30 Surprising facts about North Korea

What honestly comes into your mind when you hear about North Korea? Indifference, surprise or fear? It wouldn’t be too surprising if many of you haven’t heard much about this country. I didn’t too. Of course, we all are aware of the tensions between the North Korean and the South Korea but other than that, how much information do you actually have about this country which is officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? Sweat no more! This post has everything that you need to know about North Korea. To begin with, North Korea is a country in East Asia which is situated in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Korea was actually divided into two zones after the World War II in 1945 by the United States and the Soviet Union. The northern part was occupied by the Soviets and the Southern, by the Americans. Two separate governments got established in the year 1948. They were known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (in the north) and the Republic of Korea (in the south).

North Korea follows the “military- first” policy which is also known as Songun. Since the time North Korea was formed, it has been ruled over by the Kim family. The current ruler of this state-run socialist government is Kim Jong-un. Here are 30 facts about North Korea which may surprise you. They surely did surprise me!

30. What’s the year, again?


No, I’m not stupid. The North Koreans apparently do no follow the same calendar that we do. A new kind of a calendar, Juche, was introduced in North Korea in the year 1997. It is actually based on Kim-II Sung’s date of birth which happens to be 15th April, 1912. The year 1912 is taken as Juche 1 and the calendar proceeds from there. For instance, in the Juche calendar, the current year (2016) is 105.

29. Not a Communist. Check.


North Korea claimed to be a Communist State but many believed that its Communism was in name only. North Korea truly follows the Juche ideology which propagates economic self- sufficiency, military self- reliance and an independent foreign policy. Late North Korean leader Kim Jong- il released a statement on Juche in a 1982 document which was titled, On the Juche Idea. The Songun policy was incorporated into Juche in 1996.

28. Pot is legal in North Korea!


It is true that the legality of marijuana/ cannabis varies from one country to another whether it has to use for generally or for recreational purposes. It does come as a surprise that a country like North Korea which is pretty orthodox and conservative has a pretty liberal policy of tolerance towards marijuana. It is not certain whether there is any law regarding marijuana or not. According to some reports, marijuana is not considered to be a drug in North Korea.

27. Is it time for elections, already?

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It is fascinating how the elections work out in North Korea. Elections are held after every five years for the Supreme People’s Assemblies (SPA) and after every four years for the Local People’s Assemblies. All the candidates get selected by the ruling party prior to the actual elections. Hence, only one name is present on the ballot card. The voter does not have to mark anything. He’s only required to drop the card in the appropriate box. Phew, what a task!

26. Traffic lights.

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Yes, Traffic lights in North Korea seldom work. The reason? Poor infrastructure and lack of electricity. The purchase of fuel too is restricted. Therefore, the country has come up with a new solution to dapple with the traffic (or lack of traffic). Young women are trained to direct traffic with just a whistle and a baton and are generally stationed atop an umbrella-topped platform. Their movements are sharp and precise, almost robotic.

25. The world’s largest stadium.


There is a multi-purpose stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea which is called the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium. It got completed on May 1, 1989.  It has been estimated that this stadium can seat an audience of 150,000 people. Other than hosting football matches and a few other athletic events, it is mainly used for Arirang performances (mass games).

24. Uncle thrown to dogs?

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In the year 2014, a news report suddenly gained the whole world’s attention which stated that Kim Jong- un executed his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, by having him stripped naked and then, throwing him into a cage with his five closest aides and set upon by 120 hungry dogs who completely ate all of them alive. This story was first circulated by a newspaper called the Wen Pei Po which was later deemed as highly unreliable. It is true that the North Korean leader’s uncle was executed but the nature and the method of his death has not been revealed.

23. Literacy rate.

North Korea has a whopping literacy rate of 100%. Can you believe it? Literary rate is the percentage of a population aged above 15 who can read and write. The CIA believes that North Korea’s literacy rate is equal to that of the US, UK and many other countries.

22. Only 28 approved haircuts.


The North Korean leader had passed another law which weirdly enough concerned itself with hair. Yes, you read it right. HAIR.

Kim Jong-un had passed an order that the citizens of North Korea could choose a haircut only from the 28 State approved ones. Men could choose a haircut out of the ten haircuts that were enlisted to them and women, from the remaining 18. Married women had been told to keep their hair short while the single women could opt for a longer hairstyle.

21. The North Korean Famine.


Sadly enough, the North Korean Famine coincided with the general economic crisis which occurred between 1994 and 1998. Together, they are known as the Arduous March. There were multiple causes that led to the famine which included the loss of support from the Soviet, floods, droughts and poor economic management. Out of a population of 22 million people, approximately 240,000 to 3,500,000 people succumbed either to starvation or from hunger related illnesses.

20. Three Generations Punishment.

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There is a series of internment camps called gulags in North Korea which are basically political labor camps. The North Korean prisoners are imprisoned there for a variety of reasons which range from an attempt to escape from North Korea to alleged political infidelity. What is most bizarre and cruel about this camp is its idea of a punishment through “guilt by association”. This means that a person can be sent to the camp with his entire family and the next two generations of family members would be born in prison and would spent their entire lives there. Terrifying, isn’t it?

19. Kim- Jong il. 

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According to Kim- Jong il’s biography, he wrote approximately 1,500 books in three years while he was studying at the Kim Il Sung University. In addition to these, he also wrote six full operas. Not only this, his prowess in sports was also highlighted in his biography.

