A rare view inside North Korea, from photographer Philippe Chancel.

Cut off from the outside world—an international outcast, an "axis of evil," no less—North Korea is both maximally notorious and practically invisible, a place we think about without ever quite visualizing. And so Philippe Chancel’s pictures are a revelation. Granted unusual access in 2005 and 2006, the French art photographer has documented one of the more surreal places on earth, a country ruled by terror, violence, and propaganda, in thrall to a fascist cult of personality surrounding "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il and his late father, Kim Il Sung. Towering, heroic statues are everywhere, in the traditional totalitarian-Communist style, and Il Sung’s smiling face decorates every billboard and lapel pin in sight. But there are no easy ironies here: Chancel has found instead an ominous quiet at the heart of things—in the mostly empty streets and deserted museums and even at crowded stadium events, as joyless as they are strange.

A collection of Philippe Chancel’s photography, North Korea, will be published this month by Thames & Hudson.