23/08/2015 13:52 BST | Updated 25/08/2015 21:59 BST

North Korea Instagram Pictures Provide Colourful Insight Into State Trapped In A 20th Century Dystopia

An American traveler has posted a remarkable set of pictures on his Instagram account, providing a glimpse into a bizarre yet beautiful state trapped in a 20th century dystopia.

Taylor Pemberton spent four days in the North Korean dictatorship on a tourist visa, documenting his trip via the picture-sharing site. According to the 26-year-old from Minnesota, he was free to take photos, but was occasionally instructed not to.

"Nobody went through my camera and scanned my photos," he told HuffPost. However they did check his phone, cameras, and memory cards upon entry.

On his trip, Pemberton said he had two tour guides to help him the entire time. "They were our liaisons," he said. "The guard you see in the portrait was the liaison at the DMZ."

“Visiting North Korea was really an amazing experience," reflected Pemberton. "It’s both mentally and emotionally challenging. It’s confusing but also enlightening. I had done a lot of research on the country and watched many documentaries on the subject."

He added: "I really went into it trying to keep an open mind, and was hoping that I could capture some of what was going on there. I’m not very political, yet wanted to learn more about the situation while also pursuing the art of photography and documentary. I think you gain a lot from just being there.”

In contrast to the grey, grainy images that usually seep out of North Korea, Pemberton's stunning documentation provides a fresh and very colourful insight into life in a state held captive by the 1950s.


Hospitality is taken very seriously in North Korea. The Yanggakdo hotel is perfectly staffed with a wide array of workers to always suit your needs. Food is plentiful, rooms are tidy, the entire presentation feels very grandeur. Since you can't leave the hotel, you have several amenities that exist throughout the building: various shops, a casino, several restaurants, a bowling alley, a billiards room, a karaoke room, ping pong, and more. This shot was taken at the rooftop restaurant, which is a 360 degree panorama room that slowly rotates during open hours. This was a popular hangout spot where we'd drink beer and enjoy each others company, particularly favorable since everything felt so eccentric and retro. #contrateur

A photo posted by Taylor Pemberton (@pemberton) on

North Korea has no internet, no television, no free information. This is the only public news I saw in Pyongyang, where each headline and each image is a tribute to the DPRK and great leader. It's difficult to wrap your head around the sheer magnitude this imposes for an ecosystem and it's people. Want to openly make art? Want to free listen to music, or watch films? Want to create or learn anything outside the constructs of formal structure? Sorry, not possible. Even something as trivial as Instagram has had a huge impact on my ability to grow creatively. I'm able to practice the art of photography and documentary. I can be inspired by people I've never met. I feel the competition, the pressure to keep growing and exploring. I don't know where I'd be without the accessibility of free information. I grew up on the Internet. I've formed my own conclusions. And for that, I feel very grateful. #contrateur

A photo posted by Taylor Pemberton (@pemberton) on

As I mentioned before, you're only supposed to see what North Korea allows. 😏 #contrateur

A photo posted by Taylor Pemberton (@pemberton) on

On the flight over to North Korea, you're able to already sense the extreme devotion and dedication to the late Kim Il-Sung. Even though Il-Sung hasn't been alive since the 90s, the DPRK inhabitants consider him their president and outright great leader. When traveling through various cities, his presence and lineage is on constant display, with many residents proudly displaying pins on their clothing and with various monuments at popular transit points. It's difficult to find a representation of Il-Sung or his family that hasn't been artificially fabricated, and most of the history we discussed contained precomposed images to support various historical references. It was clear that no matter what, you pay respect to the great leader and to his rich family history that exists in North Korea today. #contrateur

A photo posted by Taylor Pemberton (@pemberton) on

Before I go any further, I feel it’s important to preface the content I’m about to share. With a country/topic like North Korea, I’d like to be as honest with my observations as possible. Many people have asked me how you gain access to a country that is so restricted. It’s pretty easy, even as an American. What you’ll need is simply time and money. This image is the visa that I was granted about a week before my flight. I flew from Beijing to Pyongyang, while non-Americans were able to cross the border from Dandong by rail. I got this visa because I applied via the various tourism companies that service North Korea. My trip was 4 days, and we had two guides: one male, one female. It’s also important to note that you are NOT able to roam free at any given time. You follow a strict itinerary and you are on a tight schedule to see what North Korea allows. You stay in a hotel that is isolated on an island, and you are strictly informed when it is okay/not okay to take photos. However! with thousands of visitors each year, the fabric loosens, and that’s where things start to get interesting. You're able to witness the the imperfections, the infinite nuances... the hiccups that reveal why some foreigners have become so obsessed and return year after year to live with what exists behind the curtain. I’ll admit, it was a tough decision to fork over the money to travel to North Korea. There are serious things to consider, not all of which I’m comfortable supporting. I've been debating this trip for over 9 months, and it wasn’t until 4 weeks ago that I finally pulled the trigger. The flight in from Beijing was short, and when we touched down in Pyongyang, I was nervous. In fact, I don’t think I was ever fully at ease. I’m not by any means the first to visit North Korea. There were other foreigners all visiting Pyongyang when I was there. I was lucky to get paired with an insightful and intelligent group of 6 other travelers, ranging from 25 to 71 years old. My family was worried, so were my friends, but I went because the DPRK is so complicated. It was ultimately a tough decision, but one that was so so worth it. #contrateur

A photo posted by Taylor Pemberton (@pemberton) on