North Korea is the most mysterious country in the world. No one is allowed to see what is really going on beyond their borders. Even when foreign journalists and tourists go to visit, they are usually kept to a strict schedule in the capital city of Pyongyang. Foreigners are never left alone, and they are perpetually under supervision. There’s plenty of reason to believe we are never seeing the whole truth, and that any of the positive media coverage of what goes on inside of North Korea is pure propaganda.
According to the people who have defected from North Korea, the rest of the country is far more impoverished and downtrodden compared to the upscale living that we see in the capital city. But for those who have visited the country, there are plenty of things that exist in North Korea that you would probably never expect to see.
10. Knockoff McDonald’s Food
There are no foreign fast food chains in North Korea like McDonald’s or KFC, but people still want to eat fast food. They have their own chain called Samthaesong Soft Drink Restaurant. The menu is filled with McDonald’s knock-offs, like french fries that are even served in the iconic red and yellow containers. But you can also order dishes like fried chicken and waffles. Obviously, these restaurants are considered a luxury, and the average citizen is forced to eat their food rations. But for those who have tasted McDonald’s french fries, they’ll never be the same again.
In 2018, it was reported that North Koreans were requesting to have a real McDonald’s in their country. This is an even bigger deal than you may imagine. It probably has less to do with the French fries, and more to do with diplomacy. In the 1990s, the introduction of McDonald’s restaurants to Russia and China became a symbol that the countries were ready to open themselves up to the West. For a country that’s claimed to hate the United States for so long, this just may be a huge step forward for the nation.
9. A School for Foreign Children
It’s common knowledge that foreigners are usually forbidden from gaining access to the country, and even when they show up, it’s typically for a short period of time. But there are actually expats who are living and raising families in North Korea. However, there is no such thing as having a foreign exchange student in a normal classroom. All immigrant children must go to the Pyongyang Foreigners School.
These foreign children belong to diplomats and businessmen. The school is inside of the Munsudong Diplomatic Compound, which is separated from the rest of society. You would think that in North Korea, they would want these children to be exposed to all things Korean. Believe it or not, every class is taught in English, with Korean as a second language. However, photos of the Great Leader are hanging on the walls of the classroom, traditional music plays inside the building, and children are taught Korean stories and games.
8. The Largest Stadium in the World
North Korea is home to the biggest sports stadium on the planet. Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium was built in 1989, and it underwent a new remodel in 2014. It can seat 150,000 people, which means it has the largest capacity in the world. Physical fitness is seen as such an important part of society in North Korea that people are seen exercising together in public. There was even an entire propaganda film made called O Youth! in 1994 to encourage people to play more sports. In the movie, a middle-class family has five daughters who all want to be professional athletes in different sports, but they all get to enjoy the stadium.
Today, the stadium is mainly used for an annual event called the Mass Games, where performers put on a show of mass gymnastics for the crowd. The stadium is also used during national holidays, like Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un’s birthdays. At the end of each performance, there is always a large fireworks display.
7. A Luxury Ski Resort
After he came into power, Kim Jong-un ordered the construction of the Masikryong ski resort before the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Since he grew up in Switzerland, skiing would have been a normal part of Kim’s childhood. But for the North Korean people, they are still adjusting to learning this new sport. Four hours outside of Pyongyang, the resort has everything you would expect to see in other countries, including a ski lodge complete with a pool and spa. And, of course, the slopes.
A British journalist for National Geographic named Jamie Barrow filmed his trip to the North Korean ski resort. There were only a handful of people in the beginner-to-intermediate slopes, and absolutely no one using the higher parts of the mountain dedicated to expert-level skiers and snowboarders. The only people who can afford to use this resort are members of the upper class. Chances are, it will be a very long time before winter sports become more popular (or accessible) in the country.
6. K-Pop Concerts
For years, it was forbidden for North Korean citizens to listen to any music from the outside world. Musical performances are a big deal in the country, and there are some extremely talented musicians living there. However, the songs are usually meant to glorify the Great Leader, and their love for their country. But with a growing number of flash drives sneaking across the border, plenty of North Koreans are listening to K-Pop and watching South Korean dramas.
