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11 Interesting Facts About North Korea In 2024

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3 months ago

With North Korea expected to reopen for tourist travel this year, it’s time to brush up on your knowledge of interesting facts about North Korea.

North Korea is one of the most fascinating places to travel to for travelers seeking travel destinations off the beaten path. So much of what I witnessed in North Korea shocked me.

Arch of Reunification Pyongyang
The aspirational Arch of Reunification on the way to the DMZ from Pyongyang

In many ways, I wish I had known these things before I travelled to North Korea. I think that these are the most important things to know to prepare you for what you’ll experience in North Korea.

1. The Cult of Personality is all pervasive

The cult of personality around the ruling Kim dynasty is everywhere you look. It thoroughly permeates every aspect of North Korean life. Portraits, statues or other artworks featuring the eternal president, the second president or the current president are absolutely everywhere. Virtually every room in the country has their portrait.

Everything that the Kim family touches also receives a highly elevated status. When we visited a horse racing ground, there was a museum next to it that was dedicated to all of the riding gear and horses of the Kim family. By far and away the strangest thing was a full taxidermy of Kim Il Sung’s horse.

North Korea Kim Jong Un on a horse portrait red
The Kim family really loves his horses – so much so that there’s a museum dedicated to their horses

It’s kind of upsetting to know that so much money is poured into creating what are effectively shrines to the Kim dynasty rather than feeding the millions below the poverty line.

And in North Korea, they won’t know the year 2024. They will say Juche 114: 114 years after the birth of the Eternal President Kim Il Sung.

I also remember being told about a special towel that each family is given to shine their portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Strange things happen in the world.

2. Everything – absolutely everything – is geared toward keeping the regime in power

Everything in the country is made to serve the Kim regime, from education to pop music. All facts and history are twisted in service of the party line. One of the ways this is done is by keeping alive the narrative that the U.S. is preparing to attack North Korea and so the country must endure hardships in order to come our victorious.

North Korea Propaganda Billboard Girl in Uniform
Socialist realist propaganda is everywhere in North Korea

And I meant it when I wrote pop music. Some of these are genuinely pretty catchy and sound fairly innocuous, but then you find out that you’re dancing to a song about the nuclear destruction of the U.S.

3. North Koreans are seemingly uninterested in foreigners

If you’ve ever traveled to a place that doesn’t often see foreigners of different ethnic extractions, you’ve more than likely been gawked at, followed or straight up asked by a local if they can take a photo with (or of) you. After all, everyone is fascinated by difference.

This is especially true of those with physical traits that are rare in East Asia like blond hair, blue eyes or darker pigmented skin. When I traveled in rural areas of China with a friend of Barbadian origin, we could barely walk out of a shop without attracting a crowd. In many parts of Asia, darker skin is just not what locals are used to seeing.

Tower in Science City in Pyongyang Blue and White
A tower in the new futuristic Science City in Pyongyang

North Korea is an ethnically homogenous population, and only very few people in North Korea ever come into contact with foreigners. Before I traveled to North Korea, I made peace with the fact that I’d be stared at everywhere I go. As it turns out, the complete opposite happened.

In North Korea, it felt like locals were looking at me with scorn and derision. People were friendly overall, but there was no fascination or interest – or they were very good at hiding it for fear of reprisal. North Koreans are generally taught to be sceptical of foreigners, so this reception makes sense.

4. The roads are very bumpy and usually aren’t paved outside of Pyongyang

There are virtually no paved roads outside of Pyongyang and there are potholes everywhere. This makes for very bumpy and uncomfortable road trips. I definitely got car sickness quite a few times.

Travel tip: I’d recommend taking some basic medicine with you (paracetamol, antinausea and antidiarrhoeic) because you’ll go on a lot of car trips and you won’t be able to find medicine in North Korea.

Countryside in North Korea man on a bicycle propaganda red sign

On the highway (if you can call it that) out of Pyongyang, the road will gradually disappear. I was quite amazed when the road suddenly just stopped and we were on dirt roads instead.

5. The wealthy elite are very easy to spot

You’ll very easily spot those with wealth and political privilege in North Korean society. They’re usually associated with the military and are wearing military garb. But if that doesn’t give them away then their high-end European cars like BMWs and Mercedes Benz will do the trick.

There are even photos of the current president’s daughter wearing Gucci sunglasses. These are status symbols of the North Korean elite and, surprisingly, they’re not shy about it. This is likely because we can recognize these as expensive brands, but North Koreans would just identify them as different.

