[slidepress gallery=’seangallagher-insidenorthkorea’]

Hover over the image for navigation and full screen controls

Sean Gallagher

Inside North Korea

play this essay


As our bus started to trundle across the bridge over the Yalu River, which separates China and North Korea, the reality of what I was about to do suddenly dawned on me. Fresh off the back of the story of Euna Lee and Laura Lin, American journalists who were caught crossing the China-North Korea border, sentenced to over 10 years in a labor camp and then subsequently ‘rescued’ by Bill Clinton, I was suddenly rather nervous. I was about to enter the most closed nation on earth, posing as a tourist, accompanied by a journalist (also posing as a tourist) and with a shiny professional DSLR in my bag.

Would Bill (or should that be Tony Blair) come and rescue me if something went wrong?!

Pulling up to the North Korean side of the bridge, armed guards were the first sight we glimpsed of North Koreans up close. With an obvious seriousness, they checked our bags thoroughly, especially those of the two ‘foreigners’ who had just entered with a bus load of Chinese tourists. After a nervous minute when a guard looked very quizzically at my camera lens, muttered some Korean to his fellow soldiers and then handed it back to me, it appeared we were okay. We were “Inside North Korea”.

I spent the next 4 days on-assignment with the Globe & Mail’s Mark MacKinnon, being whizzed around the country on an organized tour, shadowed at all times by two minders, gaining an insight into this rarely visited place. What we were shown was the North Korea that the government wanted us to see. However, by looking through the cracks and reading between the lines of what we saw, we were able to get glimpses at life in the “Hermit Kingdom”.

This collection of images is just a snapshot of North Korea, collected from this whirlwind tour. I hope however that the images offer some clues and small insights into life in this strange and mysterious country. For me, these images actually raise more questions than answers.

If you are interested to see more images and/or see the short videos we recorded from our trip, please visit

Sean Gallagher Blog.



Sean Gallagher is a British photographer, currently based in China. His most recent work has specialized on social and environmental issues in Asia, with specific emphasis on China. He was the first recipient of the David Alan Harvey Fund for Emerging Photographers in 2008. In 2009, he received a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, The Ecologist, The Globe & Mail, Die Zeit and with the BBC.


Related links

Sean Gallagher


Editor’s Note: Please only one comment per person under this essay.. Further discussions should take place under Dialogue..

Many thanks… david alan harvey

42 thoughts on “sean gallagher – inside north korea”

  1. Lots of good pictures but as an essay I didn’t feel I got much. Personally I would have preferred a view of the pantomime of the organised tour. The ‘glimpses’ of the real North Korea were just that – Asian poverty from a distance.

  2. Sean,

    I really liked this set. There is an sense of isolation created by all the empty space, even in image like #3 where the girl is separated by the edges of the pillars. Everything seems out of proportion, as if to hide problems within the grandiose size of structures. Big and gaudy must mean great.

    Fantastic use of color.

  3. SEAN,

    First of all, congratulations on being published, again, in BURN! Just going into North Korea and coming back with some photos, any photos, adds an increment to our knowledge of the place. I have seen a number of photo collections by travelers in North Korea and understand well the conditions under which these photos were taken. I’m gratified to see that within those limitations you have managed to come back with some photos that are intrinsically interesting as photographs, even had they not been taken in North Korea. Your photographs are significantly different from a number of other North Korean collections, and have a variety of unusual and effective compositions. Given the equipment you were working with, I think that’s quite an achievement.

    One of the strange things about photos from North Korea is that aside from obviously staged events like the Arirang Mass Games and the mass dancing in the streets of downtown Pyongyang, most scenes show very few people, and usually they are dwarfed by the monumental architecture or rather bleak countryside. The impression one gets is of a very sparsely populated country. And yet this cannot really be true… there are 24 million people in this rather small country, and even though the population is only half that of South Korea, it is still a very densely populated country by world standards. And yet the people seem both both physically and psychologically isolated. Anyone who has spent time in South Korea has come away with a sense of endless crowds of people streaming through the streets, markets, and alleys of Seoul, Pusan, and other cities. I think the shocking and stark contrasts of scenes from the North come more from this sense of depopulation and physical isolation than from the differences in material culture and wealth, great as they are. Your picture #13 is a nice antidote to this overall impression, it feels like an actual unstaged crowd of people engaged in the routines of daily life.

    Overall, I think this is effective and visually attractive essay, and it has been very well edited (how much by you, how much by DAH?). There’s nothing here that I would have left out. Good work, Sean!

