Some light Friday reading for you – a compilation of ten interesting trivia points about North Korea. While you may well be familiar with some items on this list, some may come as a surprise.
If you think we’ve missed any, add them to the list through the comments section!
1. Plastic surgery has become more popular in North Korea, and is not limited to the country’s leadership, such as reportedly, current supreme leader Kim Jong Un.
In 2010, Amnesty International published a report on health care in North Korea entitled, “The Crumbling State of Health Care in North Korea.” It described health facilities as rundown with no heat, frequent power outages, and lacking basic medicines and equipment.
While most North Koreans lack to any, much less hygienic healthcare, other North Koreans indulge in plastic surgery. For instance, in 2006, more than 60% of young and single women in Shinuiju, a city on the North Korea-People’s Republic of China (PRC), admitted to having undergone plastic surgery.
Apparently, the North Korean government does not crackdown on plastic surgery, usually double-eyelid and tattooed eyebrow procedures, in Pyongyang, Chongjin, and Shinuiju hospitals. At least one North Korean defector described non-licensed operators, rather than doctors, increasingly performing plastic surgery since 2004.
In 2007, there were also reports that breast augmentation surgeries had become more common among upper-class North Korean women.
The North Korean government also encourages plastic surgery among its select female representatives abroad. In 2011, a source from Pyongyang claimed that since the 2000s, all North Korean waitresses working overseas underwent plastic surgery as a result of Kim Jong-il’s “instructions.”
2. “Self-reliant” North Korea has a business school sponsored by Switzerland.
The Pyongyang Business School, established in 2004, by Swiss businessperson and its former director Felix Abt, came about as a result of discussions by the North Korean government and the Swiss Development Corporation. Both sides recognized the need for more North Koreans to receive further education in business and administrative management to increase the economic competitiveness of North Korea.
In the past, lectures at Pyongyang Business School have focused, for instance, on marketing, market structures and trends in Asia and Europe, legal issues in international business, and management issues.
3. North Korea has at least 1 million registered cell phone subscribers.
Though in 2009, a cell phone in North Korea reportedly sold for approximately $300 and international, as well as long distance calls were prohibited, as of 2012, Koryolink has registered at least 1 million cell phone subscribers. Koryolink provides its users with the ability to make and receive voice calls with voicemail, and text message, picture and video message.
North Korea has one state-authorized mobile operator, Koryolink, operated jointly between government-owned Korea Post and Telecommunications Corporation (KPTC) and Egyptian company Orascom Telecom Holding, which won a 25 year contract in 2008. KPTC has a 25% stake in Koryolink while Orascom Telecom Holding owns 75% of the company. Since its founding, Koryolink has established a 3G mobile network. Currently, the Koryolink network covers the country’s capital, Pyongyang, in addition to 15 major cities and 86 smaller cities.
In 2011, the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability released a report that showed an estimated 60% of people between the ages of 20-50 used cell phones in Pyongyang.
To successfully register a cell phone with Koryolink, North Koreans must receive approval from their local National Security Agency and People’s Safety Ministry officials, and sign a 10-pint agreement that prohibits making calls “with contents related to state secrets, and may not use the phone for improper purposes.” Officially, North Koreans are limited to one cell phone per person.
The popularity of cell phones in North Korea follows the government’s ban on the use of cell phones in 2004 primarily because an explosion at the Ryongchon (city near the North Korea-PRC border) train station a few hours after Kim Jong Il passed through it. Government officials believed a cell phone was used to facilitate the bombing.
4. North Korea has one golf course.
Pyongyang Golf complex is North Korea’s sole golf course (in comparison, South Korea has at least 200) located 16 miles west of the capital and lies on the banks of Taicheng Lake. It is an 18 hole par 72 course of 120 hectares able to host up to 100 golfers at a time. In addition, the course boasts a clubhouse, restaurant, games room, changing facilities, and conference rooms.
In 2010, Lupine Travel hostel the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Amateur Golf Open,” an ongoing annual event at Pyongyang Golf. At the 2011 DPRK Amateur Golf Open, a Finnish 31 year old won the tournament, while in 2012, a 34 year old UK national won.
In 1987, an urban myth says 17 bodyguards witnessed Kim Jong Il try golf for the first time ever as he opened the course (built in celebration of Kim Il Sung’s 75th birthday) with a world record 38 under par and aced five holes. This myth doesn’t however seem to exist in North Korea, and probably has origins far away.
