Life in North Korea: A glimpse inside an isolated nation

  • In this June 15, 2014, photo, an apartment block stands behind hotel room curtains on the main street in Hamhung, North Korea. The Associated Press was granted permission to embark on a week-long road trip across North Korea to the country’s spiritual summit Mount Paektu. The trip was on North Korea’s terms. An AP reporter and photographer couldn’t interview ordinary people or wander off course, and government “minders” accompanied them the entire way.
  • In this June 20, 2014, photo, young North Korean schoolchildren help to fix pot holes in a rural road in North Korea’s North Hamgyong province.
  • In this June 21, 2014, photo, a man works on his car as others sit next to the sea Wonsan, North Korea.
  • In this June 20, 2014, photo, a North Korean man herds goats in a field southeast of Pyongyang, North Korea. For more than four decades, farming in North was characterized by heavy use of mechanization and technological innovations, swiftly followed by chronic fuel and equipment shortages and long-term damage caused by stopgap policies. That legacy has left its mark not only on the North Korean psyche, but on its countryside. Cows are few, but goats are everywhere. They are easier to care for and require less food, but also can eat their way into crops or overgraze fields.
  • North Koreans are seen cycling to work at dusk through condensation on a car window, Oct. 28, 2014, in Pyongyang, North Korea.
  • Runners pass under a pedestrian bridge in central Pyongyang during the running of the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon in Pyongyang, North Korea on April 13, 2014. The annual race, which includes a full marathon, a half marathon, and a 10-kilometer run, was open to foreign tourists for the first time this year.
  • A North Korean woman walks under blossoming trees next to an apartment block in Pyongyang on April 12, 2014.
  • A neighborhood of Pyongyang, near Pyongyang’s international airport is viewed from a window of an Air Koryo flight arriving from Beijing, May 8, 2014.
  • North Koreans gather on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang before a fireworks display to celebrate the official birthday of the late leader Kim Il Sung on April 15, 2014.
  • In this June 15, 2014, photo, North Korean school children walk on the beach next to the sea in the east coast city of Wonsan in North Korea’s Kangwon province.
  • In this June 21, 2014, photo, a row of bicycles are parked next to the sea Wonsan, North Korea.
  • In this June 17, 2014, photo, a North Korean man sits by a cooking fire he built to roast potatoes and chicken in the town of Samjiyon, in North Korea’s Ryanggang province.
  • An elderly North Korean woman and other pedestrians make their way down a street in downtown Pyongyang, North Korea on Oct. 25, 2014.
  • A North Korean woman stands at the window of a snack bar inside the newly-opened Kumrung Sports Exercise Center in Pyongyang, North Korea on Dec. 15, 2013. Building new recreational and health facilities has been a cornerstone of leader Kim Jong Un’s efforts to fulfill a promise made to raise living standards in North Korea.
  • In this Nov. 9, 2013, photo, North Korean seamstresses work at sewing machines at the Sonbong Textile Factory in Sonbong, North Korea, inside the Rason Special Economic Zone. Last month, North Korea announced plans to create economic zones in every province. The North also recently laid out new laws to facilitate foreign tourism and investment. The laws provide investors with special incentives and guarantees, while giving local leaders greater autonomy to promote themselves and handle business decisions.
  • In this Sept. 20, 2013, photo, a North Korean soldier passes by a ski slope under construction at North Korea’s Masik Pass. The signs on the slope together reads “Burning Hope.” North Korean authorities have been encouraging a broader interest in sports in the country, calling it “the hot wind of sports blowing through Korea.”
  • In this Nov. 8, 2013, photo, North Korean workers carry boxes of seafood as they load a Chinese transport truck at the Suchae Bong Corp seafood factory in Rajin, North Korea inside the Rason Special Economic Zone. Last month, North Korea announced plans to create economic zones in every province. The North also recently laid out new laws to facilitate foreign tourism and investment. The laws provide investors with special incentives and guarantees, while giving local leaders greater autonomy to promote themselves and handle business decisions. The sign on the wall in Korean reads, ÒLetÕs work harder on the third generation revolution movement to win the red flag!”
  • North Koreans ride on an amusement park ride while watching a 3D movie at the Rungna People’s Pleasure Park in Pyongyang on Sept. 22, 2013.
  • The silhouettes of passengers are reflected off the glass of an airport shuttle bus while North Korean soldier-builders work on the new tarmac of the Sunan International Airport, Oct. 28, 2014, in Pyongyang, North Korea.
  • In this Sept. 22, 2013, photo, North Koreans soldiers play an arcade game at the Pyongyang Pleasure park in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korean authorities have been encouraging a broader interest in sports in the country, both at the elite and recreational levels, as a means of energizing and mobilizing the masses.
  • North Koreans watch as their others play an arcade game at the Kaeson Youth Amusement Park, Sept. 3, 2014, in Pyongyang, North Korea.
  • North Koreans wait at a roadside for public transport in downtown Pyongyang, North Korea on Oct. 25, 2014.
  • A hotel staff member stands at a reception desk decorated with a map of the world on the wall, Oct. 23, 2014, in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea on Thursday stepped up its measures to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus while a major travel agency that specializes in tours to the reclusive country said it had been informed Pyongyang may ban foreign tourists from visiting.
  • This photograph taken on Oct. 21, 2014, North Korean soldier-builders work on the new tarmac of Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea. The new airport, which is now in its final stages, is the latest of North Korea’s “speed campaigns,” mass mobilizations of labor shock brigades aimed at finishing top-priority projects in record time.
  • A portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jung Un posing with a North Korean gold medalist in Judo, An Kum Ae, decorates the walls of a local gymnasium, Sept. 2, 2014, in Pyongyang, North Korea. In just over a week, North Korea will send its top athletes to win gold for their leader in what could well be the biggest sporting event of their lives and a major propaganda campaign for their nation, the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea.
  • North Korean commuters wait to board a subway car at a station, Sept. 1, 2014, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Foreign visitors are usually only allowed to take one to two stops, on Pyongyang’s north-south Chollima subway line.
  • A North Korean subway station staff waits for the arrival of a train, Sept. 1, 2014, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Foreign visitors are usually only allowed to take one to two stops, on Pyongyang’s north-south Chollima subway line.
  • North Korean commuters ride on a subway, Sept. 1, 2014, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Foreign visitors are usually only allowed to take one to two stops on Pyongyang’s north-south Chollima subway line.
  • Shadows are cast by the evening light as North Koreans arrive for an event, Aug. 31, 2014, in Pyongyang, North Korea.

