propaganda for the authoritarian regime. Together, they have an unsettling uniformity. The subversion is in this repetition, he says. Even standing next to him, his guides didn’t understand what he was doing. “They could never see what I saw,” says Gladieu. “They’re so far away, in a different world.”

Gifted students attend class at Pyongyang No. 1 Senior-Middle School, which was founded in 1984. There are similar schools in each province, but this one is considered the best.
Gifted students attend class at Pyongyang No. 1 Senior-Middle School, which was founded in 1984. There are similar schools in each province, but this one is considered the best.

Read This Next

The most ancient galaxies in the universe are coming into view
‘Microclots’ could help solve the long COVID puzzle
How Spain’s lust for gold doomed the Inca Empire

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet