6 Proven Facts about North Korea

by Ray Kua
Mansu Hill Grand Monument

Have you ever wondered throughout all the news you hear about North Korea, what is actually true? And which are just plain myths? Due to a lack of first-hand accounts in the “Hermit Kingdom”, there is a thin line drawn between the actual facts in North Korea and the myths.

There’s always another story. There’s more than meets the eye.

W.H Auden

In my previous post in“5 Myths about Life In North Korea” I had highlighted about facts of North Korea that are more myths than truth. That I had actually been caught surprised by my own first-hand account.

That said, as much as there was research debunked ultimately as myths, there were also facts that tie in exactly with what I have read before my travel into North Korea. These proven facts about North Korea that I had witnessed myself, are the very reasons that create an impression of a dangerous state of governance.

I hope through these articles, it could give you a more comprehensive and unbiased view of North Korea. And ultimately help you to make a call between which are actual facts about North Korea, and what are just plain myths exaggerated.

Contents

1. North Korean children are showcased like Robots

Tongbong Cooperative Farm’s Nursery

Children waving to us from a nursery in Tongbong Cooperative Farm, North Korea
North Korean Nursery with children eerily waving

During a visit to the Tongbong Cooperative Farm outside of Pyongyang, we had the freedom to roam around the surroundings. It was there that we saw a nursery with a group of children standing outside the nursery waving to us.

Their teacher was smiling and mumbling Korean to them, while they monotonously waved to us and said “Annyeonghaseyo” (Hello) to us in timely unison. They did not smile, and just carried on their waving action and greeting continuously. They stopped immediately when we left, before continuing again when the tour group behind us arrived.

Eerie and creepy.

Children waving to us from a nursery in Tongbong Cooperative Farm, North Korea
Awaiting their next visitors

It was obvious the whole thing was orchestrated, which again may be common in other nurseries around the world when a visitor comes. But the creepy thing was how they do not seem happy doing so, rather they displayed a forced demeanor which begs the question of what will happen if they do not comply or perform up to expectations?

Yet this was only the icing on the cake for what was to follow.

Mangyongdae’s Children Palace

North Korea children playing music at the Mangyongdae Children's Palace
North Korea children playing music at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace
Music performance at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace
Our North Korean student guide at the entrance of Mangyongdae Children's Palace
Our student guide at the entrance of Mangyongdae Children’s Palace

The Mangyongdae Children’s Palace is the largest palace in North Korea that is dedicated to children’s extra-curricular activities. Frequently cited facts in North Korea says that Mangyongdae Children’s palace is also the facility that we can witness the most talented of North Korean Children.

Too talented I would add.

The skills of these young children, be it in playing musical instruments, dancing, singing, or acting did not disappoint. They were good. Too good may I add, for children who can be as young as 5.

It was like we were watching robots on auto-pilot.

With their robot-like smile that never left their faces, their excellent showmanship, and talent on display were too good to be true. I was not watching in awe, but more in fear. What do these children go through to be able to put up such precise performance at such a young age?

Ballerina practice by young North Korean children at the Mangyongdae Children's Palace
Ballerina practice at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace
Individual ballet performance at the Mangyongdae Children's Palace
Individual ballet performance at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace
The showmanship on display is eerily robotic

To be able to perform at levels akin to the professional artiste, how much of their childhood was sacrificed for it? In fact, most of the tourists in attendance were mumbling in questionable disbelief instead of being impressed by these performances.

Regularly showcased by the North Koreans as the place with the “finest children talent” in the world, it actually holds a more infamous reputation as a robot-churning factory.

Outside the Maeyongdae Children's Palace
Outside the Maeyongdae Children’s Palace
The art of stitching portraits at the Mangyongdae Children's Palace
The art of stitching portraits at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace

At the end of the tour there, we were led to a combined performance that displayed the top talents of all the groups. This was also the time where we witness how coordinated these children can be even in such a large group.

To see these facts about North Korea children performing like robots first-hand, it can be described as being more heartbreaking than being in awe. Deep down, I really hope that they do not undergo the kind of training I think they might be going through.

Mangyongdae Children’s Palace grand performance

2. Their patriotism may be second to none

Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang, North Korea- The background image is formed entirely of cardboard held up by 18000 students and changes with every segment
Arirang Mass Games- The background image is formed entirely of cardboard held up by 18,000 students and changes with every segment
Arirang Mass Game in in the world's largest stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea
Arirang Mass Game-Synchronized performance to perfection

The Arirang Mass Games is hailed as a festival unlike any other. Whether the training is morally right (many devote their entire lives since they were children) is altogether another topic to discuss. Performed in the world’s biggest stadium in May Day stadium at 114,000 capacity, with 100,000 performers, I was looking forward to this once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.

And oh did it live up well to its expectations.