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The standard publicity shots are well known: Images of the smiling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un saluting orderly formations of soldiers or touring sterile new factories. But the real story behind one of the nation’s most isolated nations is difficult to parse. 

Interactions between North Korea and the United States have long been strained over the country’s continued pursuit of developing nuclear weapons. Missile testing by the country regularly draws international criticism, even as North Korea’s state media highlights the nation’s right and might. Late this past year, tensions escalated as the connection became clear between the Sony hacking scandal and North Korea, which was deeply critical of the studio’s film The Interview, a comedy with a plot line revolving around the fictional assassination of Kim.

In mid-December, the FBI tied the hack, which exposed embarrassing emails between top studio executives, to North Korea. “I think it says something interesting about North Korea that they decided to have the state mount an all-out assault on a movie studio because of a satirical movie starring Seth Rogen and James [Franco],” President Barack Obama said during a press conference in December. “I love Seth, and I love James, but the notion it was a threat to them gives you some idea of the kind of threat we’re dealing with.” Shortly after the beginning of 2015, the U.S. imposed further sanctions on North Korea in retaliation for the breach.

RELATED: Obama on Sony pulling ‘The Interview’: ‘I think they made a mistake’

North Korea, however, officially denied responsibility and demanded a joint investigation. “The U.S. should bear in mind that it will face serious consequences in case it rejects our proposal for joint investigation and presses for what it called countermeasure while finding fault with the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea],” a spokesman for North Korea’s foreign ministry told state media KCNA in December. 

While tense exchanges between the country and the international community regularly capture headlines, North Korea also has a continuing humanitarian crisis and has received international aide since the 1990s. In 1995, widespread starvation and famine threatened the country, which lacks stable infrastructure and sustainable agriculture. While conditions have improved, “the population continues to suffer from prolonged malnutrition and poor living conditions,” according to the CIA.

North Korea regularly releases propaganda material showing lavish choreographed performances and has allowed media to travel in the country — but only under close government scrutiny and control. The country released the final two Americans imprisoned there, Matthew Todd Miller and Kenneth Bae, in November of last year.

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

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