20 crazy facts about North Korea


There are many fascinating countries around the world–in fact, we’d wager that there aren’t any truly boring places. But one of the most bizarrely “can’t look away from the train wreck” places in the world is North Korea. Now, there’s a lot of information (and misinformation) out there about the country, and sometimes it can be hard to separate the fact from fiction. Still, we like to try, right?

So, you can imagine how excited we were when we found a series of twenty photos and facts about North Korea have been making the Internet rounds! But we wanted to knowmore! Click below to see the 20 facts and some of the background information we dug up.



This fact is absolutely, horrifyingly true, and you can read about what it was like being in the second generation in this gripping book Escape from Camp 14. We won’t say that it will reduce you to a sobbing mess of a human being–but if you can read it without going “Holy crap, I can’t even…” at least once, you might be an android. If you’re wondering what might get a North Korean sent to one of these prison labor camps, the answer is political crimes, such as criticizing the government or trying to escape.



This fact appeared in various places around the Internet, but we weren’t able to find an original source for it. However, we were able to learn a little bit about how jobs are assigned in North Korea. It seems that everyone is automatically given a job by the government after high school–and stuck with that job for life. However, the system is breaking down, and North Koreans now have to earn money on their own–by bribing their factory bosses, for example, to let them go to work in markets. There are other jobs in state-run “companies” that earn foreign currency–but they also require bribery to get into.



As surprising as this might be to many people around the world, this is true–and there’s actually a bit more going on. Cannabis isn’t the only drug that’s essentially legal in North Korea–the government also encourages people to grow opium on unused land to be resold abroad. As for marijuana plants growing freely by roadsides, the report we’ve linked to suggest that marijuana is often planted next to railroad tracks to help support the rails with their deep roots. Meth, on the other hand, is strictly prohibited–and users will “face a firing squad if caught.” Walter White, stay out of North Korea!



These facts were reported widely even by the western media after Kim Jong-Il’s death in 2011. While it’s impossible to verify how many holes-in-one the Dear Leader ever made, we’re guessing it’s safe to assume the real number is slightly lower than what the official records claim. But it wasn’t just Kim who took sports seriously–allegedly the North Korean soccer team was publicly derided for their loss at the 2010 FIFA World Cup for six hours. Jeez, that’s almost as bad as having to play soccer.



Partly because of how it’s worded, this fact is a bit difficult to pin down. However, it’s worth remembering that in 2012, the reclusive country successfully launched a satellite into orbit. Fortunately, it seems that they lack any missiles capable of carrying a payload large enough to actually move any of their warheads. So, this is basically true–but they could probably land a really loud party-popper in North America if they had a few spares.



This is a kind of strange statistic to deal with, since it’s not clear what a success would be. We think this graphic is referring to satellite launches, though–and, yes, of the five launches made by North Korea, only one has made it to a successful orbit in space. However, the North Korean government claims that there is actually another satellite that made orbit in 1998 and is currently sending patriotic songs into space. For science! Or…something?



The number cited here seems to come for an Amnesty International report in the 1990s. One ex-guard who defected from North Korea guessed that about 2,000 people die of malnutrition each year in Hoeryong concentration camp–but that the number of inmates stays constant at 50,000 thanks to an equal number of incoming prisoners. The same guard estimated that 30% of prisoners have physical deformities such as missing limbs. You can read more about the camp conditions on Wikipedia, but we’re not sure we’d recommend it, especially if you’re eating.



This research was widely reported around the world when it was revealed in 2011, so you’ve probably heard about it before. What you might not have heard was the happiness ranking of the USA: Dead last. Hmm…we always suspected that Americans were all secretly depressed–just look at the TV shows! Only depressed people would watch a show called “Glee,” right?



This fact seems to have come from the 2009 book Nothing to Envy, which described the lives of six North Koreans over 15 years, including one school teacher. Apparently her accordion test was postponed due to the death of Kim Il-Sung, though she was still able to find work as a kindergarten teacher until she could take her test. 



