North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is one of the most isolated and repressive countries in the world. Here are some shocking facts about life in North Korea that highlight the stark differences between it and much of the rest of the world:
Strict Government Control Over Daily Life
The North Korean government maintains strict control over nearly every aspect of citizens’ daily lives through pervasive propaganda, surveillance, and harsh punishments for even minor infractions.
- North Korean citizens are not allowed to travel freely within or outside of the country. Very few North Koreans are granted permission to leave the country.
- Unauthorized access to non-state radio, TV, movies, books, and other media from foreign countries is strictly prohibited and can result in severe punishments. The government provides only state-sponsored TV, radio, and newspapers.
- The government assigns all jobs to its citizens and limits their ability to choose their own professions.
- Citizens must adhere to state-mandated dress codes and hairstyles. Married women are encouraged to wear traditional Korean dresses and pins to show their loyalty to the regime.
- Citizens must attend organized marches and events, especially to celebrate the ruling Kim family. Refusal to attend can lead to punishments.
Pervasive Indoctrination and Propaganda
Indoctrination starts from a very young age in schools, youth groups, and through the media:
- Children are taught from nursery school to revere the Kim ruling dynasty. Their first lessons focus on the ‘greatness’ of the Kim family.
- All schools strictly follow state curriculums that emphasize ideology, obedience, and loyalty to the regime above all else.
- Children address their teachers as ‘mother’ or ‘father’ at school, highlighting the connection of the state to family.
- Youth groups such as the Young Pioneer Corps work to indoctrinate children into state propaganda from age 5.
- Radios and TVs are hardwired to receive only state-approved stations that propagate the cult of the Kims and promote the state’s propaganda.
- Loudspeakers installed in every home and workplace blare state messages and patriotic songs daily. Tuning out is prohibited.
Personality Cult Around the Kim Dynasty
The regime promotes an extreme cult of personality surrounding the Kim dynasty that leads the country:
- Founder Kim Il-sung is known as the ‘Great Leader’ and continues to be revered as the ‘Eternal President’ even after his death in 1994. His embalmed body is on display in a mausoleum in Pyongyang.
- His son Kim Jong-il, who led after him, is known as the ‘Dear Leader’ and had an elaborate personality cult around him.
- Current leader and grandson Kim Jong-un is referred to as the ‘Supreme Leader’ and maintains dominance through propaganda and purges.
- Portraits of the Kims are mandatory in every household and institution. Citizens must keep the portraits clean or risk punishment.
- The capital Pyongyang is filled with grand monuments that glorify the Kims. Many building dedications include the words ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting’ to emphasize the permanence of the dynasty.
Strict Limitations on Foreign Media
North Korea strictly curtails any foreign media and influence, leaving citizens with little exposure to the outside world:
- It is forbidden to watch foreign TV shows, movies, or news programs. Foreign radio signals are jammed.
- Only foreigners and elites are allowed cell phones. For ordinary citizens, domestic calls are primarily monitored as well.
- Only foreigners and top government officials have access to the global internet. Regular citizens can access only a highly restricted state intranet with propaganda materials.
- Bootleg foreign media circulates secretly despite the risk. Simply being caught with it could mean being sent to a prison camp.
- Most North Koreans have little idea of life outside their borders or even know of basic world events and history.
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Rampant Human Rights Abuses
The regime carries out rampant human rights abuses and suppresses any dissent through public executions, forced labor camps, and pervasive surveillance:
- Tens of thousands of political dissidents are imprisoned in labor camps and subjected to torture, executions, forced labor, starvation, and rape. Three generations of dissident families can be punished.
- Public executions are carried out for offenses ranging from distributing foreign media to petty theft. The state can order executions by firing squad, hanging, or mortar shell blast.
- A vast network of secret police, informants, and surveillance monitors citizens for any sign of dissent. Phones are tapped, homes searched. Disloyalty is severely punished.
- Christianity, considered a threat to the state’s dominance, is completely banned. Practitioners are imprisoned. There are state-approved churches that exist solely for showcasing religious freedom to foreigners.
- Attempting to defect brings torture, imprisonment, and even execution. Border guards often have shoot-to-kill orders.
Devotion of Limited Resources to Military
Despite poverty and famine, North Korea pours resources into its million plus strong military and nuclear weapons programs:
- North Korea has the 4th largest military in the world – over 1.2 million active duty troops and over 600,000 reserves. Nearly every North Korean man undergoes some form of military training.
- The regime spends nearly a quarter of its GDP on the military, ranking it as the most militarized nation on earth. This military devotion comes at the expense of basic services and infrastructure.
- Periodic famines due to poor agricultural planning and distribution systems have killed hundreds of thousands, yet the regime persists in its military focus. As many as 2.8 million people died in the horrific 1990s famine while the regime continued military spending.
- North Korea possesses nuclear weapons in open defiance of international sanctions. Foreign exports of minerals and labor finance the military and nuclear programs.
