North Koreans are regarded as very tough, resilient, enduring and resourceful. The German human right activist Nobert Vollertsen told the Los Angeles Times, “When forced to do so, they will move a mountain overnight, mobilizing a million people.” An aid told the same paper, “It’s an incredibly resilient society, if you look at the stress of the food shortages and consider that people are still surviving and still getting up and going to work.” [Source: Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2000

North Korean children sing "We have nothing to envy in the world". One aid worker told AFP, "These are very proud people, a very stoic people and they are used to hardship, but is amazing to us how relatively well they have done in the circumstances." South Korea filmmaker Shin Sang Ok, who spent eight years in North Korea, said, “The North Korean were all talented and good people. Just two hundred or so were evil, and they were in charge.” Some visitors to North Korea have said that North Koreans talk more openly about sex and have more dirty jokes than South Koreans, partly they are less afraid to talk about sex than the government.

Yannis Kontos wrote in National Geographic, “I wasn’t surprised by the nation’s story line — the revolutionary passion, the emphasis on ethnic purity, the near deification of the “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung and the reverence for his son, the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il. But I didn’t expect North Koreans to be so happy. They waved at me. They smiled. They seemed unfazed — or unaware of —how the world perceived their country. Sure, maybe that’s part of the performance, but it’s tough to tell. I couldn’t ask provocative questions, and most people were afraid to talk. While I managed too capture some hidden corners of this country, it was the eerie silence that really opened my eyes.” [Source: Yannis Kontos, National Geographic, June 2008]

North Koreans are afraid to say anything bad about the state. When they are around soldiers, officials, police and foreigners they are often very nervous they might say something wrong so they stick carefully to the party line and only say things they have been scripted to say.

See Society

Are North Koreans Brainwashed and Crazy?

Journalist Bradley K. Martin wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Outsiders have debated the sanity and rationality of rank-and-file North Koreans since it became apparent the father-son team of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il had brainwashed pretty much the entire population. [Source: Bradley K. Martin, Los Angeles Times, February 17, 2005]

“During my first visit to North Korea, in 1979, people robotically spouted memorized slogans in response to my questions. Many also showed the gentleness that Americans were accustomed to seeing displayed by members of true-believer groups. I couldn't help finding parallels to the Rev. Jim Jones' Peoples Temple cult, nearly 1,000 of whose members committed mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978.

“In March 1993, during the first nuclear weapons crisis, Kim Jong Il placed the country on a "semi-war" footing and held a rally in Pyongyang. Soldiers had shaved their heads to prepare for war. Sobbing, they sang: "Even though the world is overturned 100 times, still the people believe in Marshal Kim Jong Il."

“One of those soldiers defected later to South Korea. He said North Koreans all believed that if war broke out with the United States and South Korea, "everyone would die - North and South." Nevertheless, he said - repeating what I was hearing from other defectors - the people actively wanted to go to war and get it over with. They felt they had nothing to lose. "It's either die of starvation or die in war."

“Popular hysteria peaked during the 1990s and probably has diminished somewhat. North Koreans who did not die as a result of food shortages focused their attentions on newfound survival strategies, such as trading and entrepreneurship. Still, there has been no letup in the incessant indoctrination that teaches people to blame their problems not on their rulers but on the U.S., Japan and South Korea.

“To the extent that the world's most effective propaganda continues to produce fanatical obedience among young people, the North Korean population — especially the military, more than 1 million strong - remains a cocked weapon. If the people ever respond to an order from on high and march off to fight to their deaths, the result would probably be among the bloodiest wars in history.”

Are North Koreans Happy, Passive and Depressed?

There is an element of passivity to North Koreans. Many North Koreans have a blank, emotionless expression. They seem to lack energy and curiosity, or at least that was the case when hunger was more of an issue in the late 1990s and early 2000s. One aid worker told the Los Angeles Times at that time, “We cannot understand why [the people] are not rebelling.” Western observers feel that North Koreans truly loved Kim Il Sung but had doubts about Kim Jong Il but became weary from the famine, shortages and hardships of everyday life and seem concerned most with day to day survival. [Source: Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2000]

Vollertsen told the Los Angeles Times, “People are depressed because they have no idea, because they’s no future. They are sleeping whenever the choose and the many deaths are from drinking and smoking and cancer of the liver...It’s sort of suicide, committed because of their depressing lives.” When one North Korea minder was asked if people were depressed, he told the Los Angeles Times, “Maybe because of hunger and starvation, but we have a saying that although you are hungry or starved, when you sing a song you can rise up.”

When asked if North Koreans are happy, Jonathan Kaiman, who had just visitors North Korea, wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “This is a tough one. Are people genuinely happy in the U.S.? Though I can’t imagine that North Koreans are universally happy with their lot, they absolutely have the capacity for genuine happiness. I saw countless Pyongyang residents enjoying moments that any American would find familiar — enjoying a day out in the park, rowing on the Taedong River, eating ice cream, snapping family photos. You can’t fake that. Are they filled with joy every time they think about their leaders? Probably not. But that doesn’t make them joyless. Take a look at this family enjoying an afternoon at the zoo. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2017]

Laibach’s Impressions of North Korea

In August 2015, Slovenian avant-garde, industrial rock band Laibach became the first Western rock band to perform in North Korea, playing in front of about 2,000 people in two shows in Pyongyang. Kory Grow wrote in Rolling Stone: “The band, which formed in 1980 in what was then the communist country Yugoslavia and is now Slovenia, performed a short set that was mostly composed of tunes from The Sound of Music and other covers, as well as some Laibach originals at the city’s Ponghwa Theatre and an acoustic set at the Kum Song music school. The shows, dubbed the Liberation Day Tour, marked the 70th anniversary of Korea's independence from Japan after World War II. [Source: Kory Grow, Rolling Stone, August 25, 2015]

Rolling Stone asked Laibach’s leader Ivo Saliger what the band liked and disliked North Korea. Speaking for the band he said: ““Our first impression of the country was, "This is just like we expected... but it is somehow completely different." A few days later, we were thinking about an option to be able to "live and stay there to reach the higher wisdom in ourselves." The country may be poor and isolated, with a heavily oppressive political system, but the people are fantastic and they seem to possess the precious wisdom that we don't.” [Source: Kory Grow, Rolling Stone, August 25, 2015]

“The general people of Korea are definitely the brightest jewel in the country. We couldn't find any cynicism, sarcasm, irony, vulgarity and other "Western characteristics" in their eyes, on their faces and in their behavior. It was nothing but sincere modesty, kindness, proudness and respect. There was no military parade for the 70th Anniversary of Freedom, only people dancing gracefully instead everywhere on the streets and parks of Pyongyang.

“Traffic policewomen are big fun to observe. They perform the most intriguing biomechanical, almost robotic ritual in the middle of the crossroads, probably all day long.” What we didn't like is the fact that we were not allowed to move around freely, but in a country that is almost hermetically isolated from the outside world and thus from all the media pollution, foreigners are toxic subjects that could potentially spreading their ideological disease to the inhabitants of this communist Utopia, the collective "Truman show."

“North Koreans laugh, smile and joke a lot and people across the country are incredibly well and "dignifying" dressed. They learn foreign languages; children begin to learn English at the age of seven. Koreans are keen to open up to the outside world, but they want to do it slowly, on their own terms, and in a very different way than the Chinese.”

What would surprise people about North Korea? “They produce excellent beer. It is actually considered a soft drink and microbreweries there are popular. You can also drink beer freely from an open container outside on the street and smoke inside hotels and bars without a risk of prison. Pyongyang, with the rest of the country, is also probably the safest place in the world to walk around — if they let you walk around, of course. And for those who are into cannabis, North Korea is a very liberal place, where possession of cannabis is in fact essentially legal.”

Sobak Ham

B.R. Myers wrote in the New York Times: Kim Il Sung “is not a Stalinist in any relevant sense, and his party's "juche" ideology has nothing in common with the Soviet-style communism his father espoused during the Korean War. Granted, the red-themed birthday parades may look familiar, but the cult of the two Kims is no socialist personality cult. Stalin and Mao were revered for their perfect grasp of dialectical materialism, an omnipotent science that made them omnipotent too. Kim Jong Il and his late father, Kim Il Sung, are revered, like the monarchs they more closely resemble, for their perfect embodiment of national virtues. [Source: B.R. Myers, New York Times, May 19, 2003. Myers is an American professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea, whose expertise is North Korean propaganda]

“Chief among these virtues is "sobak ham," a hard-to-translate Korean term that corresponds closely to the word spontaneity in its Marxist-Leninist sense. The Soviets considered the spontaneity of the common people, especially their tendency to violence, to be a dangerous force unless tempered with political consciousness. In North Korea, the people's spontaneity is seen as one of the country's greatest strengths.

“North Korean novels and movies often show the hero casting off the restraints of his book learning in a fit of wild, sometimes suicidal rage against the Japanese or American enemy. This political culture induces officials to tolerate a high level of violence in daily life; North Korean refugees attest that fistfights are the accepted way for men and women to settle even minor differences. While communism was always an internationalist movement, juche (literally, self-reliance) sees the world in ethnic terms. North Korean propaganda makes no distinction between American capitalists and American workers; the entire "Yankee" race is presented as inherently evil, degenerate and ugly. Dictionaries and textbooks suggest that Americans be described with bestial attributes ("snout" for nose, for example).

“The central villain of Han Sorya's novella "Jackals" (1951), the country's most enduring work of fiction, tells of an American child who beats a Korean boy so brutally that he ends up in a hospital — where he is murdered by the American's missionary parents. Since the South Korean government began pursuing its policy of rapprochement, the North's ethnocentric world view has become even more stark; the United States is now presented as being exclusively responsible for all tensions on the peninsula. This propaganda appears to be effective even among North Koreans opposed to the rule of Kim Jong Il. When I visited a resettlement center for refugees near Seoul last year, many of those to whom I was introduced as an American recoiled in terror or glared at me in hatred.”

Conversation About God with a North Korean Minder

Describing part of a conversation with his guide and minder during a tour of North Korea, Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: ““Do you believe in God?” my minder suddenly asked me as we sat on the bus. It was a surprising question — North Korea is an officially secular state, where religion is severely restricted. “Not really,” I replied. “Do you?” He paused, and smiled. “I believe in Juche revolutionary ideology,” he said, referring to Kim Il Sung’s ideology of self-reliance. I laughed, and he laughed too. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, April 19, 2017]

“We chatted about ourselves — our jobs, our families, our friends and relationships. He agreed to interpret several interviews with ordinary Pyongyang residents. I asked them about the U.S.-North Korea relationship, and they responded with state-sanctioned lines about “U.S. imperialist aggression” or “the benevolence of the respected Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.”

“Yet other questions elicited incoherent answers or blank stares. Nobody could explain what they did for fun. A woman expressed her hope to someday visit Mt. Paektu, North Korea’s holy mountain. A man said that he was an architect. I could find no better way to ask the question, so I changed the subject.”

