The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (AKA the DPRK, AKA North Korea) is a black box: no light gets in, no light gets out. The closest any of us are likely to get to this Cold War hermit state is watching a documentary or seeing how far we can zoom in on Google Maps. So it remains a mystery to us, an object of ridicule, fear, and conjecture.
However, we do know some things about life inside the most secretive country on Earth. In many ways, it’s as bad as we imagine. But there are also plenty of unexpected aspects of North Korea, its leaders, its people, and the way things really work there.
Here are a few surprising facts about North Korea that might help us better understand the closest thing the world has ever seen to Orwell’s 1984.
45. Getting A Head Count
The Korean Peninsula is divided between North and South Korea. It’s not an equal division, however. North Korea is slightly larger. But South Korea’s population is more than double that of the North (51.47 million vs. 25.49 million).
44. What’s In A Name?
North Koreans call their country Choson, which means “land of morning calm.” So where does the English word ‘Korea’ come from? It may have come from Marco Polo, the famous adventurer who traveled from Venice to the far east. That word means something like “land of mountains and streams.”
43. Merry Christmas?
Religion isn’t really a thing in North Korea, since the state is the religion. Instead of Christmas, many North Koreans used to celebrate the birthday of Kim Jong-il’s mom. Conveniently, she was born on December 24th.
42. Be My Valentine
You may be wondering, “They celebrate his mom’s birthday, so don’t they celebrate Kim Jong-il’s birthday too?” They sure do. It’s the North Korean version of Valentine’s Day, since Kim Jong-il was born on February 16. What a romantic occasion.
Apparently the traditional gift for your partner is a box to hold your party badge.
41. Grand Daddy Issues?
North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion. However, in reality, religious people here are persecuted. Christians in particular have faced harsh reprisals. Interestingly, though, Kim Il-sung (the founder of the country) was raised Presbyterian. His grandfather was a minister.
40. Raise The Flag
North Korea boasts the world’s largest flagpole. It is 525 feet tall. The flag that flies on it weighs 600 pounds.
39. Riding Dirty
Since the country is under crippling sanctions, North Korea has to resort to dirty tricks to make money. In some cases, very dirty. For years, North Korea has been linked to international drug trafficking. In 2003, for example, a North Korean ship was caught trying to bring more than 330 pounds of Heroin into Australia.
38. To Arms
Despite its poverty, North Korea has one of the largest armies in the world. It has more than 1.2 million active troops at its disposal. The leaders spend billions on the military. In fact, it eats up as much as 30% of total GDP. That’s almost ten times as much as the US spends, proportionally.
37. (Not) Getting Paid
It’s hard to make sense of the kind of poverty we see in North Korea. One of the best ways is by comparing it to South Korea.
South Korea is a free country with businesses, culture, media, and sport. Its GDP per capita is almost $30,000 USD. North Korea’s GDP per capita is about $1,700.
36. Measuring Up
Another way of measuring the differences is to literally measure them. Due to famine and poor diet, there’s a serious height difference between North and South Koreans. North Koreans born after the Korean war are, on average, 2 full inches shorter than the average South Korean.
35. Time After Time
North Korea decided to flex its muscle by inventing its own time zone in 2015. Although it’s completely needless, they’ve instituted their own special ‘Pyongyang time’. (Pyongyang is their capital city.) It’s half an hour behind South Korea and Japan. Again: for absolutely no reason.
34. Freedom Isn’t Free
Defectors have been fleeing North Korea in ever greater numbers. However, this freedom comes at a cost. It’s estimated the average defection costs $8,000 US in bribes and other expenses. And remember, this is a country with a per capita GDP of $1,800. It’s a wonder anyone escapes at all.
33. Compared To Bill Gates
Here’s another way to measure how unfortunate North Korea is. Bill Gates’ estimated net worth is about $80 billion. That’s four and a half times more than North Korea’s GDP.
32. League Of Legends
North Korea competed in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. While it didn’t win anything, their team did land a major moral victory. They scored a goal against team Brazil, one of the top competitors in the world.