  4. Very nice work. Even if it weren’t North Korea, I like the variety of the shots and technique. Number 2 was the only one I thought didn’t quite work, especially being at the front of the essay. And just from an “I had no idea it was like that there” perspective, the kitschy paintings are fascinating.

  5. I’m also used to not seeing many people in pictures of North Korea. I guess it’s a matter of leading visitors to those places where there are few people in order to make easier to keep an eye on you and to control what you see. It’s as though the sparsity of people is the sign, or one of them at least, of an authoritarian state. I wonder if it was similar in the Soviet Union.

    I rather like #2 though it took me a moment to realise what the guys were up to. I also like #3, #4, #5 and #16 the most from a compositional point of view. But its #12 and #15 I like the most because it seems as though we’re looking at something a little less state-controlled, a scene that’s a little more quotidian, though still hardly any people to be seen there, to be sure. And perhaps I haven’t seen pictures like that from North Korea before, you know, a bit off the tourist route.

  6. Just going there is a good thing even we all know that the situation make all photographers some slaves and tools of this regime propaganda and finally perhaps using us to show exactly what they want…on that point only I would personnaly really think the way I would not shot there but what I could write with the images…

    One of the best work sawn in Norht Korea. Images are very classical, some are really well done even all are deja vu, some are exellent and say more than what they show to us…the fact it’s in North Korea make them little less “deja vu” so with your strong feeling written with it could be a really good reportage which will be published in many places..

  7. What powerful work Sean.

    I love the formal compositions. The formality of the compositions, and the small figures within the grandiose/tacky settings are a wonderful metaphor for the political reality of the country.

    A small nit-pick is the severe barrel distortion apparent in some frames, a distraction easily corrected with software.

    Congratulations. Beautifully done.

  8. It’s nice to read that they are just snapshots, because it takes away a lot of the pressure which could be built up if there was supposed to be something more deep behind it all. I also get more questions than answers from this, but I usually always take that as a good sign, it would be plain boring if we got all our questions answered through photographs.

    Lots of nice details overall.. love how the woman fades into the man from #19 to #20. There’s a sense of silence in here, all the people and their surroundings look so calm. No stress. The only one that looks misplaced is #13 which bounces of the style which is already built up at that point, but maybe it gains from getting bounced off a bit, I’m not sure.


  9. Pingback: Tweets that mention sean gallagher – inside north korea | burn magazine -- Topsy.com

  10. “Even if the sky falls on you, there is a hole that you can escape from.”–Korean Proverb

    Sean, great to see the set appear so quickly at Burn, after having seen some of the work last week in the Globe & Mail and the videos on your blog/G&M :)))…

    for me, it’s important to view the photographs within the context of a small, short, touristic (yes, they were tourists, in truth) visit: a way to peep through the key hole. I think the fact that both the pictures and the story (in the G&M) pose more questions than answers, or rather, provoke (in the good sense) rather than reveal. It’s impossible to do a story on N.Korea within such a short time (a lifetime?), but what i enjoyed about this story and like about the pictures and the narrative sequence is the attempt, still, to show moments that ‘upset’ our understanding of N.Korea.

    As Sidney has so eloquently pointed out, almost all of the imagery (and films) that we’re provided of N.Korea have to do with the relationship between emptyness and monumentality. We’ve seen so many photographs and imagery (film too) of the monumnetality of the N.Korean regime: the military parades, the staturary, the sculpture, the extraordinarily remarkable (and bizarre) Arirang Mass Games (were they an inspiration for the Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremonies as well??), the grave and memorial palace (those out-of-fiction front gates) of Kim Il-sung, the towers and streets and squares, all this massive infrastructural and ode to the propaganda of the regime (inspired by the Soviet Asethetic) and how all this contrasts remarkably with the silence and emptyness of the photographs we’re often given. It always appears as if the streets are empty, but for a few characters out of of Antonioni film or Marker’s La Jetee…..and yet, as Sidney points out, this isnt possible, is it??…

    what i liked about chris work (even with the pictures of the monumental things and the ’empty’ space) is there there are moments that refute our (and the N.Korean) attempt to categorize N.Korean and it’s people. Notice in picture # 11: that extraordinary color of the dresses and the brilliant-yellow lighthouse tourguide, a shocking picture in a place we (or at least I) associate with steel-grey and dark blue, and military-green and burnt umber…the color and ‘humanity’ of the color is a big shock…so too the wild, kitsch paintings and all their color, it’s quite startling…Sean has always had a great eye and sesnitivity to color (note his pre-EPF award work, especially the work with blind children) and his sensitivity is showed beautifully here, in a place where color (to me) would seem nearly absent….in a sense, the brilliant colors one finds in S.Korea are very much alive in this work, another subtle but not unremarkable importance….and of course, Sean has always had a wonderful eye for composition, especially for still elements (still life, buildings, cars, etc) in his pictorial sensibility….some of Sean’s best work has always balance that: the beauty and power of the objects (interiors) with the people’s whose lives are inhabited by them….

