There are numerous rules for tourists in North Korea. The ones around photography are the most complicated, confusing and inconsistent.
Very few visitors, apart from those who have no camera, make it through a tour of North Korea without being counselled on their photography – or rather, being told off for taking a photo when they should not have. Yes Dear Reader, The Rambling Wombat was reprimanded on two occasions but has lived to tell the tale, as you too would.
This entry is aimed at giving you the jist of the rules around photography. You will need to take the advice of your tour company before you go and that of your guides, the army, etc when you are there.
Your camera – officially no lens size of greater than 150mm can be brought into North Korea. This rule is routinely flaunted and not enforced but be warned it does exist. If a camera or other electronic gear is confiscated it is returned to you (no penalty) when you leave the country.
Photography Rules (mainly prohibitions)
No photography of the military or military installations or equipment. This is probably the most important rule. Given the number of soldiers everywhere it is actually hard to take photos without getting one or more in your shot, especially if you are using a wide angle lens. There is one exception to this rule and that is that photography of solders within the Demilitarised Zone on the border with South Korea is permitted – though they don’t like you sticking your camera in their face -who does? This is a rather surprising exception which exists (my assessment) because photography is very restricted for visitors from the South side. The basic rule for a lot of things in the DMZ (especially in the Joint Security Area) is that if it is restricted on the South side, it is permitted or encouraged on the North side.
No photography of bridges, roads, docks, airports, train stations, construction sites and telecommunication infrastructure. Exceptions to this rule – Pyongyang Airport, air-side prior to entering the terminal, Pyongyang train station, and the Pyongyang Underground. Of course where you get to go in these paces is extremely restricted.
No photography from your bus/train window except in Pyongyang. This translates to no photographs of the countryside.
No photos in the dining car on the train out of North Korea – rather ironic given that the food on the train was of the most generous portions we received in North Korea and of the highest quality.
No close-up photos of people without their permission (fair enough). Locals are generally shy when it comes to tourists. The only instance I found when North Koreans actively seek out to be photographed with tourists is when they are getting married. In Sinuiju (on the Chinese border), on a short walk in the local park, six or more bridal parties asked me to join them in there wedding photographs.
No photos of statues of the Leaders except for those taken face-on and with the full statue in the frame. You can have your picture taken with the Leaders’ statues but you must stand respectfully in front. Correctly taken photographs of statues of the Leaders are very positively encouraged and guides would be surprised if you didn’t want to take lots.
No photography of people going about their daily lives. Think about it!
No photos permitted of anything that might be construed as painting North Korea in a poor or negative light – this I found out includes taking photos of an antiquated trolley-bus breaking down in the middle of Pyongyang sending sparks flying everywhere from the powerlines.
No photography of poverty (not that any exists!). This includes children sweeping streets or weeding grass verges.
No photography in the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun (Mausoleum), inside the International Friendship Exhibition in the Myohyang-san mountains or inside the main museum in Pyongyang. You must leave your camera/phones etc. in the cloakroom. This, of course, is consistent with rules in similar places elsewhere in the world.
No photography in other places where it is expressly prohibited or where your guide tells you its not permitted.
You are free to take photographs of anything else! My, rather tongue in cheek, picture accompanying this tip is perfectly permissible unless of course I were to suggest it was of a typical dinner scene just after the lights went out – which of course it is not – or is it?
Photography in Practice
The rules above (except close-ups of soldiers unless you have a zoom lens) are routinely ignored/breached by tourists, often quite deliberately to stir a reaction from guides.
Interestingly I found that I took photos of the strangest/most mundane of things – things I wouldn’t even dream of photographing anywhere else – just because I could!
You will not get into serious trouble or be imprisoned for taking an incorrect photo (unless you are a journalist in which case – with a few very isolated exceptions – you should not be in the country in the first place). You may be asked to delete photos at the time or later when you leave the country, especially if exiting by train. While my photos were not inspected on exit I later heard of one lady who was asked to delete nearly 50% of her photographs.
Apart from being asked to delete photos there is one important downside to regularly breaking the rules around photography whether you get reprimanded or not (as your activity will be noticed). This is that you will loose the trust of your guide who is personally responsible for your behaviour. This not only impacts on you but the remainder of your group as guides will restrict what the group sees and where you get go if they feel even one member of the group cannot be trusted. Not a good way to make friends with your fellow travellers!
By way of conclusion, act responsibility and consider the potential impact on others, including your guides, before you take a photograph in North Korea.
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries providing general and background information on The Rambling Wombat’s trip to, and travelling in, North Korea which I recommend you read in a particular order. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Americans in North Korea. If necessary, go to my North Korea introduction entry – And now for something completely different – to start this loop at the beginning.