5. More than 50% of North Koreans 15 Years Old+ Smoke Cigarettes.
North Korea may have a smoking rate of 52.3% among those 15 years and older according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Since at least 2002, the North Korean government has urged the nation’s smokers (described by Kim Jong Il as one of the “three main fools of the 21st century”) to quit by highlighting its negative health effects on the individuals themselves and thereby the nation. More specifically, North Korea’s officials aimed to lower the country’s smoking rate to 30% by 2010. To reach that objective, in 2006, the government publicized its plans to ban students who smoke from entering universities.
North Korea’s official news outlet, the North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) claims the smoking rate has fallen by about 15% from 2000-06. In 2008, the North Korean media estimated 54.7% of its population smoked cigarettes. In 2006, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported that up to 56% of North Korean men were smokers.
6. Short hair for men reflects the “Socialist lifestyle” in North Korea.
The North Korean government strongly encourages its male citizens to maintain various short hairstyles in order to minimize the “blind followers of bourgeois lifestyle.” Most notably, from 2004-05, the state launched a campaign that maybe translated as “Let us trim our hair in accordance with Socialist lifestyle” and emphasized the importance of neat grooming and dress habits for the strength of the nation.
At the time, Korean Central Television (KCTV), the only official newscast of North Korea, used television program Common Sense to highlight desirable and undesirable hairstyles for men. The broadcast specified the “flat-top crew cut,” “middle hairstyle,” “low hairstyle” and “high hairstyle” as acceptable hairstyles for aspiring male revolutionaries. However, men over 50 were permitted to grow their upper hair to almost three inches, rather than the otherwise standard two inches, to hide balding. It also warned long hair adversely affected brain activity by diverting oxygen from nerves in the head. Hairstyles should receive a touch-up every fifteen days.
In related news, as recently as 2011, North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun raved, “A young man with (an) ambitious high sided haircut looks so sobering and stylish.” Not unsurprisingly, North Korea’s current head of state, Kim Jong Un, may have jumpstarted the current craze among North Korean men for sobering, stylish high sided haircuts.
7. North Korea’s national anthem, the “Aegukka,” does not mention Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, or the Workers’ Party of Korea.
North Korea adopted the “Aegukka” or “The Patriotic Song” in 1947. North and South Korea’s national anthems share the same name, similar melodies, but have different lyrics. North Korea’s “Aegukka” is alternatively known by its first phrase, “Let Morning Shine.”
The national anthems of North and South Korea mention the mythical birthplace of the Korean people, Mount Baekdu, and focus on the unity and natural landscape of Korea.
Pak Seyong wrote the lyrics and Kim Wongyun wrote the music of the “Aegukka.”
8. North Korea has an estimated literacy rate of 99%.
Based on a 1991 estimate, North Korea has a literacy rate of 99% for males and females over the age of 15.
Officially, the majority of North Koreans learn Hangul (the Korean language) exclusively, or in addition to English and/or Russian. The use of Hanja or Chinese characters with Korean pronunciation and the subsequent mixed script of Hangul and Hanja (a practice still common in the south) have been avoided by the North Korean government since the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1949.
9. North Koreans celebrate the birthday of Kim Jong Il with the Kimjongilia Festival.
Protected by North Korean law, Kimjongilia is a scarlet flower that belongs to the Begoniacea plant family. Created through the crossbreeding efforts of Japanese botanist Kamo Motoderu in 1988 and then presented to Kim Jong Il on his 46th birthday that year, Kimjongilia has since become a revered flower in the country (though not the national flower, the magnolia). The Daesung Mountain Central Botanical Garden opened for the explicit purpose of cultivating Kimjongilia. By 1998, at least forty other green houses throughout North Korea dedicated themselves to Kimjongilia.
Since 1997, the Kimjongilia Festival has taken place annually in Pyongyang to celebrate the birth of Kim Jong Il on February 16th. The festival features more than 25,000 potted Kimjongilia cultivated by national institutions such as military commissions, organs, and ministries, as well as local industries, institutions, and individuals.
10. North Korea’s 1 of 2 car manufacturers, Pyeonghwa Motors, is owned partially by Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.
Founded in 1999 as a partnership between Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church and the North Korean government’s Ryonbong General Corp., Pyeonghwa Motors (Pyeonghwa can be translated as “peace”) has exclusive rights to the production and sales of used cars in North Korea.
As of 2010, there have been estimates that with North Korea’s population of about 24 million, there less than 30,000 cars on the road.
The Unification Church has 70% ownership and Ryonbong Corp. 30%. According to its official website, some of the founding principles of Pyeonghwa Motors include, “The unification of our people should never be postponed for any reason;” “We are a pioneer of ‘Unification made by us,’ not ‘Unification happening to us’”; and “Our corporations are a leader in unification through true love made by forgiveness and mutual prosperity.”