Comparison of Key Facts Between North Korea and South Korea
|Category||North Korea||South Korea|
|Political System||Single-party totalitarian dictatorship under the Kim dynasty||Democratic republic with directly elected president and parliament|
|Economy||Centrally planned socialist economy. Major sectors controlled by the state.||Market capitalist economy. Major sectors privately owned and operated.|
|GDP Per Capita||$1,700||$31,846|
|Internet Access||Heavily restricted domestic intranet only. No access to worldwide internet except for elites.||#1 in the world for internet speed and penetration – 95% of population online.|
|Press Freedom||Ranked 180th out of 180 countries surveyed. Only state propaganda permitted.||Ranked 42nd out of 180 countries surveyed. Press given significant freedoms.|
|Elections||None. Single-party state centered on Kim family cult of personality.||Free democratic elections held regularly at national and local levels.|
|Poverty Rate||60% live below national poverty line.||15% live below national poverty line.|
|Famine History||Severe famines in 1990s killed upwards of 2 million. Periodic food shortages still occur.||No major modern famines on record.|
|Military Size||1.2 million active duty troops, 600,000+ reserves. Compulsory conscription for all.||600,000 active duty troops. All volunteer force.|
|Human Rights||Severe repression, extrajudicial killings, forced labor camps, tight restrictions on basic freedoms and outside media.||Developed democracy that largely respects human rights and basic freedoms.|
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Here are some common questions with detailed answers about shocking facts related to life in North Korea:
How much control does the North Korean government have over citizens’ daily lives?
The level of control the North Korean government exerts over daily life is unprecedented compared to other nations. The state dictates everything from approved hairstyles to job assignments to media consumption. Through pervasive propaganda and surveillance, as well as punishments for any hint of dissent, the regime maintains an iron grip on power and society. North Koreans cannot travel freely in their own country, let alone overseas. All media is state-produced. Phones are tapped. Potential dissent is crushed. Religion is nearly non-existent. Children are indoctrinated from birth. For most North Koreans who have never left the country or accessed outside media, their tightly controlled lives in North Korea are all they know.
What kind of personality cult exists around the Kim dynasty?
The North Korean regime has cultivated an extreme personality cult around the ruling Kim family that spans over 70 years. Founder Kim Il-Sung, known as the “Great Leader,” continues to be venerated as the nation’s “Eternal President” decades after his death. His son Kim Jong-Il, the “Dear Leader,” inherited and expanded this cult of personality. Current leader Kim Jong-Un maintains dominance through propaganda touting him as the “Supreme Leader.” North Koreans are bombarded daily with propaganda messages glorifying the Kims as nearly god-like figures who are benevolently guiding the nation. Their portraits are mandatory in every home and institution. Giant statues and monuments to the Kims dot the landscape. Reverence for the Kims is mandated under threat of punishment. This non-stop propaganda enables the regime to maintain its personality cult. For most citizens who know nothing else, the Kims have achieved a genuinely cult-like status.
What kind of human rights abuses occur regularly in North Korea?
The North Korean regime carries out shocking human rights abuses as a means of controlling its population through fear. It is estimated that up to 200,000 political dissidents are imprisoned in labor camps where they face horrific conditions including torture, starvation, rape, and executions. Even family members of critics can be imprisoned for the crimes of their relatives. Public executions are carried out for offenses as minor as distributing foreign media. A vast surveillance network monitors citizens constantly for any sign of dissent which is promptly crushed. Christianity and other religions are completely banned under penalty of imprisonment, as the regime cannot tolerate alternative power structures or belief systems that challenge its dominance. Attempted defections also bring brutal punishments. The UN and human rights groups have extensively documented the Kim regime’s horrific abuses of human rights. They are designed to terrorize the populace into total obedience through fear and brutality.
Why does North Korea pour so many resources into its military despite widespread poverty?
Despite periodic famines and widespread poverty among its people, North Korea maintains a massive military that drains much of its limited resources. North Korea possesses the world’s 4th largest military in terms of manpower with over 1 million active duty troops and 600,000 reservists. Nearly 25% of the national GDP goes towards military spending, leading North Korea to rank as the most militarized nation on earth. Poverty-stricken North Korea even defiantly pursues nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles instead of feeding its people. The regime justifies this through propaganda messages about the constant threat from outside forces like the US and the need for “military-first” politics to protect the nation. Maintaining a gigantic military and advancing its nuclear program also bolsters national pride and the regime’s legitimacy among a populace with few other outlets for hope or empowerment. While ordinary citizens suffer from famine and economic dysfunction, the regime plows scarce resources into its military both for defense and for internal propaganda purposes.
What measures does North Korea take to restrict foreign media and outside influence?
The North Korean regime goes to extraordinary lengths to restrict foreign media, news, and entertainment in order to maintain control over its people’s access to information. Watching foreign TV shows, movies, listening to non-state approved music or radio, or accessing wider internet can result in harsh prison sentences or even execution. Foreign media found being smuggled into the country is confiscated and destroyed. Only the highest North Korean elites have limited access to the worldwide web – regular citizens are restricted to a tightly controlled domestic intranet system. TVs and radios are hardwired to receive only government propaganda channels. Informants and surveillance monitor for any signs of illegal foreign media. However, some foreign USB drives, CDs, and DVDs are smuggled in and shared at great personal risk. Through its “blackout” policy of allowing only state propaganda, the regime in North Korea maintains its information monopoly and cuts citizens off from reality outside its borders.
Why are there periodic famines and food shortages in North Korea?
North Korea has suffered from horrific famines at times due to the regime’s dysfunctional agricultural infrastructure and distribution systems along with natural disasters. The worst famine occurred in the 1990s when up to 2-3 million North Koreans died of starvation due to floods combined with the regime’s mismanagement of food production and delivery systems. However, the regime continued to export food for hard currency rather than adequately feeding its people. Periodic food shortages persist today. Part of the issue stems from the country’s mountainous terrain limiting arable farmland. Central economic planning often results in inefficient allocation of resources. Farmers lack machinery and fertilizers due to sanctions. And recurrent natural disasters like droughts and floods damage crops. However, the regime’s skewed priorities that divert resources into the military and nuclear programs instead basic infrastructure also play a major role in North Korea’s continued food shortages and malnutrition for many citizens.