Kim Jong-un has been making an effort to begin peaceful relations between North and South Korea, and one of the ways to accomplish this is through music. In 2018, Pyongyang had a K-Pop Concert with the girl band Red Velvet. This wasn’t the first time a South Korean performance has come to the North, but it hadn’t happened since the 1990s. We can only hope that these concerts continue to happen in the future.
North Koreans cannot communicate with the outside world, but they still have smartphones. Obviously, these phones can only make calls inside the country. They also have apps, but they are primitive compared to what you can find in the outside work. You’ve got your standard clock, camera, and games. They also have an app that emits a high-pitched frequency, claiming that it repels mosquitos. Unfortunately, it has been proven that the app doesn’t actually work, but North Korean citizens continue to believe it’s cutting-edge technology.
There are smartphone brands that you cannot find anywhere else in the world, like the Pyongyang Touch, and the Azalea 3. The most popular phone is called the “Arirang,” which runs on Android. No one has the option to buy an iPhone, or choose any other brand than what the government offers. And, of course, not everyone can afford to buy a phone in the first place. According to the Wall Street Journal, these smartphones are just another way for the government to spy on its citizens. This is obviously hard to confirm, but without privacy laws, it would make sense that the DPRK could spy on people whenever they wanted.
4. White Movie Stars
During the reign of Kim Jong-il, he ordered the creation of countless movies and TV series. The majority of these shows are considered to be a form of propaganda. Logic would tell you that the entire cast of each movie is made up of North Koreans, but there are actually white people in many of their movies and TV Shows.
After the Korean War in the 1960s, a US soldier named James Dresnok defected to North Korea. He was given an acting role as the American villain in some of the movies, and he went on to become a celebrity. Considering that he stuck out like a store thumb, people recognized him everywhere he went. During interviews, he claimed that he was treated like a rockstar, and loved his new life in North Korea. He went on to have two sons. When they grew up, they replaced their father in these acting roles.
3. A Water Park
One of the last things you would expect to find in North Korea is a massive water park. The Munsu Water Park was completed in 2013. There are both indoor and outdoor pools and 14 water slides, so it’s possible to go there at all times of the year. There are also plenty of other activities, like a rock climbing wall, a volleyball court, buffet, and even a hairdresser… because apparently you have to look fresh to go down the water slides. By the way, in North Korea, there are only 15 options of government-approved haircuts for both men and women. But that’s a story for another time.
Just like everything else fun to do in North Korea, it’s really only available to people who can afford it, which is a very small segment of the population. But there is one thing that is more than a little bit off. When you first walk through the entryway of the Water Park, there is a statue of Kim Jong-il ready to remind you that there is no such thing as fun without the Great Leader watching over you.
2. A Fake Village
In between North and South Korea, there is an area called the Demilitarized Zone (or DMZ). In the 1950s, North Koreans built a town called Kijong-dong, which means “Peace Village.” The entire point of the town is apparently meant to encourage South Koreans to feel as though they would love to move to North Korea, because it looks so peaceful and beautiful there. According to North Korea, this is a thriving farm community where 200 families live.
However, South Koreans call it the “Propaganda Village,” because they believe it’s all just a facade to trick their people into wanting to defect. For years, loud North Korean music blasted in the town 20 hours a day, and it stopped playing in 2004. Some people believe that the houses and buildings were only built on one side, kind of like a movie set. Since outsiders are not allowed to step foot in there, we cannot really know if anyone lives there at all, or if it truly is a ghost town.
Last and certainly not least is that when you go to North Korea, you will find tons of weed… allegedly. As with most things related to North Korea, things are a little fuzzy given how little access is given to the nation, but there is a strong belief that it’s a “weed-smoker’s paradise.” They call the plant “ipdambae,” which means leaf tobacco. You can find it growing in the wild in North Korea, and plenty of people grow it in backyard gardens. Citizens see it as a cheap alternative to cigarettes, because all they need to do is pick a few leaves and smoke it after a long day’s work.
A journalist visiting North Korea named Darmon Richter was able to buy enough weed to fill up an entire grocery bag for just 80 cents. He and his chaperone went to a local restaurant and “Smoked joint after joint” together while they ate. North Koreans consider to be such a non-issue that they seemingly never even bothered to create laws banning it.