Candids are out of the question in North Korea. Family photos are not allowed in homes. Instead, people are required to display portraits of the regime’s founder, Kim Il Sung, and his until-recently pudgy grandson, Kim Jong Un. Any foreigner who miraculously makes it into the country is heavily surveilled.

So the French war photographer Stéphan Gladieu, who after much negotiation visited North Korea five times over a three-year period, had to meet the North Koreans on their own terms. There wasn’t a single sneaky one-off shot in all his time there. Rather, Gladieu’s photos accept the façade of North Korea—extreme cleanliness and order, propaganda to fit its king. At the same time, though, Gladieu managed to get straight in the eyeline of his subjects, whose emotive faces contrast with the picture-perfect backdrops, and reveal something intensely human—a silent suffering reminiscent of the country’s war, famine, and enduring dictatorship.

“I made this series to give a face to the people who have been living for centuries under very restrictive regimes far removed from ours,” Gladieu recently told the Web site It’s Nice That. He sees his North Korea photographs, collected in a book published by Actes Sud, as “the chance to open the doors a little.” —Julia Vitale

Stéphan Gladieu: North Korea is out now