    the essay is also a good primer for people who are interested in learning how to string together (visually) pictures to form an internal narrative: notice the umbrella transition between 11 & 12, the use of water between 10 & 11, the brilliant fade from girl to icon/man in 19 & 20, the use of red and space between 18 & 19, and how the last picture 20 points back again to the first, #1…this is great and thoughtful composition…and something that makes the work itself (outside of the actually story itself) so visually rewarding and enjoyable…

    a beginning??…i hope so….if not, at least a quick look into a land that few of us will ever see first hand, and while the look itself is brief and not steeped with depth (i mean in terms of time spent in N.Korean), Sean has accomplished an series of pics that allows to wonder, to see the people more deeply that what most of us probably imagine, both in terms of the hardship (though, that’s the photo work i really wish to see, the glimpse of the man over the field ‘running’ away from the speeding bus) and celebration…and as Sidney points out, image 13…which in many senses is the ‘heart’ of this essay…the least composed, the least predictable vis-a-vis n.korean…and her expression….her youth, her questioning of what’s around and her questioning of us looking at her….and a picture that is remarkably different from the rest of this series and from almost any other picture from the capital i’ve seen….

    on the fly, she or we…..

    thanks so much Sean for sharing this terrific work


  11. The images are clean, beautiful and very well color-edited. Love them in that sense…… however, I am not able to “see through the cracks”. It must be me going blind….;)


    thanks for noticing the edit/sequence..i spent quite a bit of time last night and this morning editing and sequencing Sean’s work (with his permission of course)..the drumbeat of sequence is always at the heart of any essay ….my aim was to emphasize Sean’s photographs which showed isolation within the framework of concrete and glass and marble and occasionally nature…the wedding picture and backpack pictures were of course exceptions, but only serve to remind us of some “normalcy” within the context of the lost in space feel for the majority of his imagery..

    my favorite just has to be the second to last picture of the girl on the red stage…this one picture represents the whole for me…subject wise and color wise and a microcosm of the solitary nature of NK i think Sean was trying to reflect and surely how he must have felt himself…

    Sean had to grab these pictures on the run as per his description…but, sometimes working fast and with virtually no time to think, gives as honest and unforced a reaction as is possible…no time to manufacture, no time to think about how it should be done….but just simply doing it….Sean is here straight as a ruler and sharp as a razor…

    cheers, david

  13. I am always interested in North Korean shots since I am here in Bucharest. Ceausescu visited there in the 1970s and became obsessed with the cult of the personality and in the 1980s Romania turned for the worse as Ceausescu based his new buildings projects on what he saw in North Korea, destrying a 5th of historic Bucharest and forcibly removing thousands from their homes. By the end in 1989 Romanians were practically starving and brutally controlled by the Securitate, the most feared secret police in the Eastern Bloc. Abortion and any form of contraception had been banned for 20 years and hundreds of thousands of women died doing illegal abortions. the is repression and psychological abortion drastically wounded the Romanian psyche. AS many here on Burn know, I am bearing the brunt of it on some days as I try to photograph the aftermath of this regime as it meets wild capitalism.

    Interesting photos that remind me of Tomas’ work http://www.tomasvanhoutryve.com/ and my friend Irina’s book:

  14. 4, 7, 17..my favorites, but ohhhh..was it hard to choose! And the fact is that i don’t usually choose. I am usually so put off by the special effects and the obsessive curve yanking that i try to just see the essay for its whole, for its meaning..and accept the photographer’s vision..even though, even though i usually am grinding my teeth..But yours, Sean!!!!! Straight photography, just you and your camera, the clock running out, being dragged from here to the next place, watched over, monitored, your eyelids pinned open like that guy in A Clockwork Orange, trying to see everything, sifting the very molecules of air for clues, desperate to bring something back that would explain the inexplicable to the rest of us. I can imagine the pressure on you, within you, to see, to see more and more and more and at night, instead of closing your eyes wanting to see even more. I get the sense of urgency, the wonder and the fascination. And yet your wonderful aesthetic sense never left you. Along with the mystery and the clues and the desperate pressure to decipher it all, you never lost your sense of aesthetics. Wonderful..i just love it all. The barrel distortion is a little bit distracting to me on some of these but that’s because i did a calendar once and had to manually correct about a million photos with barrel distortion so i’m really sensitive to it. Sorry. it’s the only bad thing i can say. I just love all of it!