Mocking the North Korean Accent While Arresting Those Who Use a Southern One

Jason Strother wrote in “Almost every language comes with an accent its speakers love to mock, and Korean is no exception. South Koreans enjoy making fun of the North Korean dialect, which sounds quaint or old-fashioned to Southerners. Comedy shows parody the North’s style of pronunciation and make fun of North Korean words that went out of style in the South years ago. And all that spells trouble for North Korean defectors. “I had a very strong North Korean accent," says 28-year old Lee Song-ju, who defected to South Korea in 2002. “People just kept asking me about my hometown, my background. So whenever I was asked by them, I had to lie.” [Source: Jason Strother,, May 19, 2015]

Similar issues are not treated with the same sense of joviality in the north. Radio Free Asia reported: “North Korea has stepped up a campaign to eliminate the influence of South Korean pop culture, threatening stern punishments as a senior official revealed that some 70 percent of the country’s 25 million people actively watch TV shows and movies from the South, sources in the North told RFA. Pyongyang’s latest hard line against the soft power of Seoul has taken the form of video lectures by officials showing people being punished for mimicking popular South Korean written and spoken expressions, a source who watched a lecture told RFA’s Korean Service. [Source: Radio Free Asia, July 21, 2020]

“According to the speaker in the video, 70 percent of residents nationwide are watching South Korean movies and dramas,” said a resident of Chongjin, the capital of North Hamgyong province, where the videos were shown at all institutions on July 3 and 4. “The speaker said with alarm that our national culture is fading away,” said the resident, who requested anonymity for security reasons. It was not clear how the statistics were derived. “In the video, an official from the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] discussed the effort to eliminate South Korean words, and examples of how those using them were punished,” the source said.

The video lectures had footage of people being arrested and interrogated by the police for speaking or writing in the South Korean style. “Dozens of men and women had their heads shaved and they were shackled as investigators interrogated them,” the source said. Beyond regional dialects, aspects of the languages of North and South have diverged during their seven decades of separation. North Korea has tried to elevate the status of the Pyongyang dialect, but widespread consumption of South Korean cinema and soap operas has made the Seoul sound popular among the young.

“Authorities again strongly ordered Pyongyang and other urban areas across the country to severely punish those who imitate South Korean language,” the official, who declined to be named, told RFA. The source said the order came on the heels of a crackdown within the capital, lasting from mid-May to early July. “They found that surprisingly many teenagers were imitating South Korean speaking styles and expressions,” the official said.“In May, a total of 70 young people were arrested after the two-month crackdown by the Pyongyang police, which came as the Highest Dignity issued an order to ‘strongly wage a struggle against a culture of unusual thought’,” the official said, using an honorific term to refer to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“The arrested youth are suspected of failing to protect their identities and ethnicities by imitating and disseminating South Korean words and pronunciation,” said the official. The official said that their arrests and interrogations were filmed, so they could be used in the video that eventually was shown in the mandatory lectures. “From some time ago in Pyongyang, the trend of watching South Korean movies and dramas and imitating South Korean words and writings took hold among young people, but it wasn’t much of a problem until now, as [police] had taken bribes when catching them in the act,” said the official.

North Korean Makes Fun of North Koreans in the South

Anna Fifield wrote in the Washington Post: “Choi Seong-guk is creating "webtoons" - cartoon strips made to be read online - to educate South Koreans about the difficulties that defectors from North Korea go through when they try to settle into life in the South. His online comic strip - a "webtoon," as they're known in the most wired country on the planet - has become enormously popular in the four months since the defector began publishing it on Naver, South Korea's answer to Google. Called Rodong Simmun - a pun on the North's state-run Rodong Sinmun, or "Workers' Newspaper," with "simmun" meaning "investigation" - it describes the struggles that North Korean defectors go through to adjust to life in the fast-paced South. [Source: Anna Fifield, Washington Post , August 28, 2016]

“More than 30,000 people who have escaped from North Korea are living in the South, the vast majority of them from the areas bordering China that are considered the boonies even by North Korean standards. In the capitalist cut-and-thrust of the South, many find themselves mocked for their funny accents or for not knowing about things that are commonplace in Southern life, such as credit cards and computers. Through his webtoon, Choi deftly shows how someone from the relative Dark Ages of the northern half of the peninsula deals with modern conveniences such as smartphone apps and indoor plumbing. "I'm describing North Korea from a capitalist's perspective," said Choi, 36, in his office at a publishing house where he works. "I use South Korean humor to talk about the life of North Korean defectors. And I think people find that funny."

