President Donald Trump continues playing fast and loose with the volatile North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. But even as we learn more and more about escalating military tensions, the “hermit state” itself remains a mystery. While North Korea has some truly bizarre laws, a lot of misinformation also exists. Let’s look at what’s true and what’s not about one of the world’s most secretive societies.
True or false: Parents must provide desks and chairs for their kids at school.
15. True, but many bribe the teachers anyway
Students of the Pyongyang International Football School sit inside a classroom as they take a test. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
According to the U.S. News & World Report, parents who send their kids to school must furnish desks, chairs, building materials, and funds for heating fuel. Many students work producing government goods while there as well. Parents can bribe teachers to exempt their kids from labor or just keep them home, even though that violates the law.
True or false: Homosexuality is outlawed in North Korea.
14. False: Homosexuality isn’t illegal in North Korea — it officially doesn’t exist
While familiarity between men is common in North Korea, homosexuality is not. | STR/AFP/Getty Images
North Korea’s first openly gay defector Jang Yeong Jin had no concept of homosexuality before he fled the country, believing he had some sort of neurological condition. “As there is no concept of homosexuality, there is no awareness of the issue,” he explained in The Guardian. “In open societies, people have at least a consciousness of different sexualities, in North Korea there is no hope.”
True or false: The government decides who gets a computer.
13. True: Since the government controls all information
A woman sits before a computer in a lecture hall at the Pyongyang International Football School in Pyongyang. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
According to The Telegraph, private citizens can own computers, provided they can afford them. The government also decides who gets one, and they cost as much as three months’ salary. Jong Un loves Apple computers, and the state modeled its proprietary operating system on that one. The Korea Computer Center wrote Red Star OS, for all state computers. The country’s technology research hub has a staff of around 1,000 and offices in Germany, Syria, China, and the United Arab Emirates. It also manages the official web portal, Naenara, as well as a state-approved search engine.
True or false: Citizens cannot leave without permission.
12. True: Defectors can face harsh punishments
North Korean soldiers look South next to a spot where a North Korean defected crossing the border. | Korea Pool/Getty Images
Despite making it a criminal offense for North Korean citizens to leave the country without governmental permission, many try it every year. The Guardian reports that most try to cross the Yalu and Tumen Rivers on North Korea’s border with China. If caught, defectors face labor camps or execution. Government agents often still pursue defectors out of the country, and their families can face punishment for their crimes as well.
True or false: North Korean citizens cannot open their own businesses.
11. True: Private enterprise is outlawed
North Korean women work at the assembly line of a factory. | Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Because of the emphasis on the state, the government officially bans private enterprise of any kind. Those caught could trying to access or distribute black market food, medicine, and other supplies can face harsh punishment. That said, many citizens bribe officials to turn a blind eye in order to get the supplies the government does not provide.
True or false: Citizens can only get one of 28 approved hair cuts.
10. False: But style guidelines do exist
Hair dresser Kim Hae Jong poses for a portrait at a leisure and health complex in Pyongyang. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
As this tweet from Jonathan Kaiman demonstrates, both men and women can choose from a limited menu of approved hair styles. But political science professor Katharine H.S. Moon said there’s more to the story. The Wasserman Chair of Asian Studies at Wellesley College said state-mandated beauty standards “have to be taken with much skepticism.”
“There’s no evidence that their hairstyles must follow totalitarian regulation,” Moon told Yahoo Beauty. “Even if posters of styles and models say it’s the ‘rule,’ it could be that private citizens — barbers, beauticians, storekeepers — came up with ideas but put them under the safe umbrella of the state. People using the state to make money, rather than the other way around.” She added, “It’s hard to find evidence that ‘state-approved’ [hairstyles] were implemented.”
True or false: Three generations suffer for one crime.
9. True: Especially in this labor camp
Shin Dong Hyuk is the only person to have escaped from Kaechon internment camp. | Karen Bleier/AFP/GettyImages
The U.S. Department of State reports that the Kaechon political prison, or Camp 14, holds about 15,000 prisoners, all serving life sentences. Like all political prison camps in North Korea, Kaechon segregates “unredeemable” people it considers “enemies of the state” from the general population. Those prisoners include poorly performing officials, critics of the regime, and anyone who may have committed anti-government activities. Officials report that some Kaechon prisoners are victims of the regime’s “three generations of punishment,” in which three generations of a prisoner’s family are sent to the camp and may die there without having committed a crime themselves.
True or false: North Korea has its own basketball rules.
