Inside North Korea: Fascinating photos of everyday life in the isolated state

AFP photographer Ed Jones is one of the few Western journalists allowed to enter North Korea on a regular basis. In addition to photographing mass military parades and spectacular propaganda events venerating the country's leaders past and present, Jones captures daily life on the streets of Pyongyang.

His photos are remarkable for just how unremarkable everything seems – commuters travelling to and from work, children playing football or visiting museums – but as has been well documented, they do not reflect the reality of life in poverty-stricken rural villages outside the showcase capital.

A man eats at a table outside a restaurant in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
People check their mobile phones as they wait at a trolley bus stop in Pyongyang. Buses and trams are by far the most common means of public transport in the capital of around three million people, where access to private cars is rare. Tickets cost five won each (less than half a British penny)Ed Jones/AFP
Women look at a mobile phone as they ride a tram in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
People shop for food at the Kwangbok, or Liberation, department store in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
A girl tries on a pair of sunglasses as she sits in a trolley at the Kwangbok, or Liberation, department store in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
Two men play pool at a bowling alley in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
People have their hair cut at a salon in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
A man sits with a pet dog near Kim il-Sung square in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
Youths play tennis in a public square in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
Youths wait to play tennis in a public square in front of Kim il-Sung stadium in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
Pyongyang’s 300-odd traffic ladies are chosen for their looks and have a finite shelf life, with compulsory retirement at just 26. North Korean authorities ensure a steady supply of photogenic young women who are a favourite subject of visiting tourists and journalistsEd Jones/AFP
Snack vendors wait for customers in an underpass of the Arch of Triumph in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
A man cycling along a street in Pyongyang, with the skyscrapers of Mirae Scientists Street seen over a fenceEd Jones/AFP
A couple with a child cross a road in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
University students walk on a street in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
A man looks at a mobile phone on an escalator in a subway station of the Pyongyang metroEd Jones/AFP
A man leans on the balcony of an apartment building in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
A boy drinks from a bottle on a street in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
Swimmers gather in a wave pool at a water park in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
Swimmers walk between pools at a water park in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP

Pyongyang is easily the most developed city in North Korea and is relatively comfortable for the increasingly affluent segment of its three million inhabitants. Smartphones, traffic jams, restaurants, taxis and gleaming new high rise apartments blocks – this could almost be any city in the world (were it not for all the portraits and statues of Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il and propaganda posters trumpeting recent successful missile launches).

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Men push their bicycles past the portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-iI, on Kim il-Sung square in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
A woman sits in a doorway near a poster showing a missile in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
A boy looks at a display showing images of missiles launches and military exercises in a public square in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
Children prepare to perform a dance routine as part of activities marking Children's Union Foundation day in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
A group of men wait to pay their respects before the statues of the late North Korean leaders at Mansu hill in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
A young girl cleans the steps in front the statues of late North Korean leaders Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il at Mansu hill in Pyongyang as the country marks Victory Day, on 27 July 2017Ed Jones/AFP
Pedestrians and vehicles pass portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP

Jones's movements are closely controlled, but he is generally allowed to photograph whatever he sees within Pyongyang and on supervised trips outside the city. In an interview with Korea Photo Review, he said: "During trips outside Pyongyang we often pass towns and villages that I would love to stop and shoot in, but which for obvious reasons is for the most part not possible."

A group of women sell fruit beside a road on the outskirts of Sinchon, south of PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
Workers maintain a section of the West Sea Barrage – an 8km system of dams and locks separating the sea from the Taedong River – near the city of NamphoEd Jones/AFP
A woman carries a child as people dance at the West Sea Barrage beachEd Jones/AFP
A boy with a karaoke machine waits at the West Sea Barrage beach outside the coastal city of NamphoEd Jones/AFP
A hostess cooks clams using petrol, at the West Sea Barrage beach outside the coastal city of Nampho, southwest of PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
A member of the military crosses a street in the coastal city of Nampho, southwest of PyongyangEd Jones/AFP

AFP opened a bureau in Pyongyang in September 2016, allowing Jones to travel from Seoul to Pyongyang (via Beijing) every six weeks or so, spending up to 14 days at a time there. Although North Koreans are still wary of foreign media, Jones has been working on a portrait series, Faces of Pyongyang.

"Initially," he said, "We approached people who we felt were more likely to agree to have their photos taken, such as tour guides at the various monuments around Pyongyang that are easy to visit. But we were quickly able to expand our approach to include others." Jones says most people are pretty happy to have their portraits taken, and he often visits them on subsequent trips to take them prints.

Tour guide and Korean People's Army (KPA) captain Choe Un-Jong (26) poses for a portrait at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
Han Gwang-Rim (34) poses for a portrait with his daughter Su Ryon (3) at a supermarket in Pyongyang.Ed Jones/AFP
Ri Song-Hui (21) poses for a portrait at the Munsu Water Park in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
Jo Ye-Song (6) poses for a portrait as she practices rollerblading on Kim Il-Sung square in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
Korean People's Army soldier Lieutenant Kim poses for a portrait at the military demarcation line on the North Korean side of the Joint Security Area with the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) separating North and South KoreaEd Jones/AFP
Hairdresser Kim Hae-Jong (30) poses for a portrait at a leisure and health complex in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
Steel worker Kang Chol-Su (38) poses for a portrait at the Chollima Steel Complex, south of PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
Petrol station attendant Kim Su-Hyang (18) poses for a portrait near the town of Sinchon, south of PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
Kim Su-Ryon (24) poses for a portrait at the West Sea Barrage beach, near the city of NamphoEd Jones/AFP

Jones told IBTimes UK: "Covering North Korea presents a number of unique challenges. Access to places, events and people is often restricted. Photographing daily life is very much a priority. Even the most mundane events or outings can often yield worthwhile images that, taken together, provide some insight, even if the wider picture is often obscured or out of view completely."

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