North Korean soldiers march in Pyongyang with the Monument to Party Founding in the background. Gavin John /

By Mark McConville

THESE are the pictures North Korea didn’t want you to see after one photojournalist smuggled them out of the country and was banned from ever returning.

A common sight around Pyongyang were the numerous “patriotic posters”, which carried socialist and militaristic images. Gavin John /

The revealing photographs show North Koreans going about their everyday lives in April 2014 but all is not as it seems.

One image shows a woman sitting outside a store front but there was only an empty building inside.

Other shots show people waiting at bus stops, reading train timetables and taking a stroll through a public park.


Pyongyang citizens sit at a bus stop that features images of artillery instead of advertising. Gavin John /

The pictures were taken in Pyongyang, North Korea by freelance photojournalist Gavin John (31) from Calgary, Canada.

“North Korea has always been an enigma to me and the rest of the world,” he said.


A North Korean woman sits on the side of the road in the suburbs of Pyongyang. Gavin John /

“It’s openly hostile government, combined with an unparalleled secrecy, and a legacy of misinformation, all screamed for me to experience it myself and see how true or not these claims were. I’ve always felt there’s more to the eye than what’s been presented.

“Visiting North Korea is truly like stepping back in time to the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Everything from clothing, cars, and architecture were from a bygone era where the omnipresent presence of the state was always looming.


A North Korean officer and soliders stand guard at the old negotiation room at the De-Militarized Zone on the border with South Korea. Gavin John /

“Propaganda posters of glorious battles were in the places where advertising would be, and large flowing flags of North Korea hung off every street corner and building.

“However, I found everyday North Koreans a kind and gentle people where curiosity was the prominent reaction to my presence there. I tried to focus my images on these people, their interactions with each other and myself.”


North Koreans play volleyball in a public square in Pyongyang. Volleyball is reportedly one of the most popular sports. Gavin John /

Gavin, who shot the photographs with a D800 camera, didn’t declare he was a journalist before entering the country and took pictures of military relaxing, something which is forbidden.

“On the last day I was pulled aside and told I had been reported to the Ministry of Interior’s police for suspicions of being a journalist,” he recalled.


People read a communial newspaper in the Pyongyang subway system, which is claimed to be deep enough to double as a bomb shelter. Gavin John /

“Needless to say, it was one of the tensest nights of my life talking my way out of a potential jail sentence for taking “unauthorized” photos. I dodged that bullet (no pun intended) by handing over all my memory cards and hard drive of my laptop over to the North Koreans.

“That is except the one I hid and smuggled out of the country. I was told I was not welcome back ever again.


North Korean families walk on the grounds of the Kamsusan Palace of the Sun, which holds the preserved remains of former leaders Kim Ill Sung, and Kim Jong Ill. Gavin John /

“North Korea is an unsettling place that’s for sure. In the week I was there, there was a constant feeling that not all we were seeing was quite as it seemed. Under the watchful eyes of our government minders, we were not allowed to stray more than 5 metres from them before being politely corralled back into the predetermined tour route.

“Yet, every now and then there were indications that there was in fact something not right. Glimpses of empty buildings behind a fake storefront or restaurants suddenly full of people mid-meal when minutes before were empty tables.”

A stoic Pyongyang traffic directs traffic in the capital. The predominently female officers are seen on mostly all intersections in Pyongyang. Gavin John /

Mr John hopes his pictures can show that ordinary North Koreans are no different to anyone else.

“We’re all guilty of our own preconceptions of North Korea, and much of it is false,” he added.


Two people share a laugh at the Pyongyang Amusement park, which featured bumper cars, a roller coaster and other rides. Gavin John /

“Both sides propaganda clouds our ability to look at that country in an accurate way and it’s usually the first thing that people ask me about when they see the photos.

“It doesn’t matter if you live in Calgary or Pyongyang, London or Mosul, we’re all the same. North Koreans are one of the gentlest people I have ever met, and I bear a burden of sadness knowing that they live under such a harsh regime.


Schoolgirls and families wait for a bus under posters of North Korean artillery. Gavin John /

“We need to understand that the people who will suffer the most in the event of a Second Korean War, regardless of outcome, will be the people of North Korea.

“I hold nothing but disdain for the government of North Korea, and nothing but admiration for the everyday people of that country. If people back home can understand and separate the two, then I have done my job.”