For travelers visiting North Korea, taking the wrong photo can be a punishable offense. Guides stay close to tourists, letting them know when it’s okay to snap the shutter, and North Korean citizens are supposed to report any photography they see. Professional photojournalists are rarely allowed to enter the country.
Despite the danger, two years ago, German photographer Julia Leeb flew to North Korea. She hid the fact that she was a journalist, and ended up with a stunning collection of photos. Her new book, North Korea: Anonymous Country, will come out this week.
Leeb was drawn to North Korea out of deep curiosity. “What do we know about this profoundly isolated country?” she says. “International headlines report about military parades and the ‘great marshal,’ but what about the 24 million inhabitants?”
She spent a week traveling the entire country, documenting celebrations for the 100th birthday of Kim Jong Un’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, giant synchronized dances, nearly empty streets, and oddities like a children’s museum featuring a nuclear missile.
While she traveled, accompanied by two friends and the rest of a tour group, she was completely disconnected from the rest of the world. “We had no television, no phone line, no Internet, and there were almost no other foreigners,” she says. “Most of the time we were the only guests in a hotel, sometimes the only foreigners in an entire city.”
Just before the trip began, North Korea announced they were dissolving their armistice with South Korea, and the U.S. started gearing up for a potential war. But Leeb had no idea what was happening. She also didn’t know what might happen when the group’s passports were taken away after she took photos out of a bus–and she couldn’t talk about the situation with anybody else.
“We were monitored constantly, we were quite sure that our rooms were bugged, so we did not communicate our concerns within the group,” she says. “After they confiscated our passports everybody had to deal alone with these ‘what-if’ moments.”
In the end, nothing went wrong. After an evening of bowling and North Korean beer and some cross-cultural bonding, the guides returned the passports, and eventually Leeb flew home to look through the hundreds of photos she’d taken and think about everything she’d seen.
“Traveling the ‘hermit kingdom’ is a constant surprise,” she says. “This communist dynasty is untouched by the outside world. The surreal cult of personality, North Koreas own calendar combined with the anachronistic architecture makes you feel like being in a parallel universe.”