31. The Road To Nowhere
Most of the pictures we see out of North Korea come from Pyongyang. The capital is a modern city full of high-rises and wide boulevards. Most of the country, however, is completely different. Only 3% of the roads in North Korea are even paved.
30. Naval Gazing
North Korea captured the USS Pueblo way back in 1968. They still have it. In fact, if you visit North Korea, you can take a tour of the ship. Interestingly, North Korea is the only country ever to capture a US Navy vessel and hold onto it.
29. Pants Law
Jeans are illegal in North Korea. (Yes, North Korea literally does have fashion police.) A few other things have only recently become legal. Like pizza. And women wearing pants. So… yay progress?
28. The Korean Underground
To date, four secret tunnels have been found from North Korea into South Korea. But most people believe there are dozens more that remain hidden. Perhaps enough to shepherd an army from the North to the South for a sneak attack. While that’s no longer the worry it once was, it’s still kind of creepy.
27. Punishment In The Fourth Dimension
People are afraid to act out in North Korea because of the ruthless punishment they will face. But it’s not even just about you. If you, as a DPRK citizen, try to escape, you will of course face punishment. That means either the prison camp or the firing squad.
What’s even worse is that your family will be punished too. And not just your living family, but three generations of your descendants. Guilt carries down through time in North Korea.
26. Won’t You Join Us?
Back in the ’50s, North Korea built a fake village near the border with the South. No one lived there, but it looked friendly and reassuring. The object was the convince South Koreans to defect to the North.
Unsurprisingly, this didn’t work. Only two Southerners have gone North, while thousands of North Koreans have risked their lives to defect the other way.
25. Family Reunion
It’s easy to see why people would want to go back and forth between the two. Since North and South split, many families have been torn apart. An estimated 10 million Koreans are separated from family on one side of the line or the other.
24. Statue Of Limitations
If you decide to visit, you will be required to bow reverently and feign interest every time you’re shown a picture, statue, or painting of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, or Kim Jong-un. And you will see their faces a lot. The regime doesn’t expect foreigners to understand or adopt its peculiar ideology, but it does demand outward displays of respect. Even this is likely too much to bear for most would-be visitors.
23. “Tour Guides”
Even if you do go, you won’t get to see the real North Korea. Tourists cannot go anywhere unattended. You will be accompanied for the duration of your trip by guides and minders, and your entire itinerary will be pre-planned. You won’t be allowed to see anything the government doesn’t want you to see, or speak with anyone who hasn’t been carefully chosen. Ordinary North Koreans are forbidden from speaking with foreigners. The people you do get to talk to will do little more than spout the party line.
22. Going Green
North Korea has a well-deserved reputation as the most repressive nation in the world. But one area where it’s reportedly more freed0m-loving than many Western countries is in the realm of illicit substances.
Over recent years, a number of people who have visited have gone online to insist that pot is legal in North Korea — or at least tolerated. According to these folks, the plants grow wild by the roadside and locals are free to light up joints without fear of retribution. It seems a little cruel to let people get the munchies in a country that’s chronically short of food, but still cool, right?
Well, it turns out this may not actually be the case.
“There should be no doubt that drugs… are illegal here,” Swedish diplomat Torkel Stiernlof told Business Insider. “One can’t buy it legally and it would be a criminal offense to smoke it.” And he should know, since he lives in the capital, Pyongyang.
Still, some tourists and writers insist they have gotten baked in North Korea. Personally, I think that’s a little more paranoia than I’m prepared to deal with…
21. The Year Of Kim
One of the perks of being a dictator is that you get to reshape the calendar of your people so that it matches the contours of your life. Julius Caesar did it, and Kim Il-sung did it too.
The official DPRK new year falls on his birthday, April 15, 1912. So instead of 2019, North Koreans are currently living in the year 106 (soon to be 107).
Fun fact: April 15, 1912 was also the day Titanic sank. So… not a great day, overall.
20. Rush Hour?
Very few people have cars in North Korea, and even those who do can scarcely afford to gas them up. So even in Pyongyang, a city of more than 3,000,000 people, traffic seldom gets out of hand.