  15. Doors and windows. Peering in, looking out. Isolation, depersonalization. Strange vibes from paintings on the wall. Color but little sense of life. Everything carefully put in place to create an image. Your camera’s lens straining to peek behind the curtain of what your minders want you to see. A “tourist” who brings back souvenirs of seeing what is what, and sharing that sight with others. The courage to go there and do what you did. Bravo, Sean. You have opened our eyes to a world most of us would never have known but for you.


  16. Lots of good pictures but as an essay I didn’t feel I got much. Personally I would have preferred a view of the pantomime of the organised tour. The ‘glimpses’ of the real North Korea were just that – Asian poverty from a distance.

  17. Dear All…Thankyou very much for all you responses and thoughts to this collection of images. Trying to capture something substantive from this brief trip, was in itself, quite a challenge. Whilst trying to create my own voice and authorship to the work, I was at the same time trying to ‘do the job’ and create usable images that I was being paid to create by the Globe & Mail for their usage in the newspaper and on the website. I have to mention their week-long feature on mine and Mark Mackinnon’s work that they ran on their website. It was a real feat, running articles, photos, video, pictures and hosting a live online chat with myself and Mark. If you want to see some of those, please head here:


    Credit also to the edit of this to DAH, here on Burn. I sent David about 25 images, a few he cut and the rest he re-organised. This work is still very new to me, so I was completely happy for David to mix and match the images to help me find the voice for this work. It has helped tremendously.

    Sydney…Sparsely populated/emptiness is indeed what I felt when I was there. We would travel for hours by train and bus and rarely see a soul out of the window. Official figures on the actual population in NK are quite hard to come by, I believe. Recent food shortages may of taken more of a toll than previously thought, especially on those in the poorer countryside. In the capital of Pyongyang, the streets seemed fairly lively although relatively devoid of traffic. Car ownership is so limited that once we left the capital, we would rarely see any other vehicles on the road. People would walk on the highways from city to city, as inter-city public transport is non-existent. I read that NK citizens require permits to even leave their own town/city.

    Bob B…Thanks as ever for your kind words. Is this work a beginning? We shall see. It depends if the NK authorities read Burn magazine! Perhaps they won’t let me back in! I would like to go back as it is a photographer’s paradise there really. It was like stepping back in time to an age of the cold war that has virtually disappeared from our world. Saying that, the working conditions are extremely tough i.e. being constantly watched and quizzed. It was actually quite uncomfortable to be constantly under scrutiny.

    Davin…The cult of personality was one of the more disturbing things I experienced during my time there. The reverence given to ‘eternal leader’ Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il was rather overpowering and their faces were everywhere, often accompanied by propaganda that was spewn out on public loudspeakers wherever we went. You couldn’t escape it.

    Kathleen… I think you got my feelings pretty much spot on! On all of the days we were woken at dawn, whisked from one monument to the next, never given a chance to breath and take it all in. We were then rushed to our hotel at night, situated on an island in the middle of a river in Pyongyang, again isolated from the rest of the city. My eyes were wide open the whole time!

  18. SEAN…

    i laughed when you asked “it depends on if the North Koreans read Burn Magazine”…so, just for fun i Googled your name and North Korea…

    on a Google search, Burn came up #1 in connection with your name and NK….above the Globe&Mail etc…

    so, if the NK officials have a database with your name in it and run cross references, i would suspect they saw the Burn piece before Patricia did….

    cheers, david

  19. your use of color is beautiful….
    I really enjoyed seeing the art that hangs on their walls….
    so different than what I would expect….
    #10 is beautiful,
    it reads like a wet photograph….
    lovely moments
    Be safe,
    thanks for sharing!!!
    what are they looking at in the train station?

  20. Hi Sean,

    I really enjoy your work. There is a lyrical quality to it and it all seems to hold together with a quality that feels yours. I hope you will become a regular “columnist” here.


  21. Pingback: tim jensen. september 18, 2009. « a photo tutor

  22. Pingback: shifting sands – desertification in China | duckrabbit - we produce beautifully crafted multimedia

  23. I like 9 and 11…Why did you include 13? Just curious…Do you know the book on N. Korea by Philippe Chancel? Like some others said, and what you said in the description these are just snapshots. We really don’t get into the lives of the people…but then again, can we?

