There are few places around the world that are as secretive as North Korea. The borders are tightly controlled and while the Korean war effectively ended in 1953, an armistice agreement was signed to cease hostilities until a final peaceful settlement is achieved. That hasn’t happened yet, to say the least.
The entire country is run by a totalitarian regime belonging to the Kim family dynasty. It was established by Kim Il-Sung who was succeeded by Kim Jong-Il upon the former’s death. Now, it’s Kim Jong-Un that leads the country. But through it all there have been draconian measures to control their population and defend their borders.
North Korea is so cut off from other countries, their people so micromanaged, and leaders so insane and power hungry that the whole place is like a train wreck you can’t help but look at. From building fictional cities to mistreating people to an official style guide of haircuts, here are the 20 most troubling facts about North Korea.
20. They Make Crazy Claims of Their Leaders
North Korea is that guy you meet at parties who claims to have done some impossible stuff. If you take the country’s official records at face value you’ll learn that Kim Jong Il learned to walk at three weeks and talk at eight weeks. He also wrote 1,500 books over a three year period and six operas which, according to his biography, are considered the best in all of human history. Not to be outdone but his son Kim Jong Un learned to drive at three and raced a yacht at nine years old. I’m sure he’s done a bunch more amazing things since then.
19. North Koreans Must Wear One of 28 Approved Haircuts
In a state like this where everything is controlled by the government, you would think there was at least a little leeway on hairstyles. Especially when you see what Kim Jong Un has on his head. But it turns out that there are only 28 possible haircuts North Koreans can wear: 10 for men and 18 for women. Men must keep their hair less than 2 inches long and unmarried woman must sport shorter hair. Married women seem to have a bit more leeway in hairstyles.
18. The Government Would Rather the People Starve Than Get Help
While North Korea is thought of as a communist state, that isn’t exactly accurate. The founder of the country Kim Il Sung created the “Juche” ideology which is basically a policy of self-reliance. They cut themselves off politically and economically so that even in times of great need they do not allow outside help. Back in the 1990s, an estimated two million people died due to a famine caused by the country’s erratic farming policies along with flooding. Maybe self-reliance is a noble quality but when you cause millions to go hungry perhaps a little help here and there isn’t so bad.
17. The People Are Starving
And people are still starving. In a country of 25 million people, approximately half of them are below the poverty line and 6 million of them are in desperate need of food aid. That’s almost one in four people going hungry. Children are the worst off with about one-third of them chronically malnourished or their growth stunted by a lack of access to food. North Korea was at one time much richer than South Korea but the annual GDP per capita for the country is now only $1,800. That puts them in the same league as Rwanda and Haiti. For another comparison, the rate across the border in South Korea is 18 times more and sits at $36,612 per person.
16. The Country’s Electrical Power Routinely Shuts Off at Night
In North Korea, you’re lucky if your home has electricity. Even then, you’ll often only receive a few hours of it per day. Electrical power largely shuts down at night which has given us that famous satellite comparison between North and South Korea. Even in Pyongyang, the city where the elite and most loyal live as well as the showcase city for foreign travelers, there seems to be intermittent power. Unless, of course, you’re a leader of the country which seems to always have power.
15. Kids Have to Supply Their Own Chairs and Desks for School
With people starving, poor, and without electricity, it’s good to know that their children’s education is mandatory and their teachers’ salaries are paid for. What isn’t paid for, however, is everything else. Schoolchildren are required to supply their own desks and chairs in order to get an education as well as money for the heat. Some kids are even forced to produce goods for the government which is why some parents would rather spend their money bribing the teachers to keep their kids out of school. Apparently, that’s a much cheaper option.
14. One Third of its Income is Spent on the Military
Despite North Koreans being exceptionally poor, the government has no problems spending a ton of their income on the military. Those, of course, aren’t the official numbers but anything from their government should be taken with a grain of salt. North Korea officially said they spent $570 million on the military in 2009 while an analysis placed it closer to $8.77 billion. That’s over 15 times more than what the government said they spent. And with a gross national income of $25 billion, about a third of their entire income was spent on the military.
13. There’s a Fake Propaganda City
So another thing they did spend money on was building an entire city called Kijong-Dong back in the 50s. It has electrical lights and street sweepers but one thing is lacking from the city: people. The whole thing was built in order to encourage South Koreans to defect but a closer look at the city through telescopes revealed the windows in the buildings have no glass while other buildings are just empty concrete with no interior rooms at all. The North Koreans later installed a flagpole that was 525 feet tall with a flag that weighed nearly 600 pounds and was the world’s largest for more than a decade.
12. They Have Elections With Only One Person on the Ballot
North Korea does hold an election every five years but there is only ever one candidate on the ballot. Kim Jong-Un was elected with a landslide 100% of the vote. Surprisingly, North Korea does have a constitution which protects freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, freedom of religion, and, yes, the right to elect officials. In practice, it gets a bit murky. All of those rights are also subject to Article 81 and Article 82 which requires all citizens to “firmly safeguard the political and ideological unity and solidarity of the people,” and observe “the socialist standards of life.” The reality is that there are no fair trials, no freedom of religion, and definitely no freedom of expression.
