Image: Eric Lafforgue (May 2010) | A painting about space exploration in Samjiyon, Ryanggang Province
“Ask a North Korean” is an NK News series featuring interviews with North Korean defectors, most of whom left the DPRK within the last few years.
Readers may submit their questions for defectors by emailing [email protected] and including their first name and city of residence.
Today’s question is from Jimmy, who asks about how North Koreans view UFOs.
Hyun-seung Lee — who comes from an elite North Korean family and defected in 2014 — spoke with NK News about the limited coverage of astronomy in the country’s school curriculum and why most North Koreans care little about the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
Lee now resides in the U.S., where he works as a director for One Korea Network and a fellow of North Korean studies at the Global Peace Foundation. He also runs the Pyonghattan YouTube channel with his sister.
NK News: Do North Koreans believe in UFOs?
Lee: I think very few people in North Korea are interested in UFOs. For starters, there isn’t a whole lot of information on the subject in the country. North Korean TV has occasionally screened foreign science documentaries containing UFO stories, but overall North Koreans cannot get their hands on books or films about unidentified objects from outer space.
North Korean education doesn’t feature much on space science either. In high school, they teach about planets and that’s about it. Since the DPRK began firing intercontinental ballistic missiles and artificial satellites, the education curriculum has included more on space science, but most North Korean people are not that interested.
In short, there’s not enough discussion about UFOs in North Korea to answer the question of whether North Koreans believe in them or not.
NK News: There are North Korean science fiction stories that feature aliens. Are such stories common, and how do they portray the aliens?
Lee: Science fiction stories are still quite rare in North Korea, as are stories dealing with aliens. Perhaps there are stories out there for those with a special interest in such topics. But I think most North Korean people don’t have the time to talk about UFOs.
Most North Koreans spend morning to night concerned with how they can trade on the market to scrape by amid government-enforced compulsory labor. When do they have time to take an interest in extraterrestrials?
The word “UFO” likely isn’t even part of the vocabulary of the average North Korean. Elite students or those with experience abroad may have some knowledge of such matters, but I would think that, excluding these groups, most North Koreans don’t know anything about UFOs or aliens.
NK News: When North Koreans study astronomy in school, do they learn anything about the possibility of life on other planets?
Lee: In middle school, astronomy constitutes only a very small part of the curriculum. In middle and high school, students might only study the subject for one semester among all their other classes.
The content mostly covers the planets in our solar system. I don’t recall anything about the possibility of lifeforms on other planets, and I don’t remember ever discussing the possibility of extraterrestrial life with anyone during my years as a student in North Korea. It’s not even something North Koreans talk about in secret.
NK News: When North Koreans hear the word “alien” (외계인), what comes to mind?
Lee: Not long ago there was no interest in computer science, but now North Koreans study the topic with interest. The government fostered a social atmosphere promoting the study of computer science.
If interest in space science took off across society, then people would naturally take more of an interest in outer space or aliens, but for now, North Koreans have little interest. So for that reason, most people would simply draw a blank if asked about aliens, and I think most people would find it hard to believe that there is life on other planets.
Edited by Bryan Betts
Updated Lee’s biographical information at 10:53 a.m. on Dec. 9, 2021.
Alek Sigley is a PhD student at Stanford University's Modern Thought and Literature program, where he is writing a dissertation on North Korea. From 2018-2019 he studied for a master's degree in contemporary North Korean fiction at Kim Il Sung University's College of Literature. He speaks Mandarin, Korean and Japanese. Follow him on Twitter @AlekSigley.