A man brought back some of the most telling and forbidden souvenirs from his trip in North Korea.
London-based photographer and software developer Michal Huniewicz somehow managed to take prohibited photos during his visit to the militarized state and make it out with them intact. His pictures reveal the kind of day-to-day existence that North Koreans lead, but few know about.
Huniewicz, 32, was a part of a small group that was granted special permission to tour the seclusive country for four days in August last year. Visitors are only allowed entry into North Korea through pre-arranged tours that are booked through agencies.
“Ah, your typical list of belongings. We were told that if we bring any porn into the country and they find out, they will show it to our travel companions to embarrass us, and confiscate the device. They also searched the laptops for any Korean films, for the comedy film ‘The Interview’ and books about North Korea. Books about North Korea (even travel guides) are going to be confiscated. They didn’t even look at my Kindle though. The whole check lasted three hours, and one of us had his film about the fall of Yugoslavia deleted for some reason.”
The trip, which cost him around $800-1,000, or £600-700, involved a flight from Beijing, China to North Korea’s capital Pyongyang.
“Although Pyongyang has two power stations, the electricity supply is in a perpetual state of emergency. Neither power station produces enough power to supply more than one district at a time.”
Upon arriving, foreign visitors are escorted by tour guides who surveil them throughout their time there.
Some may wonder why anyone would ever dare step foot into such a place.
“This was in a shop with souvenirs: books (Kim Jong-il’s aphorisms and such), postcards, posters, etc.”
His visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was motivated by his family’s personal experience with communism in Eastern Poland, or what is today Lithuania and Belarus.
Huniewicz told NextShark:
“I am the first generation in four not to get arrested by communists! Therefore, it wasn’t difficult to feel attracted to what quite possibly is the most weird state on the planet — with its insane cult of personality, quasi-religious beliefs. In other words, to have my share of communism and in a comfortable fashion — only for a few days, and then return home.”
His group was accompanied by two guides who intercepted them in Pyongyang. One of the guides was a woman who he described as kind. She did most of the talking and smiling and even sang them a song.
“It seems that everyone living in Pyongyang has to wear this badge, and you cannot just buy it. Supposedly they may give it to you if you’re obedient and don’t ask stupid questions — or you can buy a counterfeit one in China.”
“The picture of North Korea she painted for us was that of a brave little country defying imperialists. Only the U.S. and Japan were mentioned by name, but they didn’t seem to think too highly of the Chinese either — albeit struggling due to their oppression, which happens to go against the official doctrine of juche, that is of complete independence from the outside world.”
Huniewicz said the male guide was more of the authoritative enforcer who appeared more distant to the travelers. He rarely spoke and when he did it was in short bursts.
Though the male minder was short and skinny, he exuded confidence, inspected seemingly important papers and was saluted by the other soldiers.
Huniewicz had a challenging time trying to empathize and relate to the people he encountered while in North Korea. The interactions with the guides “were beyond cultural reach.” Communication was limited and only the simplest of jokes could be communicated.
“I forgot to mention — you’re not allowed to take pictures from the train. There are ordinary North Koreans on the train with you, but they didn’t say anything when I took these pictures. There are also uniformed North Koreans, and I avoided taking pictures when they were around.”
“I found it difficult to like them because they lied to us — there was no crime in North Korea, no famine, no homosexuality … To be fair, that was part of their profession, and I had known it would be that way. They were very different from us culturally. We were a fairly diverse bunch anyway, all Westerners, but from different continents.”
“Pluralism and individualism are regarded as the greatest enemy. I understood the significance of being able to drive a car anywhere you want, when you please, where you please — as our guide told us in North Korea, you only travel big distances by bus or train, when you get permission.”
The itinerary was pre-arranged with a tight schedule that allowed for little deviation.
The guides would put the travelers to sleep and wake them up at 8 a.m. with a phone call to their hotel rooms. The hotel rooms were equipped with a shabby radio by their beds, which they suspected was for surveillance purposes.
In addition, the travelers had no planning to do because everything was pretty much set up for them.
“The [guides] were often on the phone, and we thought it was to warn people we were coming, so they could switch the lights on and prepare to make a good impression.”
As for meals, they were allowed to visit designated restaurants that offered many small plates of food. Huniewicz described it as a bit monotonous, but thought highly of the kimchi and beef that the guests self-cooked.
“The waitresses serving us often seemed a little terrified. This was our first night in North Korea. We dined in the hotel’s basement, in a small room, debating whether it was bugged, and wondering whether we could trust one another (the whole group was 7 people).”
North Korea cuisine apparently lacks the concept of dessert and the travelers were advised beforehand to bring their own snacks. However, North Korea did have some surprises including alcohol and an interesting way of raising crops.
“They had beer and they had a grim, German-themed beer bar. At one point they served something else they called beer, but it was served in a shot-type of glass. It had a double-digit alcohol content without a doubt.
“They took us to this spot over and over again, maybe they were really proud of the mural.”
“The food grown in North Korea uses human waste as the fertilizer. Large places of employment as well as the ordinary population are supposedly obliged to provide certain amounts of it for that use. One wonders if what tourists produce is used as well!”
“What’s the last time you saw a kid in the West cleaning anything? Also, the statue on the left features a North Korean soldier stepping on an American flag.”
During his time there Huniewicz noticed very few pets or children around:
“The country is depressing. We only saw a handful of people smiling or expressing anything other than obedience. They just walk in silence from one place to another, and avoid foreigners like ourselves.”