18. Space program of North Korea.


The space program of North Korea is known as the Korean Committee of Space Technology and is responsible for all the space programs carried out by the country. Little is known about this facility in public except that it might have been founded in the 1980’s. KCST has made five launches into the space so far, out of which only one has made it to a successful orbit in space.

17. Can you play the accordion?

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It is said that all the teachers in North Korea were expected to play an accordion during the 1990’s. In fact, they were supposed to pass an accordion test before they could get their teacher certification.

16. Kijong Dong.

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Kijong Dong which means “peace village”, is situated in Pyonghwa- ri, North Korea. In the world outside, this village is also known as the “propaganda village”. It was originally built in the 1950’s by Kim- Jong il’s father. This village has brightly painted multi- storied buildings and apartments which are the most distinguishable features when seen from across the border. The main function of this village is to display North Korea’s superiority over South Korea and also, to lure people to defect.

15. Kim- Jong il hated flying.

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It is a well-known fact that the late North Korean leader, Kim- Jong il hated flying. He used to travel through six custom made armoured trains which were lavishly designed to suit his every whim. These trains had conference rooms, flat-screen TV’s, bedrooms et cetera built in them. It has also been reported that he used to get live lobsters and cognac airlifted to the train every day while the citizens of his country were dying of hunger.

14. Malaysians can visit North Korea without visa.

The relations between North Korea and Malaysia started on June 30, 1973. There is a Malaysian embassy in Pyongyang and a North Korean embassy in Kuala Lampur. Malaysia is the one and only country which was exempted from carrying a visa to North Korea.

13. Literacy rate, again.

There are no universal definitions of literacy but mostly it is defined to be the ability to read and write. However, this definition comes with a twist in North Korea. It is believed that a North Korean would be deemed literate if he could read and write, Kim- Il Sung.

12. The Constitution.

According to the constitution of North Korea, the citizens have the freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, demonstration and association.  Ironic, isn’t it?

11. Internet Users in North Korea.

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Although access to Internet is available in North Korea but a special authorization is required to avail its usage. Internet is mainly used by government officials and by foreigners. There is some sort of a broadband infrastructure too. But people mostly use a free domestic-only network called Kwangmyong. By 2014, only 1,024 IP addresses had been registered in the country.

10. Military Forces.


North Korea has an army of more than a million soldiers. Undoubtedly, one of the largest military forces of the world. Out of 1.2 million active troops, 200,000 of them are highly trained paramilitary soldiers. Approximately one third of the nation’s income is spent on its military.

9. Escape from Camp 14. 

Shin Dong Hyuk is the only person alive who has escaped the internment camp in North Korea. No one has been known to escape this camp before. Blaine Harden made him the subject of his biography called Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. Shin has given talks to various types of audiences around the world to raise the awareness about the brutal internment camps and North Korea.

8. Kim- Jong nam.


Kim- Jong nam is the eldest son of the late North Korean leader, Kim- Jong il. He was considered to be his father’s heir but because of his unsuccessful attempt to secretly enter Japan by using a fake passport to visit Disneyland, he lost his chance. Instead, his younger paternal half- brother Kim- Jong un was named the next heir to the throne in 2010.

7. Kidnapping? Not a surprise.

It is well known fact that the late North Korean leader Kim- Jong il loved movies but he was not very satisfied with the film industry that already existed in the country. So, he kidnapped two South Korean directors in 1978 and forced them to remake the famous Godzilla. However, the directors finally escaped from the country and contacted the US embassy in 1986.

6. Dig away!


It is known that the North Korean forces tried to invade the South Korean territory by digging tunnels deep under the country. On having being caught, they tried to pass it along as an attempt to dig coal mines which had gone a little overboard. It is said that they even painted the walls of the tunnel black in order to back-up their claim that they were just looking for coal.

5. Cannibalism.

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Because of the great famine of the North Korea and the ensuing floods, most of the land had become unusable. In order to save themselves from hunger and starvation, the citizens of North Koreans first turned to the animals for sustenance and then, finally relegated to cannibalism.

4. Cosmetic Surgery? 

It has been reported that Kim- Jong il used to force waitresses into getting cosmetic surgeries done so that they looked more like the Westerners. One of the surgeries that almost all waitresses had undergone was the double- eyelid surgery. Kim- Jong il used to pay a lot of importance on the looks of his female staff.

3. Rice Obsession?

As if cosmetic surgery was not enough, the late Korean leader Kim- Jong il had had special preferences for rice. It has been reported that he had hired a special team of women whose sole purpose was to inspect each grain for rice and see if it matched the leader’s preference of weight, colour and length.

2. No TV!

I know, after suffering so much and for so long, television is not important enough for the North Koreans. But did you know that North Korea has a network of informants who keep an eye on all the citizens. Therefore, all legal televisions are already tuned to state approved or rather, state controlled domestic programming.

1. So many titles!

It has been reported that the North Korean leader Kim- Jong il held many official titles. Some of them are:

Brilliant Leader, Dear Leader, Great Leader, Sun of socialism, Respected Leader, The Great Sun of Life, Great man who Descended from Heaven, Shining Star of Paektu Mountain, Invincible and Ever- Triumphant general and Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love.


There is no doubt whatsoever that gathering information about North Korea brings out many emotions out to the fore which range from horror, terror, outrage to sympathy, pity and a sense of helplessness. North Korea is certainly one of the most brutal, strange, almost comical and disillusioned countries of the world. It’s no surprise that people know and yet don’t know much this country which has its own dark history hidden beneath its black wings.

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Samridhi Sharma

A student of English and Cultural Studies at Punjab University. An ardent reader and a freelance writer.