My first entrance into the stadium, I stared in awe at the infamous backdrop of the stadium. It is formed through 18,000 school students flipping pictures all at the same time, combining to provide a large background of the performance.

Compared to visual screens, the hardcopies pictures made for a view that words cannot describe. Combined with the massive stadium and atmosphere of the bustling North Koreans, it was extremely overwhelming. I have been to football games at world-famous stadiums like FC Barcelona, and Real Madrid, but they could not hold a candle to this overwhelming spectacle.

The world's largest stadium in the May Day Stadium, Pyongyang, North Korea, is host to the Arirang Mass Games.
Audience giving a standing ovation for the Arirang Mass Games

Truth to be told, the content presented, for instance, the dance and fireworks were not anything special as such contents are regulars in festivals. And I have seen better ideas for the contents too.

But what was amazing and overwhelming was the ability of the 100000 North Koreans to coordinate their movements to precision. Be it the 80,000 on the ground, or the 18,000 flipping the background image. The display of unity and may I say, precision perfect coordination and timings, among such a large group of performance, was the highlight. It was what the North Koreans say, a display of the human spirit. A display of what they could do as a whole, united together to achieve their goals.

At the end of the performance, the 114,000 audience in capacity rose to give a standing ovation for a good 15 minutes.

114,000 people exiting the world's largest stadium in the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea
114,000 people exiting the stadium after the Arirang Mass Games

In democracy around the world, countries are filled with different political parties, and opinions differ among citizens on various decisions undertaken by the government. Sometimes, rebels may happen, and many times, not everyone is on the same book for a decision. As such, it raises the question in me on where we would be able to unite together in the form of adversity?

Well-known facts point to how North Korea is a military force due to its nuclear weapons. But what I feel makes them even more fearful even with their lack of progression, is their fearsome unity.

Arirang Mass Games

3. They are fiercely protective of their leaders

If you have seen how passionate or emotional North Koreans get on TV when their leaders appear, you are looking at the truth. Even though my sample size was small (only guides and some locals), they all displayed the same level of patriotism towards their leaders.

As mentioned in my post, 5 Myths about Life In North Korea, our guides were more relaxed than what general facts about North Korea are thought to be. Though any mention of their leaders or when we are near their leaders’ monuments, they would become tense.

Respectful posture in front of a North Korean propaganda portrait of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il
Respectful posture is a must while taking photos with the Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’ portraits

I was chided heavily for not having a proper pose while taking photos with the leaders’ portraits. The proper pose would be one of the hands to be straightened and visible, with your legs upright and a formal smile.

We were also warned time and again to ensure photos taken with the leaders’ statues or portraits had to include our full body and the monuments had to be in full view. It was also during these times where our guides got really strict, mentioning how there would be repercussions if we do not show our respect to their leaders.

Any discussion with our guides would ignite a flame of passion in their eyes. You could sense how he points to his facts of North Korea, describing how the country has flourished under the government.

Arch of Triumph in Moranbong Park, Pyongyang, North Korea
NOT a proper posture allowed with the North Korean leaders’ portraits

That said, they do not try to change our opinions. Instead, they accept that we cannot understand their patriotism as we did not undergo the hardships of the Japanese war and American isolation policies. The message they want to get across is that facts in North Korea have been portrayed falsely in the international community. That the truth is they are absolutely grateful and happy under the Kim Dynasty.

Judging by their fire of speech, you would not want to disagree with them when you are there!

4. They are genuinely happy and satisfied with their lives

The Pyongyang Skyline taken from  Ryugyong Hotel
The Pyongyang Skyline
The Pyongyang Skyline
The Pyongyang Skyline

It was shared with us that western films like Titanic, James Bond, was well known to North Koreans. They are actually allowed to be watched and can be purchased through discs. What is forbidden is South Korean music and TV shows, which our North Korean guides also know about. The even amusingly discussed facts like “North Korea Ladies are prettier, but South Korean guys are more handsome”.

They also do know about people traveling freely around the world, to places like Disneyland, nice beaches, and beautiful skyscrapers. Technology akin to console games and internet connection is also common knowledge in North Korea.

Communist-style apartments in Pyongyang, North Korea
A typical morning in Pyongyang

Knowing and wanting are two different issues. They shared with us that even though it is well-known facts in North Korea that they do have such entertainment, they do not find a need for them.

This is where things got pretty strange.

Jung and Jin displayed no anger in being deprived of this leisure and entertainment. Rather, they feel confused over why the rest of the world needs these pleasures to be happy.

Their perception of happiness is simply being able to spend time with your loved ones while having a nice house and food on your table. Of course, being able to feast on meat regularly and having a bigger house is something everyone would like to have. That is why strive hard to do better at their jobs and rise through the ranks.

They know that such entertainment comes at a cost which is not cheap. And that the rest of the world works doubly hard at their jobs to be able to afford more of such entertainment luxury. Yet they feel these pursuits devoid people of their work-life balance.