Nevertheless, Pyongyang is famous for its ‘traffic girls’, extremely dedicated police who direct the flow of commuter cars, buses, and delivery trucks as they wend their way through town. Almost exclusively pretty young women, the traffic girls’ gestures are as carefully choreographed and executed as any ballet — crisp, precise, hypnotic.
Check out the video below to see what I mean.
It’s especially bizarre to watch their unwavering dedication when the streets are virtually empty; they just keep working with unshakeable focus.
19. Splitting Hairs
For the most part, the oppression of the DPRK is tragic, a crime against humanity. However, it does sometimes inadvertently pass into the realm of pure satire.
For example, the government actually controls how citizens are allowed to cut their hair. There are 15 approved hairstyles each for women and for men, and failure to conform to the guidelines can have consequences ranging from fine to imprisonment.
In recent years, authorities have been cracking down on citizens with their own sense of style — especially men who prefer to wear their hair long. In the past, men were encouraged to copy Kim Jong-un’s …um, unique coiffure, which he calls the ‘ambition cut’, but that no longer seems to be one of the options in North Korean barber shops.
Men who go bald are executed.
I’m joking. (Probably.)
18. The Disneyland Of Dictatorships
Hardly. Although Pyongyang has several gargantuan hotels, these stand virtually empty most of the time. No more than 6,000 or so tourists from the West make the trek to North Korea in any given year. More visitors come from China, but even so… North Korea is hardly the sort of place you visit for a romantic getaway.
17. Radio Shacks
Remember in the opening, when I said that North Korea is the closest thing we’ve ever seen to a real life version of 1984?
Nothing demonstrates this more than the radios that the government installs in every home and apartment. These are pre-tuned to the official North Korean propaganda station and have volume buttons — but no ‘off’ switches. The only thing that spares the people from endless brainwashing is the fact that blackouts are commonplace since the country can’t produce enough energy to meet demand.
These radios closely mirror the telescreens of Orwell’s 1984, which also cannot be turned off.
16. Toy City
If you look at pictures of North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, you might be surprised at how modern it seems. The regime has sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into building high rise towers, amusement parks, and stadiums to rival any other city on the planet; in fact, it’s home to the world’s largest arena, which can seat up to 150,000 people!
Alas, it’s all an illusion.
Pyongyang is a Potemkin village, a fake city that serves as a playground for the elite and a showcase meant to convince a skeptical world that North Korea is on the path to prosperity. Living in the capital is a luxury reserved for only the most trustworthy citizens. Meanwhile, in the countryside, ordinary people struggle just to get enough to eat.
15. The Pyongyang Globetrotters
You’ve probably heard that North Koreans are in love with basketball. That’s how former NBA star Dennis Rodman somehow ended up becoming America’s unofficial ambassador. Apparently Kim Jong-un, the current dictator, spent a lot of time sketching Michael Jordan while he was attending school in Switzerland under a fake name.
But North Koreans have also made the sport their own by instituting a number of changes to the rules. In DPRK basketball, 3-point shots that don’t touch the rim are worth 4, slam dunks are worth 3, and missed free throws actually deduct points from your team.
I gotta say, I like those house rules.
14. Commie Chameleons
The DPRK is frequently referred to as a Communist state, but that isn’t strictly true.
Officially, the governing philosophy of the country is called “Juche”, which roughly means ‘self-sufficient.’ The dream of Juche is to make North Korea an entirely self-sustaining nation, not reliant upon trade or aid from anyone else. As you can imagine, it’s not going very well.
13. Everyone I Need To Kill I Learned In Kindergarten
North Korean people in general hate Westerners — but Americans most especially. Of course, this is because of the Korean War (1950-1953). But the feelings of hatred are intentionally stoked be the government, who indoctrinate children to despise and seek revenge against American imperialist pigs from the earliest stages of their education.
In 2013, a group of journalists toured a North Korean school. The principal pulled out a dummy of an American soldier and proudly explained how the children love to beat him with sticks and throw stones at him.