Other cartoons show North Koreans being debriefed as they arrive in the South - and mistaking their interrogators for the security services of the North, wondering whether they're going to be tortured. (They're not. They're going to be given housing and about US$20,000 in cash to help them settle here.) Some cartoons hit upon the personality cult that revolves around the ruling Kim family, the overarching totalitarianism. One shows people endlessly cleaning the dirt roads in their village in case leader Kim Jong Un comes through. "When you get tired, just think of the Marshal," it says.

“South Koreans seem to find Choi's cartoon project funny. Choi's webtoon is now among the "challengers" to the top ranks of cartoon strips on Naver, putting him close to being able to earn money for his art. "It's sad and funny at the same time that North Koreans have to repent for trying to survive because they can't rely on their leader," wrote Amying, another reader. "You have shown the naked truth about North Korea." Asked why his webtoons were popular, Choi answered: "Imagine this. Say there was a king from the Chosun dynasty and he was on a smartphone. Wouldn't that be so funny?" (The Chosun dynasty lasted from 1392 to 1897.) "My duty is to show you can come from a socialist state and be a success in a capitalist society," Choi said, adding that he bases his stories on real North Koreans - like the couple who ended up in a labor camp on their wedding day.

But he tries to keep it light, or at least lightish. There is no torture or starvation in these cartoons. "That would be too heavy," Choi said. "If you put too much focus on human rights, people will be turned off. And some of the things that happen in North Korea are so absurd, people wouldn't believe it." Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, a nongovernmental organization that helps defectors, said that the webtoon as a form is novel and easily consumable, mixing serious content with entertainment. "I think it's very smart for him to focus on things like the experience of going through intelligence debriefings from a North Korean perspective," he said. "This is just stuff that it's interesting for South Koreans to learn about." The South Korean language is full of English loanwords that are completely foreign to North Koreans, from "macchiato" to "chatting." Likewise, the North Korean language remains stuck in 1950.”

North Koreans Lectures on Correct Behavior

Lectures smuggled out of North Korea in the mid 2000s give some insight into the behavior that the country’s regime expected its people to conform to and the outside influences it was trying to keep out. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Watching foreign movies clouds the mental and ideological health of the people. Foreign hairstyles and clothing are signs of the "utterly rotten bourgeois lifestyle." Shaking hands should be avoided in favor of bowing, as it is more hygienic and a part of the national culture. It might sound like a cross between Miss Manners and a political screed, but this is the advice recently crafted by North Korea's ruling Workers' Party for indoctrination lectures at factories, collective farms and other workplaces. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2005]

“For decades, North Koreans have been forced to attend such sessions to reinforce the national illusion that they are lucky to live under the wise leadership of first Kim Il Sung, the nation's founder, and now his son, Kim Jong Il, who inherited power after his father's death in 1994. More than 100 pages of written lectures smuggled out of North Korea this year reveal that the leadership is in a state of near-hysteria about outside influences seeping across the nation's once hermetically sealed borders. The spread of "unusual lifestyles," the lectures warn listeners, could render them "incapable of following revolutionary thoughts and sacrificing their lives" for Kim.

All of the lectures are dated April 2005, the year Juche 94 in North Korea's calendar, which begins with the birth of Kim Il Sung. The contents largely echo the propaganda of North Korea's official media, which also rail against cultural infiltration. But because the lectures were intended for domestic consumption, the language is less guarded. For example, they use the term nom, which translates roughly as "bastard," to refer to Americans.

“The lectures are apparently intended for different audiences — two are for government officials and another is for teens. Other lectures are part of a party campaign called the Border Residents Political Project, apparently focused on the nation's jagged, 800-mile frontier with China.