8. True: Because Kim Jong Un even controls his favorite sport
Former NBA star Dennis Rodman (C) poses with North Korean basketball players at the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium. | Kim Won Jin/AFP/Getty Images
Dennis Rodman visited Jong Un in North Korea and made an interesting discovery. According to Slate, the hoops-obsessed North Korean regime rewrote the rules as early as 2006. Chinese media report that North Korea developed its own scoring system for the game. A dunk earns three points, four points go to a three-pointer that doesn’t touch the rim, and players net eight points for a basket scored in the final three seconds. A missed free throw loses one point.
True or false: Only approved citizens can live in the capital.
7. True: And many come directly from the dictator’s line
Many of the residents of Pyongyang descend directly from the dictator’s original followers. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
The Sydney Morning Herald confirms that many who live in the capital call it “Pyonghattan,” for its cosmopolitan air. Those with permission to live there benefit from the songbun class system, which rewards political loyalty and family history. Many Pyongyang residents also trace their lineage to Kim Il Sung’s original followers, who returned to North Korea from Russia in 1945. Their offspring and connections make up the capital class of high-ranking military officers, Workers Party officials, senior bureaucrats, business leaders, and diplomats.
True or false: No outside media exists in North Korea.
6. True: But they gain access to foreign media anyway
The front pages of select Chinese newspapers, which North Koreans still sometimes access. | Peter Park/AFP/Getty Images
The NGO Freedom House, reports that listening to unauthorized foreign broadcasts, watching foreign TV shows, and possessing foreign publications all rank as “crimes against the state.” Those caught face execution or internment in labor camps. Bribery runs rampant in North Korea, and some citizens find ways to access unauthorized material and get officials to look the other way.
True or false: Most North Koreans perform forced labor at some point.
5. True: And that applies to children as well as adults
Forced labor is common in North Korea, for kids as well as adults. | STR/AFP/Getty Images
The government uses forced labor from its citizens both to control its people and sustain its economy, according to Human Rights Watch. Former North Korean students told Human Rights Watch that schools force students to work for free on farms twice a year. Students aged 10-16 also work to generate funds to pay government officials, maintain the building, and make a profit for the government. Everyday workers work at government enterprises and, while they do theoretically have a right to a salary, they rarely see one. All North Korean families also must send one family member for at least two hours per day, six days a week, to support local government construction or public beautification projects.
True or false: Only military and government officials can own cars.
4. True: Those with military ties may gain access, but not many
A traffic cop directs cars in the capital city of North Korea. | Ed Jones /AFP/Getty Images
“You are more likely to know somebody with a private jet than a North Korean is to know somebody with a car,” Car and Driver magazine wrote in 2010. Some anecdotal evidence suggests the number of cars in North Korea has increased recently, but some experts attribute that to a spike in registering private vehicles under state enterprises, PolitiFact points out. The Associated Press reports, “It’s unusual to have more than a dozen or so cars waiting behind a red light at any time of day, in any part of the city. At night, the roads remain virtually empty.”
True or false: North Koreans have no internet access.
3. False (sort of): North Korea does have a controlled intranet
North Korean children learn to use the computer in a primary school in Pyongyang. | Feng Li/Getty Images
According to a report by CNN, regular people do not have internet access and cannot make international calls. That said, a Washington Post journalist found that an intranet does exist in North Korea, on which people can make calls on their Airiang smartphones, play games, and take photos like anyone else. Like the state-run media, the closed system rests under tight regime control.
True or false: Religion is outlawed in North Korea.
2. False: If you go solely by the Constitution
A member of Christian rights group “Release International” protests outside the North Korean embassy in London to demonstrate for religious freedom. | Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images
According to The Telegraph, the North Korean constitution officially allows freedom of religion. However, the state views religion — especially Christianity — with great suspicion. Those found practicing can get sent to a labor camp, so many worship in secret. Experts estimate as many as 500,000 of North Korea’s current 2.5 million population practice Christianity in secret today.
True or false: Interracial marriages are not allowed.
1. False: But they can have horrifying consequences
Although interracial relations are not illegal per se, human rights abuses on resulting children do occur. | Ed Jones /AFP/Getty Images
Due to its Juche ideology, or emphasis on Korean exceptionalism, authorities do not look kindly on interracial relations. In a letter to British Parliament Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports incidents of repatriated female citizens forced to undergo abortions after becoming pregnant in China. The report also included the account of one witness who saw a repatriated prisoner giving birth to a baby, which North Korean nurses then smothered.
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