As much as people might complain about wasteful government spending, we can’t think of anything that holds a pork barrel to this, um, unique use of funds. In addition to the empty buildings, North Korea also had loudspeakers that would blare propaganda at its southern neighbor–who responded in kind. Fortunately for everyone in earshot, both countries agreed to cease their noisemaking in 2004, after which the loudspeakers were dismantled.



This was another fact that we weren’t able to verify. A number of websites report it, but it’s not clear what the actual source is. However, it’s important to note that there are frequent power outages in North Korea, so even if this were true, we imagine that a lack of electricity would render the radios silent. Bet you never thought someone would hope for their electricity to go out!



This fact seems to come from the Daily NK website, which includes a bit more information on statutes in North Korea. It turns out that all statues are produced in one place, the Mansudae Art Institute, and are actually guarded en route and “presented with a military saluted” as if real people. Sheesh, and we can’t even get our cats to treat us like fake people!



So, what about stuff that happened before Kim Il-sung was born? Apparently it’s standard practice to simply use the Gregorian calendar that western (and most other) nations use. We’re kind of disappointed. We were hoping for B.K. years–Burger King! Or, wait, would that be Before Kim…?



This fact is another one that we weren’t able to verify. It may be true, and would explain how North Korea claims a literacy rate of 99 percent–which would put it among the highest in the world. Obviously, almost no one seems to believe this statistic (remember the 1998  satellite?). On the other, the North Korean education system apparently includes 11 years of compulsory education, so it’s possible that the average North Korean really can read and write.


Unexploded ordinance left behind by Al Shabaab lay on the ground ahead of being destroyed by controlled detonation carried out by a combat engineering team serving with the Kenyan Contingent of the AMISOM in the southern Somali port city of Kismayo

Whoa! That is one hell of a way to go, isn’t it? And, yes, execution by mortar shell is a thing in North Korea, but it doesn’t seem to be particularly common. Apparently, it was used on a top ranking government official who didn’t wait long enough to have a party after the death of Kim Jong-il and was executed for lack of proper mourning. Kim Jong-un was reported as saying that the official, who was vice minister of the army when he still had all his cells in one piece, was to be completely obliterated, demanding that there be “no trace of him behind, down to his hair.”



This is certainly true, and you can even read the North Korean constitution if you feel like it. If you’re thinking this flies in the face of reality, you’re note entirely wrong, but the document also states some stuff that might not sound so familiar to foreigners. For example: “Citizens shall firmly safeguard the political and ideological unity and solidarity of the people,” and “Work is the noble duty and honour of a citizen.



North Korea’s economy is obviously little more than a shadow of its former self. In 2011, the estimated GDP per person was about US$1,800 per year, which is just a little bit less than, say, South Korea where the GDP person is about $30,800 or the US where the number is about $51,000. On the other hand, we guess there’s not much worth buying in North Korea…



This fact hardly seems surprising, though we should note that while there is only one candidate for any position on the ballot, voters can, technically, veto a candidate. This means, that they can vote against someone by crossing their name out–but to do so, a voter would have to enter a special booth without any privacy. We’re not sure why, but we have this crazy idea that someone might be keeping track of anyone who feels like casting a veto vote.


A North Korean woman uses a computer in

We haven’t been able to find up-to-date numbers for this fact, but we suspect that it might be a bit out of date. The use of computers and the Internet seems to be growing in the country, though mostly limited to upper class professionals and students. For example, North Korea recently debuted its own operating system, called Red Star, based on Linux. Additionally, some are even saying that North Korea is going through a digital revolution–though on such a small scale that we think “hiccup” might be a better word than “revolution.” However, it’s even been claimed that North Koreans have a hand in developing software for everyone from Middle Eastern banks to…Nintendo and Sony? Uhhh…let’s just say we’re a bit…skeptical.



There’s really not much you can add to this, except to note that the wood is apparently being sold to a British company and is used in the “particleboard furniture you’ve got all over your house.”

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