Joe Eaton is a former reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, the Washington City Paper, and the Roanoke Times. He now teaches at the University of Montana School of Journalism.
Amidst heightened political tensions, city life in the hermit kingdom goes on.
As President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un trade personal barbs and threats of annihilation (and Trump prepares to visit the Korean peninsula in November), South Koreans are famously greeting the potential of war with a shrug. The same seems to be the case across the 38th parallel in North Korea.
In September, NK News, an independent media organization with staff in Seoul and Washington, D.C., sent a photographer into the country to see how heightened tension is impacting daily life in Pyongyang and smaller cities. While the world wonders if Kim will fulfill a threat to test a nuclear bomb over the Pacific Ocean and President Trump undermines his own Secretary of State’s diplomatic efforts, life in North Korea appears to be going on as before—which is to say slowly, amidst crumbling infrastructure and urban development that barely hints at the 21st century. The photos, shared exclusively with CityLab, also reveal fresh anti-American propaganda and closed gas stations, likely caused by fuel shortages and tightening international sanctions.
Pyongyang began to introduce bike lanes throughout the city in 2015, by designating lanes for cyclists on sidewalks shared with pedestrians. Like so many things in North Korea, the work of painting the street markings is done by hand.
Cyclists and pedestrians share a street empty of four-wheel traffic in Kaesong City in the south of North Korea. Away from Pyongyang, the number of cyclists increases and the number of cars declines. The elite ride electric bicycles imported from China or Japan that cost as much as $600.
Residents of a building outside Kaesong in the southern part of North Korea hang solar panels outside their window, to help weather sporadic power outages. North Korea’s energy infrastructure has been in decline since the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union limited supplies of fuel.
Schoolgirls wearing Communist Party Young Pioneer scarves study on the Pyongyang metro. The subway system is buried more than 350 feet below the ground and doubles as a nuclear bunker.
Pyongyang’s famous “traffic ladies”direct traffic using an orange beacon. Traffic lights were introduced to the city in 2009, but these uniformed young women are still on the job.
Three young soldier-laborers stand on the uncompleted balcony of a new apartment in Pyongyang. Construction in North Korea is often shoddy, relying on antiquated building techniques and poorly reinforced concrete.
A playground on the east coast of North Korea includes slides, swingsets (with missing swings), and a rocket, plus a cartoon battle mural. Militant narratives and anti-American propaganda are a strong part of North Korean education.
A pickup truck serves as transportation for soldiers, workers, and children on their way to Hamhung, North Korea’s second-largest city. In the absence of official public transportation options, entrepreneurs are meeting the demand.
A boy plays a shooting game in a gaming room in Wonsan, a port city on the Sea of Japan. First-person shooter games are popular in North Korea, including the anti-American game “Hunting Yankee.”