North Korea is undisputedly a wretched place to live. The UN estimates that the government keeps as many as 120,000 political prisoners locked up in concentration camps, where they are starved, beaten, raped, and enslaved. A prolonged famine caused thousands of people to starve to death in the 1990s, and food shortages are still a problem. Civil rights are an utterly foreign concept, as is democracy.
And yet, for the 24 million or so people who call North Korea home, it is still possible to find occasional moments of happiness despite the utter misery that often surrounds them.
French photographer Eric Lafforgue visited North Korea six times from 2008 to 2012, amassing a trove of photos that document the everyday lives of average citizens across the country. NK News — an independent news site based in Seoul that covers all things North Korea — selected some of the highlights from Lafforgue's portfolio to make a 2015 wall calendar, the sales of which help fund the site's in-depth coverage of Kim Jong-un's regime.
NK News editor Chad O'Carroll shared Lafforgue's collection of North Korea photos with VICE News, explaining that the images, many of which capture candid moments that the country's ultra-secretive government would not normally allow the world to see, "contrast nicely to the polish of official propaganda."
Lafforgue — who has also documented life in Iran, Myanmar, Eritrea, Syria, and other repressive regimes — travelled North Korea as a tourist, taking his first trip with a China-based tour company. O'Carroll said that North Korea usually places tight restrictions on professional photojournalists, but Lafforgue managed to fly under their radar until 2012, when officials banned the Frenchman from ever returning.
"Despite going back year after year and taking tens of thousands of photos, it seemed the North Korean hosts simply assumed his visits to be motivated by nothing more than a desire to see more of their 'socialist paradise,'" O'Carroll said. "Yet far from photography as being the cause, Lafforgue thinks a comment critical of a pro-North Korea friendship group made during his last visit was what ultimately led to him being banned from going back."
Professional photographers are now required to get special approval before they visit North Korea, but Lafforgue's photos — a huge collection of which are also viewable on Flickr — remain, offering a rare, unfiltered glimpse at daily life in the Hermit Kingdom.
Students at Mt. Paektu, an active volcano on the border between North Korea and China. Legend has it that Kim Il-sung, grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un, organized his resistance against Japanese forces during WWII in the area. Kim Jong-il was also supposedly born in the surrounding forests. Thousands of students visit the mountain every year to hear these tales.
North Korean People's Army Soldiers passing in front of giant Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il portraits in Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang.
A little girl with flowers at the Grand Monument on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang.
The Arirang Festival at the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium in Pyongyang.
A young boy playing guitar in Chongjin, a city on the northeast coast of North Korea.
A guide at Mt Paektu.
There are no traffic lights in Pyongyang. The intersections are guarded by traffic officers, mostly young and pretty women who do robotic movements, even when there are no cars around. Private cars are almost unheard of in North Korea. For a large part of the population, the only option is walking.
A woman in the middle of a group of soldiers in Pyongyang.
Kids in a school in Hamhung, a coastal city about 300 kilometers northeast of Pyongyang.
A kid visiting Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery, a memorial to North Korean soldiers who fought the Japanese during WWII.
A North Korean man with a cap in Wonsan, a port city and naval base located in Kangwon Province, on the westernmost shore of the Sea of Japan.
Two young children standing in the road near a farm in Hamhung.
Soldiers at Rungna Dolphinarium, part of an amusement park in Pyongyang.
North Korean students doing ballroom dance on September 9, 2012, in Pyongyang.
A man fishing in the Chilbo Sea, near Hamhung.
A street vendor and her children in the North Korean countryside. While buying and selling goods is still technically illegal, people now can open little shops and sell basic food or cigarettes.
A kid washing clothes at Songdowon International Children's Camp, a summer camp in Wonsan.
Men chatting in Wonsan on September 10, 2012.
A worker at Hungnam Fertilizer Complex in Hamhung. While officially used to produce fertilizer, the facility has also been used to manufacture chemical weapons.
Soldiers having fun at Kaeson Youth Park in Pyongyang.
People paying respects at Mansudae Grand Monument in Pyongyang.
Follow Eric Laffourgue on Twitter: @ericlafforgue