One omnipresent sight were the pictures and statues of Kim II-sung that could be found in every corner. He described North Korean culture as a blend of communism, Christianity and Buddhism alongside myths and legends about the supreme leader and how he created the world.
“The place is called Mansu Hill Grand Monument, and you are informed that ‘visitors who take photos of the statues are required to frame both leaders in the entirety of their picture.'”
“We love and respect our close family members, we are attached to our parents, children, partners, and it seems natural and normal to us. North Korea teaches its citizens that family ties are weak compared to the love of the communist party. Words like dear or beloved are reserved not for your wife or boyfriend, but for the glorious leaders alone.”
“The rumor is, the fifth floor of the hotel is entire dedicated to the surveillance of the guests. Some people managed to visit it (the door is usually closed when you take the stairs), so it’s worth Googling.”
The most daring stunt Huniewicz pulled during his trip was entering a local grocery store that was off limits to foreigners. When his guide turned his back, Huniewicz slipped into the shop.
“The lights were off and everyone froze. I had maybe 15 seconds in there before my guide realized what had happened and kicked me out. I managed to take two sneaky photos that show the dark shop with mostly empty shelves.
“It was a shop where you ask the salesperson to give you each product and you’re not allowed to pick things up on your own. That’s exactly the type of shops I remember from my early childhood before actual supermarkets appeared. I think that kind of shop reflects poverty and lack of trust between people.”
According to Huniewicz, photography is allowed and encouraged in North Korea, but only in designated places that are well-maintained and “ready to be inspected by foreigners.” However, he says, “everything else is not allowed.”
“Men and women in Pyongyang. We were told old marriages in North Korea were arranged.”
Visitors had to adhere to strict rules regarding photography during their time there. Photos while on the train are not allowed. Photos of soldiers and military installations are also not allowed.
“You could take photos at the DMZ, but not on your way to the DMZ, we were told. No photos inside the Victorious War Museum (‘victorious’ despite the armistice that they also acknowledge).”
“Shin Dong-hyuk recalls students working in winter — handling metal rods without gloves, which sometimes meant ripping skin from one’s hands, and a punishment for complaining was sticking one’s tongue to a freezing piece of metal so that it would stick.”
Camera rolls are also typically vetted before visitors are allowed to leave the country. Visitors who disobeyed the rules were reprimanded by their guides.
“This is what Pyongyang looks like from the Yanggakdo Hotel. On the left, the Koryo hotel, supposedly on fire quite recently.  This is where you will stay if you are Chinese — the Chinese are given a lot more freedom than anyone else.”“They did tell one of us off for taking photos of a soldier that we were allowed to photograph — but only from the front or his profile, but not his back, for some reason. The photos had to be deleted.”
Certain cameras are also not permitted including ones with lenses above 200 mm. Huniewicz’s amateur DSLR camera was carefully scrutinized upon his arrival and throughout his stay there.
“Pyongyang Times is a weekly magazine that was launched in 1965, and is published in English and French. The front page is usually dedicated to the ruling Kim visiting various places and handing precious advice. The magazine claimed that ‘if the Olympic Games were to be held in South Korea, many sportsmen and tourists of the world would meet death, infected with AIDS’, as so many people had been deliberately infected by American soldiers.”
“The officer would leave our compartment many times — each time we’d hide my camera, then she’d return, search for it, and inspect it again, which was becoming a bit nerve wracking, until she finally let go.”
“Since South Korea is no longer providing fertilizer, North Koreans are charged with collecting their feces in winter for spring planting. This is used to produce toibee, a fertilizer in which ash is mixed with human excrement. Factories and public enterprises have been ordered to produce two tons of toibee.”
They spent three hours at the border surrounded by custom officers, soldiers and policing dogs that appear to be malnourished.
“I was very uneasy about the illegal photos I had taken, but I took some steps towards getting them out: change my camera menus to Polish, took loads of boring photos to slow them down and discourage them from checking. I had multiple memory cards hidden all over my luggage. I attached my least conspicuous lens.
“Inside the customs facility, however, they demanded my phone. You have to give them your phone, unlock it, and then they’d search it while you’d stand idly outside of the building. Well, I didn’t have a phone on me, as I had left it in China.
“They asked if I had a camera, and I replied that I didn’t. After that, they began to question other people, and, having looked about me, I walked out of the building, hoping they would not stop me. They didn’t. I was lucky. They never saw my photos.”
Somehow he managed to bring his rare souvenirs home intact. Huniewicz’s photos give outsiders a glimpse inside the little known lives of some 24.9 million people who live in one of the most secretive places in the world.
“You have to be fast. Soon we noticed that while Pyongyang is meant to be a utopian showcase for foreign visitors like ourselves, there are more glamorous bits, and there are less glamorous bits. What’s more, our mute driver was perfectly aware of this, so he would conveniently slow down whenever the surroundings were impressive, and speed up whenever they were less pleasant, to make them more difficult to photograph.”
Huniewicz shared his lingering thoughts about the trip:
“North Korea was one of the most fascinating places to visit, but we must not forget that its uniqueness is created by the great suffering inflicted onto North Koreans. Before going, I was worried I would at some point laugh because of its absurdities and get into trouble, but the reality of it was not funny at all, it was disturbing and depressing.”
Many people would turn down the opportunity to visit North Korea.
After his first trip to the country, Huniewicz says he would like to return, but under different circumstances.
“I’d love to visit again, but not until it’s a free country. When it finally shakes off the shackles, it will open up, it will tell all of its stories, and offer us its stunning landscape. That will be a great time to go, and I hope it happens soon.”