In kindergarten classrooms, they encountered propaganda posters depicting Korean children holding bayonets to the throats of American soldiers and their Japanese allies, or hanging them in nooses. Slogans like ‘kill the American b——s’ and graphic images of American soldiers murdering innocent women and children seem to be routine.
One oddity is that North Korean propaganda always portrays Americans as having comically large noses and tameless, straw-colored hair.
12. DPRK Internet
As you would expect, only very few (and very senior) North Koreans have unfettered access to the internet. However, North Korea does have its own intranet system called Kwangmyong, which is separate from the rest of the web. It’s offered as a free public service, but since no ordinary citizens own laptops, tablets, or smartphones, it’s basically only for use at work or school.
However, more and more North Koreans do have access to cell phones, and you can even get a temporary SIM card if you choose to visit. Foreigners can also gain access to WiFi, it seems. (Of course, you have to assume that any and all activities will be monitored.)
11. The King Is Dead
Perhaps the strangest thing about North Korea — and that’s saying something! — is the fact that it is the world’s only necrocracy. That is, it’s the only country with a head of state who is dead.
Kim Il-sung, the founder of the DPRK and by far the most beloved of the Kims, is still technically president despite the fact that he croaked in 1994.
10. Catching Flak
Because North Korea is a closed society, it’s difficult for outside experts to assess what’s going on inside its borders. Very few countries have embassies in Pyongyang, and those embassies are segregated from the rest of the city and closely monitored. This means there’s no way to gather human intelligence in the DPRK. Our best eyewitness sources are people who have successfully defected, even though defectors’ accounts usually can’t be corroborated.
Take one defector for instance, the daughter of a colonel in the North Korean army. In 2017, she told the Daily Mirror that she and 10,000 other people were once forced to watch the truly revolting execution of 11 musicians who were accused of making an adult film.
“They were lashed to the end of anti-aircraft guns,” she says. “Their bodies were blown to bits, totally destroyed, blood and bits flying everywhere. And then after that military tanks moved in and they ran over the bits on the ground where the remains lay.”
This same defector claims that Kim Jong-un keeps a battalion of sex slaves for his personal enjoyment, its members drafted from North Korean schools by his agents.
9. Foreign Film Collector
It’s well-known that the former dictator Kim Jong-il was a film buff. He loved Western movies; when he died, he reportedly had more than 15,000 in his personal collection. What’s less well-known is just how far he was willing to go to improve the quality of films made in North Korea.
While his father Kim Il-sung was still alive, Kim Jong-il was responsible for overseeing propaganda. He was always interested in movies — he even wrote a book called On the Art of the Cinema, which is still available on Amazon. The trouble was that North Korean films were hilariously bad by world standards. What to do?
In 1978, Kim Jong-il sought to up his game by abducting a famous South Korean director and his actress ex-wife, Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee. The pair of them were put to work watching four movies a day and writing reports about them for the Dear Leader. Later, Kim turned them loose in the studio, forcing them to direct films for him but giving them considerable artistic leeway and virtually no budgetary restrictions.
Shin and Choi were able to escape in 1986; when Kim ill-advisedly let them take a holiday in Switzerland, they ditched their bodyguards and claimed asylum at the American embassy. They later admitted that, despite the fact Kim had abducted them, they did come to have some respect for him as a filmmaker.
8. Shook, Not Shaken
Another comical anecdote about the late Kim Jong-il’s obsession with Western cinema: he was apparently a huge fan of James Bond. Which is, of course, deeply ironic, since Kim himself was a card-carrying Bond supervillain.
This tension came to a head in 2002, when the Pierce Brosnan Bond film Die Another Die cast North Koreans as the bad guys. Kim was allegedly incensed at the way his country was depicted, and ordered spokesmen to put out this somewhat hysterical denunciation of the film:
“It is a dirty and cursed burlesque aimed to slander North Korea and insult the Korean nation. It clearly proves that the United States is the root cause of all disasters and misfortune of the Korean nation and is an empire of evil. The US is the headquarters that spreads abnormality, degeneration, violence and fin de siècle corrupt sex culture.”
Granted, it’s one of the worse Bond adventures, but seriously — shook much?