Foreign Influences on North Koreans

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “A 19-year-old North Korean from the border city of Musan said she and a friend used to take a boombox to a riverbank along the border, where they could play illegal cassettes of South Korean pop music."People my age don't listen to that Kim Il Sung ideology music anymore," said the teen, who defected from North Korea three years ago with her family and is living in Seoul under the name Choi Hwa. Implying that police took bribes to look the other way, she added: "The police will close their eyes because they can't survive on their salary." [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2005]

“Tradition is the weapon against such influences, the lectures say. One, titled "How to Crush the Schemes of the Enemies Who Disseminate Unusual Lifestyles," tells citizens that "we must eradicate the erroneous way of thinking that eating foreign foods enhances your living standards." In other tips, women are urged to wear modest skirts and blouses or the traditional loose-fitting hanbok. Men and women are advised to pay particular attention to their hair.

“The advice parallels a 2004 campaign on the North Korean Central Broadcasting Network warning men not to let their hair grow longer than 2 inches, although older men were permitted an extra four-fifths of an inch for comb-overs. The TV station warned that collar-length hair on men depleted the brain of oxygen and did not conform to "socialist style." The warnings of the party ideologues against foreign culture, though, have an element of "Do as I say, not as I do."

“In karaoke bars patronized by the ruling echelon in the North Korean capital, there is a wide, if dated, selection of Western rock 'n' roll. Foreigners who recently visited the bar at the Potongan Hotel in Pyongyang were surprised to hear, among other offerings, "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" by Tears for Fears and the Beatles' "Back in the USSR."

“The documents also underscore the extent to which anti-Americanism gives meaning to the country and its people. More than 50 years after the end of the Korean War, the United States is blamed for all of North Korea's woes, from food shortages to the infiltration of foreign culture. "The bastards' indecent methods are clouding the mental and ideological health of the people," warns one lecture. "If we cannot stop them in time, we will be in the same position as the Iraqis." The lecturers gripe in particular about Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-funded station that frequently broadcasts stories in Korean that are critical of Kim Jong Il's regime. But there is no evidence that the United States is otherwise directly involved in disseminating foreign culture in North Korea. Rather, it seems to be the overpowering tide of globalization that is puncturing the seal around the country.

What’s Behind the North Korean Lectures

Brian Myers, an expert in North Korean propaganda at South Korea's Injae University, told the Los Angeles Times he detected an air of desperation in the material. "This is a regime which for half a century claimed to have 100 percent support of its people. Now they are admitting that its people are succumbing to money madness and the desire for foreign things. Not just a few people but enough that it is a social phenomenon," Myers said. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2005]

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: North Korea takes extraordinary measures to insulate its citizens from knowledge of the outside world. Radios and TVs are preset to government stations; foreign newspapers, magazines, books, films and music are banned. But in the last several years, trade between North Korea and China has surged, much of it not approved by North Korea's leaders. Along with food and consumer goods, traders smuggle in DVDs, tapes, books and Bibles, radios and mobile phones. Once considered taboo, T-shirts with English lettering are pouring into North Korean markets from Chinese garment factories.

“The regime fears not only critical material but depictions of other nations that would make North Koreans realize how poor they are in comparison. "The enemies use these videos and specially made materials to beautify the world of imperialism ... and to [spread] a fantasy of the free world," one lecture says. North Koreans are urged to steel themselves against such corrupting influences by eating traditional foods, wearing traditional clothing and keeping their hair tidy.

“Photocopies of six lectures were given to the Los Angeles Times by Rescue the North Korean People, a human rights group based in Osaka, Japan. "It shows that the North Koreans cannot protect their borders. They cannot keep foreign material out, so all they can do is try to educate their people to resist," said Lee Young Hwa, the head of the group. Lee said he obtained the lectures from a disgruntled Workers' Party member. Because the party keeps close tabs on such material and there are no public photocopy facilities in North Korea, the papers were smuggled to China, copied and returned before their absence could be detected, Lee said.