  24. Hey Sean, congratulations for this piece.(And congratulations to David as well for the edit)

    I followed the presentation of the short videos and some of this images through the other regular channels but this group of images is definitely good!

    Hope all is well on the east.
    See you soon. Take care.


  25. ‘ve been a long time admirer of Sean’s China photographs and hate to take a negative tone about this fine work, but something bothers me about it, although difficult to put my finger on… I understand about the minders, how much trouble the locals would be in if they spoke to you and such, but even given these obstacles many of these pictures seem only to serve to underline preconceptions. Of course many preconceptions turn out to be perfectly valid! But there is a danger in this of being patronizing towards the people. There is a book from a few years ago called, I think, “The Last Paradise”, where a fellow photographed the officially sanctioned scenes (huge strangely empty public squares, a gearbox on a plinth in a technology museum etc), the tone of which is plainly intended to show the country as self-evidently risible. The problem, to my eyes, is that some of the ridicule rubs off on the ordinary people. In situations like that, yes, there is fear and ignorance and betrayal, but regular people find regular ways of living which fulfill their humanity regardless of the harshness around them and the hoops they have to jump through. I know you have tried hard to show this, but even on the more human of the pictures the editorializing manner of the captions, that of the very orthodox Western view of the country, detracts from the independence of vision that the subject needs. There are a lot worse places to live, for instance, than those “bleak, communist-style apartment blocks”, and the ones in my city don’t have window boxes on the landings… You were only allowed to photograph a school for “select, privileged children”, but we don’t need to be told that it is party nepotism that makes such countries run… In the lovely picture of the family they’re described as “huddling together”, maybe for fear of the secret police, or maybe to share the shade of the umbrella while they wait for the bus…
    I really don’t know if I’m saying anything valid here… been thinking about it all day and it’s very hard, to say such things without appearing to defend that diabolical system… I suppose one thing I’m thinking is that there are people in the west who benefit from the notion that this tragic place is somehow our “enemy”, and perhaps coverage is either in service of that idea or against it… in service of a rigidity of thought about the country, which will only have a mirror effect within NK. Images which only fulfill our preconceptions are, perhaps, in service of it.
    But hell, good going, and keep up the China work.

    Your fan,


  26. Apologies to all for not replying sooner…I just had a shoot for the past 3 days away from home, but back in Beijing now to respond…

    Wendy…They are reading the daily newspaper which is hung up in each station.

    Luzz…Glad you are familiar enough with my work to offer me these thoughts ;)

    Mark W…Thankyou very much for your thoughts. I completely understand where you are coming from in your worries about imagery that mimics stereotypical thoughts and ideas about a place and it’s people. As you say you are familiar with my work, I hope you already know that I am not the kind of photographer/person that searches to blindly regurgitate negative stereotypes. Possibly some of the wording in the captions could be misconstrued as having a stereotypical bent, however I did try to react as honestly as possible to what I saw, what I was told and what I felt when taking these pictures.

    We were not treated warmly in the country as visitors. People authorized to interact with us were polite, but always cool (in emotion).and distant. In the very brief chances that I did have to interact with normal people, they greeted us with inquisitive smiles (see pic 11) and a genuine interest. I was quickly whisked away from these brief situations though. Believe me, if I was given the chance to show a ‘new’ side of NK, I would seize upon it. Thanks again for taking the time to express your thoughts in detail.

    Simon G…I would of loved the opportunity to get closer but it was just not possible. I think the pictures echo my feelings of isolation whilst visiting. I felt outside the country, even when I was in it.

  27. Great work, especially considering all the limitation you might have been gone through..it makes it even stronger.
    Thank you for being able to take this work home and showing us more of this country, so hard to be seen.

  28. Pingback: Musings on visiting North Korea, and 3 ways to get closer to the hermit state « The Cultural Schizophrenic

  29. Pingback: Musings on visiting North Korea, and 3 ways to get closer to the hermit state at Shanghai Shiok!

  30. Pingback: Sean Gallagher – Photographer, Beijing, China News This Week: Images on Burn Magazine, RESOLVE and Duckrabbit » Sean Gallagher - Photographer, Beijing, China

  31. Pingback: Inside North Korea: Photographing Undercover in the World’s Most Secretive Nation - Sean Gallagher - Photographer, Beijing, China

Comments are closed.