North Korea Luxury Cars European Sanctions
The elite are happy to show off their luxury European cars (which they somehow manage to import despite very strict sanctions on North Korea)

Maybe this is unsurprising when you think about it. After all, Kim Jong Un has been spotted in a Maybach.

6. You’ll be offered dog meat

During your trip, you’ll very likely be offered the chance to try dog meat. This is abhorrent to most Western travelers, but it’s considered a delicacy in North Korea.

It’s usually served in soup. Also, if the meat that you’re served tastes different to what you’re told it is, it’s very likely that it’s dog.

Just a word on food in North Korea: I don’t know why, but I had it in my head that food in North Korea would be tasty and exciting. After all, the country has large swathes of arable land and farmland. And given how cut off from the world it is, surely there would be some innovative dishes.

North Korea Food Golden Bowls Pansangi
Traditional Korean Pansangi. What’s in the bowls is even less exciting unfortunately

Unfortunately, that is not the case. On the whole, food is very basic and bland. Think white bread, cold noodles, thin meat. There is no restaurant scene or innovative food culture.

We were taken to Pyongyang’s only pizza restaurant in the science city and it was basically cardboard. They’re trying their best with what they have, but don’t expect delicious food.

7. North Korea has incredible architecture

Until the 1960s, North Korea was more prosperous than South Korea. During that short period of prosperity, a number of beautiful buildings and structures were built, including some of the train stations on the Pyongyang metro.

Grand entrance staircase Pyongyang Metro North Korea Chandelier
The Pyongyang Metro really is a spectacular site.

Some of the Pyongyang metro stations were built in the old Muscovite fashion, which is to say that they are cavernous and filled with chandeliers. They also usually double as a bomb shelter. They’re amazing sites to behold, but also a symbol of a bygone era.

8. North Koreans will tell you that everything in North Korea is built in North Korea by North Koreans

One of the fundamental principles of North Korean society is the Juche idea, which, among other things, champions self-reliance. It is because of this ideology that everything in North Korean is apparently made by North Koreans.

Juche Tower North Korea Pyongyang
Virtually every group tour of North Korea will include a trip to the Juche Idea Tower in Pyongyang

But it’s simply not true. The truth is that so much of what’s in North Korea whether it be food or cars is imported. And it’s usually imported from China.

Travel tip: One of the best things you can do to prepare for a trip to North Korea is to read about the Juche Idea. It informs every facet of North Korea society.

9. War propaganda is everywhere

As far as North Korea is concerned, they are in an active war with the United States and South Korea. Propaganda posters will often show downed U.S. missiles or flags burning, and entire museums are dedicated to describing American atrocities.

The roads are filled with billboards and murals about depicting North Korean ballistic missiles destroying targets around the world (or even the earth itself).

North Korea war propaganda anti-America
Propaganda like this is everywhere in North Korea.

The official party line is that the Americans (or the “Imperialist Aggressors”, as they are affectionately known by North Koreans) started the Korean war and lost, and since that time America has been trying to come back to kill Koreans and take over the country. Basically, everything wrong in North Korea is blamed on the U.S.

Even kids toys aren’t exempt from this. Ask your guide about the types of toys he or should would play with as a kid. You might hear that they played with a toy tank that had an anti-America slogan on it.

north korea propaganda poster
One of the many propaganda posters you can find around North Korea

10. There’s a reason everyone dresses the same

The North Korean regime actively forbids things that, in the West, would be considered perfectly normal, like piercings and dying your hair. North Koreans can’t even wear denim.

One other thing you’ll notice is that women’s hair is never longer than about medium length – and you won’t see them wearing dresses or skirts that go above the knee. You’d probably expect this in Saudi Arabia, but not in North Korea.

North Korea Billboard stone Kim Il Sung Kim Jong Il Park

After all, what business does a socialist government have regulating fashion.

11. You must bow in front of statues of the North Korean leaders

There are grand statues of the North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il all around the country, and it’s usual to see North Koreans bowing at them. You will almost certainly be taken to the biggest statues at Mansu Hill in Pyongyang. These is the biggest of them and is made out to be a kind of pilgrimage site for North Koreans.

Grand Monument of Mansu Hill Pyongyang North Korea Bronze Statues Kim Il Sung Kim Jong Il
The huge bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at Mansu Hill in Pyongyang.

North Koreans either genuinely believe in the demi-God-like status of their leaders or they know not to say that they don’t. Either way, this means that everyone will be bowing at the statues.

You’ll be expected to bow as well. And the bow is specific: your hands must be placed by your side and not behind your back.

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