Others who have examined the documents say they are consistent in typeface and style with other Workers' Party documents smuggled out of North Korea. It is notable, Myers said, that the lectures don't urge people to report wrongdoers to police. "This is a sign that the country is not as repressive as it used to be," he said. "It is evident that even people in the party realize it is a losing battle to try to stem the influence of foreign culture."

People from Chongjin

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The regime was probably less beloved in Chongjin than elsewhere in North Korea. Food had run out in its province, North Hamgyong, earlier than in other areas, and starvation rates were among the highest in the nation. Chongjin's people are reputed to be the most independent-minded in North Korea. One famous report of unrest centers on the city. In 1995, senior officers from the 6th army corps in Chongjin were executed for disloyalty and the entire unit, estimated at 40,000 men, was disbanded. It is still unclear whether the incident was an attempted uprising or a corruption case. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 4, 2005]

Chongjin is known for its vicious gang wars, and it was sometimes difficult to distinguish political unrest from ordinary crime. There were increasing incidents of theft and insubordination. At factories, desperate workers dismantled machinery or stripped away copper wiring to sell for food. Public executions by firing squad were held outside Sunam market and on the lawn of the youth park, once a popular lover's lane. In a village called Ihyon-ri on the outskirts of Chongjin, a gang suspected of anti-government activities killed a national security agent who had tried to infiltrate the group, former kindergarten teacher Seo Kyong Hui said. "This guy was from my village. He had been sent to inform on a group that was engaged in suspicious activities," she said. "They caught him and stoned him to death."

“Work crews went out early in the morning to wash away any anti-regime graffiti painted overnight, according to human rights groups, but most people were too scared to express their discontent. Badmouthing the leadership is still considered blasphemy. To discourage anti-regime activity, North Korea punishes "political crimes" by banishing entire families to remote areas or labor camps. "If you have one life to live, you would gladly give it to overthrow this government," said Seo, the teacher. "But you are not the only one getting punished. Your family will go through hell."

Rules Foreign Tourists are Expected to Follow in North Korea

Foreigners are not allowed to use mobile phones in North Korea and can only take photographs and videos when there guides say it is okay. No Bibles, no pornography nor anything than be construed as having a North-Korean slant. Even the slightest joke about the omnipresent images and statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il can put in hot water.

South Koreans visiting North Korea in the 1990s were told they had to abide by the following rules: 1) no drinking on North Korean soil; 2) no singing loud enough to be heard outside the tour bus; 3) and no cameras or camcorders with powerful lenses. Tourist could be fined for engaging in non-tourists talk with North Korean guides (US$92), photographing North Koreans (US$92), littering (US$457), and causing a forest fire (US$4,587). South Korean visitors were repeatedly told they were not doing a very good job following the rules

Other rules: 1) no cellular telephones, binoculars, television or cameras with fish-eye or long zoom lenses; 2) no sound radios loud enough to be heard outside of the bus: 3) all windows have to be curtained; 4) no non-Koreans on the tour; 5) no critical remarks about North Korea or the North Korean government.

Don't do anything that might be construed as an insult to Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong-un or the North Korean government. This means throwing away newspapers with the leaders photograph on them, sitting on a Kim Il Sung statue or even folding something with a picture of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, or Kim Jong-un. One of the duties of tour guides is to give fines of US$10 to tourists that irreverently point at monuments to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

It is also wise to assume that your hotel room is bugged. Don't do anything that might be construed as an 'immoral act" with a North Korean of the opposite sex or give out gifts (the acceptance of a foreign postcard or coinage could get a North Korean in big trouble). Journalist in North Korea have been required to get their haircuts when their hair started to touch their ears. Guides often prevented photographers from snapping pictures.

Foreign Tourists Who Broke the Rules in North Korea

The crime committed in 2016 by Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia commerce student who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in gulag and died after his experience in North Korea, was the theft of a political propaganda poster from his hotel in Pyongyang. A South Korean tourist was hot and killed at Mount Kumgang in 2008 after she failed to stop when her guides told her do so and she stepped into a military zone.