7. Do As I Say, Not As I Do
While North Korea’s leaders may enjoy watching Bond adventures and sipping Chateau Lafite in their palaces, ordinary North Koreans are forbidden from consuming any foreign media under pain of death. That’s right. If you’re caught watching a South Korean soap opera, the punishment could well be a bullet to the back of the head.
It’s not hard to understand why: when North Koreans see foreign media, they get a glimpse at how things work on the outside. The regime is desperate to keep its people from seeing what life is like in other countries, lest the people rise up and demand something better.
Despite the pain of death, more and more North Koreans are watching foreign films and TV shows and listening to foreign music. This comes courtesy of brave smugglers who cross into the DPRK from China with flash drives galore. They’re able to keep North Korea supplied with reality TV and RomComs by bribing underpaid border guards.
6. One For You, Two For Me
One of the most surprising facts about North Korea is that it actually has two completely separate economies. There’s the regular old economy, like we have; then there’s a secret economy, dubbed the ‘royal court economy’ by high-level defectors, which is personally controlled by the ruling Kims.
What’s especially bizarre is that this royal court economy is actually larger than the real economy. In other words, more than half of all the wealth generated by North Korea is personally controlled by Kim Jong-un.
5. More Money, Less Problems
So what does Kim Jong-un do with all the money he siphons from his own economy?
Certainly he lavishes a good deal of it on himself. The dictator is said to maintain several palatial compounds.
But he actually spends a lot of that money just trying to keep himself in power by bribing his people. This is known as ‘gift politics’, and it’s one of the ways the Kim family is able to keep important government and military officials loyal. The leader provides VIPs with generous gifts: gold-plated AK-47s, caviar, Courvoisier, even Mercedes-Benzes. For the common people, he builds theme parks, restaurants, movie theatres, and vacation resorts.
And, of course, for the preservation of his regime, he develops nuclear weapons.
4. Room 39
You may well be wondering: “How does North Korea even get caviar and Mercedes? How does it find the foreign currency to buy anything at all? Aren’t there sanctions?” Kim Jong-un has a special department tailor-made for the purpose of enriching himself. It goes by the vague and sinister name ‘Room 39.’
Room 39 runs all sorts of shady schemes to bring money in the for leader. These range from illegal trade through China, to international insurance fraud, to counterfeiting U.S. currency, to exporting illegal substances.
3. The Only Way To Leave North Korea
One of the ways Kim earns foreign currency is by sending his own citizens to work overseas and then stealing the salaries they earn.
It’s estimated that more than 50,000 North Koreans are living and working abroad as virtual slaves in countries like Mongolia. The regime confiscates the overwhelming majority of their salary and often doesn’t let them return home to see their families for years on end — but it’s still probably better than living in North Korea.
This exploitative practice may earn Kim as much as $2 billion per year.
The poor North Korean people. It’s easy to laugh at the eccentricities of their country, but they really arethe victims of an incalculable crime. And all they have to show for their decades of suffering is… well, decades of suffering. But they just keep working for the glory of their country nonetheless, fighting to survive even in the dreariest of circumstances. Their resilience is admirable, however sad.
You’ve no doubt heard about the devastating famines that are all too common in the DPRK, but in 2014 things got even worse. Short on fertilizer, vital for making crops grow, the government started ordering farmers to use human waste to fertilize their fields. Human excrement used for agriculture in North Korea is known by the euphemistic name ‘night soil.’
This is, of course, extremely unhygienic, as human waste is full of dangerous germs and parasites.
More recently, there are reports that the government has ordered citizens to somehow produce physically impossible amounts of human waste for use in the fields — 3 tons a month per person!
1. Spartan Parenting
In the past, defectors who managed to escape North Korea also claimed that the country’s treatment of people with disabilities was particularly appalling. According to these eye witnesses, disabled people were forbidden from even entering Pyongyang. Instead, disabled children were to be killed at birth or at a bear minimum shut away out of sight for the entirety of their lives.
If this is true, things seem to have changed. 2018 marked the first time that North Korea sent athletes to the Winter Paralympics.