Children walk to school in Tumangang, North Korea, in August 2015.
The North Korean government is notoriously secretive. Upon entry to the country, visitors are instructed on what they can and cannot take pictures of. Customs agents inspect your cell phone and other digital devices, including cameras, tablets, and storage cards, for banned content.
These restrictions prompted Getty photographer Xiaolu Chu to travel by train through the country in August 2015, documenting everyday life through his phone lens. Mr. Chu, who prefers to be called by his first name Xiaolu, explained to Tech Insider that whipping out his DSLR camera was too risky in some of the villages, where the locals reported sightings to the police.
While some images were deleted during run-ins with the police, Chu shared the remainder of his trip with us. Here’s what it was like.
Chu took the long way around during his visit to North Korea.
A customs officer talks to a passenger at a railway station in Tumangang, North Korea.
Most Chinese tourists enter by train through Sinjiju or by plane through Pyongyang. He instead traveled to Russia so he could access the port at Tumangang.
The train ride from Tumangang to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, lasts a day. It was canceled because of a dispute between North Korea and South Korea.
A train carriage on its way to Pyongyang sits delayed in Tumangang, North Korea.
“Fortunately we had a whole day to go out and take some pictures in the village,” Chu says.
Tumangang, North Korea.
He saw scores of people living in abject poverty. Many begged for money.
A little girl walks on the street in Tumangang, North Korea.
“There are nearly no fat people in North Korea, everyone looks very thin,” Chu says.
An elderly man is seen in Tumangang, North Korea.
Many of the residential buildings looked run down and in need of repair.
August 19, 2015 in Tumangang, North Korea.
When he later returned to the train station, he noticed portraits of the country’s former leaders and the words “long live” scattered throughout.
Kids pass by a railway station in Tumangang, North Korea.
At night, these shrines were the only structures lit up in the village. Other buildings were consumed by darkness.
A general view of the railway station in Tumangang, North Korea.
The next day, he boarded a train for the nation’s capital.
A railway station in Tumangang, North Korea.
A customs agent on board checked his tablet to make sure it wasn’t GPS-enabled. The government also jams signals as a security measure.
A customs officer checks a passenger’s mobile device on the train to Pyongyang, North Korea, at a railway station in Tumangang, North Korea.
He also checked his laptop and DSLR camera. Chu says the agent had no trouble operating the devices — with the exception of the MacBook.
A customs officer checks a passenger’s laptop on the train to Pyongyang, North Korea, at a railway station in Tumangang, North Korea.
The train chugged along, giving Chu snapshots of everyday life. This boy was collecting corn cobs beside the tracks.
A boy collects corn cob beside a railway in North Korea.
Many people rode bicycles, as seen at a railway crossing en route.
People wait at a railway crossing in North Korea.
Some scenes were quaint. Children took an afternoon dip in a river.
Children swim in a river at noon in North Korea.
But anytime the train pulled into a station, there were painful reminders of the poor living conditions. This little boy begged for money at a station in Hamhung.
A little boy begs for food on the platform in Hamhung Railway Station in Hamhung, North Korea.
Korean People’s Army soldiers rested on the tracks.Korean People’s Army soldiers take a rest during a train journey.
Whenever he hopped out, Chu shot photos on his phone. “DSLR is too obvious to take pictures in that condition,” he says, “as people in the village were extremely vigilant.”
A general view of countryside in North Korea.
Several locals reported him to the police. “A policeman and a solider stopped us and checked our cell phone. I hid most of the pictures, [but a] few pictures were deleted,” he says.
People cool down at a train carriage door.
Tourism guidelines encourage visitors to take photos of the student exercise groups. These kids were rehearsing for a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
Students rehearse for a celebration of the 70th birthday of Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Photography of anti-American protests is also welcomed. These students were marching against South Korea and the US.
Students stage a protest against South Korea and the US in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Eventually, Chu reached the railway station in Pyongyang.
The platform at Pyongyang Railway Station in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Tech Insider asked Chu if he was scared of retribution for publishing his photos.
A female soldier guards a railway in North Korea.
“No, absolutely not,” he said.
Korean People’s Army soldier look out from the train window.
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