11. It’s the Only Country Led by a Dead Man
No, Kim Jong-Un isn’t a zombie. He’s not even technically the leader of the country. Neither was his father Kim Jong-Il. In fact, the true leader of North Korea is Kim Il-Sung, officially known as the “Great Leader,” who’s been dead now for about 23 years making it the world’s only Necrocracy. After he died in 1994, the country went into three years of mourning. When that time had come to an end, he was proclaimed the “Eternal President of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” This sort of tradition continued as Kim Jong-Il became the “Eternal General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea” and the “Eternal Chairman of the National Defence Commission.”
10. It’s a Criminal Organization
When you think of a government as a criminal organization you think the consolidation of power and wealth along with human rights violations. That all absolutely applies to North Korea but in this context, it is meant that the country literally makes money like the mob. Much of the country’s income comes from selling counterfeit pharmaceuticals, illegal narcotics, and counterfeit U.S. 100 dollar bills. Of course, this isn’t the only way they make money as some of their income also comes from selling small arms and missile components to rogue states and terror groups.
9. Yet Foreign Investors Still Give them Money
Everything about North Korea screams a closed-off, secretive nation that would rather do it themselves than have anyone come in and finance something. It’s a country that embraced “Juche” but it’s also a country led by leaders that are far more concerned with control. So it comes as no shock that they welcome some foreign investments which totaled $1.4 billion in 2010. Most of the investors are from China and Europe investing in mines and building casinos. The country has about $6 trillion in untapped mineral resources but anyone looking to invest in the country should be wary as the government could confiscate all the property and evict foreigners at any time.
8. And it’s a Cult
Where they make money like the mob and are considered a form of communist, the leaders run the country like a cult. They developed a cult-of-personality around the Kim family and especially Kim Il-Sung. Respect for the “Great Leader” must be made at all the statues and there are stiff penalties for those who don’t or even criticize the leadership. Parts of Buddhism and Christianity were bastardized with descriptions of Kim Il-Sung as a god and Kim Jong-Il as the son of a god. Some North Koreans even believe that Kim Il-Sung created the world.
7. Almost No One Has Access to the Internet
North Koreans have access to something like the internet but it’s a closed network that exists solely inside the country. There is some very small access to the world wide web but it is heavily controlled and monitored. There’s also an officially state sponsored operating system called Red Star that’s based on Linux but is loaded up with spyware. As far as anyone knows, North Korea has only one block of 1,024 IPv4 addresses and has only 28 “.kp” websites. It’s uncertain how many citizens are even aware that the internet exists at all. Foreigners are allowed to access a 3G network, however, so they have that going for them. Which is nice.
6. Watching Unapproved TV Can Get You Executed
It isn’t just the internet that is tightly controlled but all media as well. All televisions are tuned to just three channels controlled by the state and feature domestic programming. Some of that programming was probably created by South Korean film director Shin Sang-Ok who was kidnapped with his wife and forced to create dozens of films before escaping eight years later. Two of the channels broadcast only on the weekends while the third only broadcasts on evenings which makes South Korean soap operas one of the more popular things smuggled into the country. But if you’re a North Korean citizen you watch them at your own peril. 80 people were put to death in 2013 because they were caught watching South Korean films and owning bibles.
5. They Breed Western Looking Spies
Every country has spies and if Jason Bourne has taught us anything it’s that there are secret black ops programs to create perfect spies. North Korea has a pretty horrible program with American soldiers who defected to the country during the Korean war. According to one deserter who returned to the United States, North Korea would kidnap women from eastern Europe and the Middle East in order to be married off to the Americans. Their kids would be raised as spies that could pass off as Westerners. This is to give North Korea the ability to target American interests in South Korea as well as places further away.
4. Some of Their Executions Are Downright Horrifying
Capital punishment is a nice way of saying “death penalty.” But even that is a nice way of saying “execution.” While most executions in the west these days are as humane as possible, leave it to the North Korean government to find horrible ways of killing people. Case in point, a vice minister of the army was sentenced to execution by mortar shell for not mourning Kim Jong-Il’s death for a long enough period by Kim Jong-Un. The current leader also had his uncle executed by throwing him into a cage with 120 starving dogs.
3. Up to 200,000 North Koreans Live in Prison Camps
A common theme about totalitarian states is they tend to imprison their own people in camps. North Korea has around 150,000 to 200,000 citizens that live and work as slave labor in what is estimated to be around 16 prison camps. The conditions are harsh, the prisoners are given rudimentary tools, and they are forced to work in mining, logging, and agriculture. Around 30% percent of the prisoners have physical deformities — including missing limbs — and up to 40% of the inmates die from malnutrition. But the population of these concentration camps stays more or less constant because the number of incoming prisoners balances out those who have died.
2. They Export Their Slave Labor
16 prison camps where they exploit their incarcerated citizens for hard labor is bad enough but they also export citizens to work as slave labor as well. North Korea exports their own people to work in the harsh conditions of Siberia on 10-year labor contracts in logging work camps. Most of their income is taken by the government while they’re fed inedible food and live in inhuman conditions. Should any of the workers attempt to escape, their families back at home in North Korea will be detained, arrested, and sent to other work camps.
1. The Have a Three-Generation Prison Sentence
The worst punishment is handed out to dissenters and those who commit political crimes. Not only are the guilty given a life sentence to be served at one of these concentration camps but so are their entire family and two subsequent generations. That means there are people who have been born in prison and sentenced to life because their grandfather criticized the government decades ago or just simply tried to escape from North Korea. Only one prisoner, Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born in one of these camps is known to have escaped.
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