Asia Times, in association with our colleagues at specialist Seoul-based media NK News, bring readers the following gallery, shot by NK News photographers inside North Korea.

While citizens from many nations are, in fact, able to visit the Kimdom on guided group tours, independent travel is not possible. This – combined with North Korea’s poor reputation in the international community, its lack of foreign tourism infrastructure and its related lack of overseas tourism marketing – makes the country one of the least-visited, and so least-photographed, on the planet.

The selection of images below, all shot in 2019 and 2018, provide a visual record of a changing North Korea. The formerly communist, semi-socialist, largely-isolationist, nuclear-armed neo-monarchy continues to defy the international community, but ongoing marketization has upgraded the economy, and prosperity is evident in cities like the capital, Pyongyang, and Sinuiju, on the China border.

While carefully shepherded group tours do not show visiting tourists nuclear weapons, shadowy gulags or malnourished peasants, there are surprises and curiosities for those with a sharp eye and a fast shutter finger.

In the showcase capital, styles and products that would not look out of place in downtown Seoul are evident. While America is demonized in state propaganda, US-style fast food is now sold, and a US star makes a surprise appearance in a group portrait.

Yet, some things do not change. The extensive militarization of this Asian Sparta cannot be overlooked, and outside the capital – home to the wealthy elite – grinding poverty is visible in rural scenes that have changed little in a century.

If these photos are of interest, consider NK News’ 2020 Calendar – available here – which showcases a selection of the year’s finest images from the land that lies beyond the “Bamboo Curtain.”

Power to the tower: The never-finished – allegedly due to poor engineering – but nevertheless impressive architectural edifice that is the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel dominates the Pyongyang skyline. In April 2018, an electronic display was wrapped around the top of the structure. Photo: NK News

Power to the pedals: In North Korea’s islands of prosperity, such as Kim Il Sung Square in central Pyongyang, electric bikes – imported from China, with battery lives of about eight hours – are replacing the bicycles of yore. Photo: NK News

Box on a bike: In Pyongyang, a man wheels a purchase – a locally made flat-screen TV – though an underpass. Photo: NK News

Revolutionary advances: An app store in Pyongyang. Customers pay at the kiosk, download the app via cable, then authenticate it on their smartphones, which are synched with the local intranet, but not the worldwide web. Photo: NK News

The snacks tell the story: Snacks sold at Pyongyang’s Kwangbok Supermarket bear the unmistakable influence of South Korean package design – showing how aspects of the South’s culture are creeping into the North. Photo: NK News

Comrades’ Cola? Naturally, North Korea has its own version of the all-American soft drink. Photo: NK News

Eat like an Imperialist: This ‘Cold Drinks’ kiosk in Pyongyang sells hamburgers and hot dogs. Photo: NK News

The good American: An unusual figure hovers in the backdrop of an otherwise typical group portrait. It’s Dennis Rodman, the unconventional US basketball player who struck up an apparent friendship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Photo: NK News

Taking the piste: A skier hits the slopes at Masikryong Ski Resort, while state TV plays on a giant screen. Under Kim Jong Un, a number of high-profile playgrounds for the elite, from water parks to spa resorts to ski slopes, are appearing. Photo: NK News

Kimdom of kimchi: A waitress hard at work in a restaurant frequented by Chinese tourists. Photo: NK News

The people’s party: A common scene in North Korea – a group of family, friends or co-workers enjoy a convivial outdoor party with dancing, singing and booze. The ‘Beijing Bikini’ also appears to have infiltrated North Korea. Photo: NK News

Easy riders: An army officer on a Chinese-built motorcycle patrols through Pyongyang in advance of a military parade, as citizens wait to cheer on the troops. Photo: NK News

All the Kim’s men: Troops are trucked through the capital of Asia’s most militarized nation, while locals cheer, ‘Thanks for doing your duty!’ Photo: NK News

Pleasant peasants: A summer village scene in the northwest of the country. Children cavort in a stream, a woman walks a flock of ducks and rudimentary market activity is underway. Photo: NK News

Farmy army: Uniformed men and civilians harvest corn. In a chronically under-nourished nation, soldiers and uniformed work brigades are often tasked to carry out agricultural missions. Photo: NK News

On track: Locals chug wearily through the outskirts of Hamhung, North Korea’s second city, on the country’s east coast, on a vehicle that is hardly a bullet train. It is noticeably less prosperous than the capital. Photo: NK News

Cow power: Farmers on an ox cart arrive in a town in Hamgyong Province. Photo: NK News

Hot looks, cool day: North Korean fashion is no longer restricted to drab tunics, but the lack of public transport in rural areas forces many citizens to take a hike. Photo: NK News

 A bridge too far: A bridge left un-repaired after being smashed by a US air attack during the 1950-53 Korean War is back-dropped by an austere, but beautiful, North Korean winterscape. Photo: NK News