North Koreans playing chess at a park
Happiness is simple in North Korea

They questioned whether such pursuit was necessary, as it would ultimately compromise people of the truly important things in life: time with their loved ones. This is precisely why they are thankful for their leaders, to be able to provide everyone with proper work-life balance.

Of course, many a time, people won’t know what they are missing out until they have really experienced certain experiences before. Yet the innocence of these North Koreans do strike a chord and left me thinking throughout the nights there. Have we as a whole, become too materialistic in our pursuits of these “goals”?

The endless grind and hustle that many of us face in our daily lives to afford better technology, travel more and luxury items. Do they actually lead to us having a “better life”? But are we ever contented like the North Koreans? Does the sacrifice of our daily energy and time with our loved ones merit the cause?

5. Certain areas are off-limits, especially shops and apartments

As mentioned in the “5 Myths about Life In North Korea” post, I was able to roam quite freely in areas the guides bought us to. Many a time, I had even ventured off out of their sight. This was proven to not be completely true in a small town tour towards the end of the trip.

The town was just a short stopover from our long tour to the DMZ. There were many small shophouses and restaurants at ground level that we could look into. Come to think of it then, the areas we were brought to before this town, and allowed to roam at, had no such type of shops.

It was like a typical popular street commonplace in Asian cities. Think Asakusa in Japan, Ximending in Taiwan, or Myeongdong in Seoul. Yet the guides did not allow us to wander into these shops, rather they walked rather fast to avoid being in the area for too long.

Grocery stall in Pyongyang, North Korea
Grocery stalls in Pyongyang was mostly full
Empty shop and shelves in a shop outside Pyongyang
While grocery shops outside Pyongyang are quite empty

I had needed to use the washroom urgently. Skipping to my guides, I had asked them nonchalantly whether I would use a toilet. They told me it was going to be 10 minutes’ walk away. I pointed to a shop right next to us then and asked if we could just use any nearby ones as I was really urgent and needed to go any moment. This was when they looked at each other, mumbled some Korean to each other with a frown, avoided my suggestion, and prompted us to walk faster to get to the washroom.

I mean well, in other countries, using a toilet at a shop is also not very nice if you are not patronizing there. But the guides would at least try to look around for one then make me 10 minutes when I was already very urgent.

This tied in with facts about North Korea I had read before, that many shops are actually not fully filled. Rather a lot of shops are actually lacking basic necessities and shops with empty shelves were commonplace. Looking from the outside, these shophouses do seem legitimate. Yet a totally free city would be one where we could enter any random shop if we want to.

North Korean Book Store
North Korean Book Store

6. Signs of poverty are easily spotted-especially outside Pyongyang

Walking long distances is common in North Korea
Walking long distances is common outside Pyongyang city
Locals attempting to walk through a city border outside of Pyongyang, North Korea
Paying road tax as the locals attempt to walk through a city border

We spent a good amount of time travelling outside Pyongyang, which was done via bus transport. It was during the time on the bus that you could easily spot signs of poverty that match facts about North Korea.

  • Roads are badly managed. You are literally on a roller coaster bumping up and down throughout the bus journey. One of the older folks on the tour even had a resulting neck sprain from a sudden bump. This would last for hours.
  • Cars are rarely seen outside Pyongyang: In fact, most people walk or cycle everywhere. One could even see people walking in pitch black, between city highways in the middle of the night.
  • I was able to spot long ques at a food rationing stall, hidden deep behind the main road we were traveling on.
  • Coal-powered and wood-burning trucks were the norms in transporting heavy materials, which a fellow author on Young Pioneer Tours was also able to spot.
  • The city is pitch black in the evening. The only lights switched on are those in government buildings, our hotel, and portraits of the leaders.
Walking between city to city is common for North Koreans

Conclusion

North Korean leaders’ portraits are everywhere

After two posts about what is true and what is not, I’ve come to the conclusion that the North Korean enigma leaves much to be discovered. An unknown entity in today’s info-connected world, their way of life may be one of the few societal histories left.

There are always two sides to every story

Endless questions pop up in my head through the North Korean experience as mentioned, for example-

  • Is the North Korean simple way of life truly more “happy” than how we are constantly pursuing materialistic goals while sacrificing time with our loved ones?
  • The word detests the way the North Korean Leaders unite the citizens, but the truth is, was it efficient? Toe to toe, how many countries would be confident pitting against the unity of the North Koreans in adversity?
  • Is all the training in a bid to achieve robot-like precision in performances justified? Countries all over the world do it to varying extents too, but the North Koreans can say they do their best in everything they put their hearts to.

You could also check out Becki Enright’s piece on North Korea, a more exhaustive read where she also mentioned how her perceptions and reality collided from her trip.

As I ponder over these questions before my next trip to the “Hermit Kingdom”, I would love to hear your opinions and views. Do comment on your side of the story!

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