In 1999, a 36-year-old South Korean tourist, visiting Kumgang mountain, was detained for five days by North Korean authorities after she told her North Korea tour guide that defectors from the North were living well in South Korea, selling noodles and working as comedians. This was apparently viewed as encouragement to defect.

While she was being detained her ship, with 560 people on board, was not allowed to leave North Korea, and another ship, with 524 people, was not allowed to enter North Korea. Meetings of high-level South Korean government officials were held.

The woman was released after paying a fine of US$100 and writing a self-criticism. A couple of days and the tours resumed. The incident raised some doubts as to whether the tours would continue and led to the imposition of strict rules governing the behavior or tourists, particularly South Korean tourist, while they were in North Korea.

Minders and Guides in North Korea

Visitors are often watched by minders or guides, who watch everything that the visitors do and keep them from wandering around on their own, visiting people's houses and talking to North Koreans Visitors have said that they are even accompanied when they go jogging.

Song Soon-jong, an influential North Korean resident in Japan told Newsweek, "I was watched constantly. I woke up at 5 one morning when I was visiting my relatives. There was already some one sitting by my bed and watching. I asked him where in the world he had slept. He said he was in the next room. I learned later that the authorities had ordered the family next door to move out in order to keep an eye on me. Watchful eyes are everywhere."

While visiting ancient tombs outside of Pyongyang, Sheila Melvin wrote in the New York Times that her guide shouted at her, "You must walk faster! There are many things to see in Korea and you have very little time! So, you must walk fast. In fact, you must RUN!"

Ivan Watson of CNN wrote that during his tour of North Korea: “The authorities made no pretense of allowing us to film freely. The elder of the two government guides routinely instructed us to stop taking pictures. At one point, when I asked why I couldn't shoot photos of pedestrians from the window of our moving bus, our senior minder told me: "We don't want journalists spreading vicious propaganda about our country." "When you search on the internet, it is full of photos of North Koreans wearing rags," our senior minder explained, revealing that he was one of the elite few allowed access to what was said about North Korea in the outside world. [Source: Ivan Watson, CNN, August 1, 2012]

Experiences by Foreign Journalists in North Korea

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Our minders constantly hovered over us, openly surveilling our cameras and notebooks. We had no recourse — even our minders had minders. They’d taken our passports on arrival. If they caught us photographing something forbidden — an off-duty soldier, a particularly revered political portrait — they didn’t hesitate to forcibly delete our photos. Everything raised questions. Who decided our itinerary, and why didn’t our minders ever seem to know it until the last minute? Why were we allowed to photograph some portraits of the Kims, but not others? What was the average salary in Pyongyang? The minders didn’t know, or wouldn’t tell us. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, April 19, 2017]

Ashley Cowburn wrote in The Independent:“We were told constantly that the smallest thing was considered a hostile attack: I bought lots of magazines and books there and we were told not to fold them in a way that creased Kim Jong-un’s face. They said that would be an attack on their country. [Source: Ashley Cowburn. The Independent, January 23, 2016]

The stern rules begin on the flight to Pyongyang. Anne Penketh wrote in The Independent: "You must not fold the Great Leader's face." The stewardess was not joking when she sternly addressed the passenger on the Air Koryo flight out of Pyongyang, as he creased a special issue of a magazine devoted to the achievements of the late leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, to place it in his bag. A British diplomat on the same Soviet-era Ilyushin-62 received the same treatment when he asked the stewardess to leave his drink on the magazine, while he read a newspaper. She waited until he had cleared the tray so that the Great Leader on the cover would not be sullied. In North Korea, Kim Il Sung is no laughing matter. The former leader, who died in 1994, is not just the object of a personality cult, he has been elevated to the status of god in a state religion [Source: Anne Penketh, The Independent, September 17, 2004]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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