Over the last years, North Korea has made headlines across the world. Often, you would hear about a (failed) test rocket launch, a verbal threat by its leader, an imprisonment of a foreign national. With the country’s ultra-closed society, it’s hard to really know what is really going on behind the curtains. But what would a typical day in the life of a North Korean citizen look like? Is there a North Korean middle class? Does pop culture exist in the depths of this secretive state? Through a series of photos taken by filmmaker Aram Pan, I will show you a North Korea that might surprise or even fascinate you.
Introducing Aram Pan and his DPRK 360 project
When I found out about the DPRK 360 project by Singaporean filmmaker Aram Pan, I was excited and intrigued. Aram first visited Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, in 2013 on an organized tour that allows you to visit the country as a tourist. He asked the North Korean tour guides if he could attach a GoPro to the windshield to the car he would be driven around with, and (surprisingly) they agreed. The result was a 22-minute video which he uploaded on his Youtube channel.
Aram has been back to North Korea more than 17 times since this visit, each time capturing unique events, sights, and aspects of its society with a first-person, “run & gun” style. This organically grew into the DPRK 360 project, where Aram would grab whatever imaging technology he could get his hands on and document as many aspects of the everyday life of North Korean people as possible.
He shares his photos and videos on his popular Facebook page, and when I went through his albums I simply couldn’t resist sharing some of the pictures on my blog. I was especially surprised by how much North Korea has “Westernized” over the years. Sure, it isn’t (by far) a developed country, but they don’t seem to live in the dark ages either, as sometimes the media suggests. When it comes to describing what you see in the pictures below I have tried to get my facts straight and based them only on trustworthy (as far as trustworthy goes here) sources, but let me know if you think something is off.
More from the DPRK 360 project:
- Check out this playlist of curated videos on Youtube
- One of the hallmarks of Aram’s project is the collection of 360-degree panoramic photos of different locations in North Korea
30 things you didn’t know existed in North Korea
Food & Drinks
1. You can get Lay’s potato chips in a North Korean supermarket
In the Potonggang-guyok area in the country’s capital city Pyongyang you can find a supermarket which stocks Lay’s potato chips. If this is just for show or is actually sold to locals is unknown…
2. There are many microbreweries in North Korea
I kid you not, microbreweries are a thing in North Korea. Don’t expect bearded men with stylish glasses and a Macbook pro sitting inside; microbrewing has a whole different dynamic here. The surprising microbrewery culture can be explained with regards to sanctions against North Korea that limit the availability of petrol, thus making the distribution of beer particularly difficult. The result is a country of microbreweries: the hotel makes their own beer, the bowling alley makes their own beer, the restaurants make their own beer. I can tell you first-hand: North Korean beer ain’t all that bad!
3. It’s possible to get a decent cup of coffee in Pyongyang
Pyongyang tends to be North Korea’s “showroom” for foreign visitors, a place that tries to mimic the “outside world” in its own way. The same counts for the restaurant and cafe culture seen in many places in the world, including North Korea’s neighbor in the south. Pyongyang has a few places where locals and tourists (if your guides agree to take your group there) can get their caffeine fix or enjoy a milky “frappuccino-style” coffee variation. In the Sunrise Cafe orders are even taken by using a device that resembles an iPad.
4. There is an upcoming restaurant scene in Pyongyang
You can’t have a cup of coffee without some lunch or dinner as well. Well, Pyongyang has some “options” for those who can afford it. There is a restaurant with Italian and Korean dishes, a pizza restaurant (which Aram visited after ditching his tour group and where he made a 360 virtual tour), Japanese sushi, Chinese food, and even food-restaurants.
5. North Koreans use smartphones
No, it’s not the newest iPhone and no, North Koreans can’t use this phone to go on the internet. Koryolink launched the country’s first 3G mobile network in 2008. Initially, it was meant to only cover the capital Pyongyang, but there are plans to expand this to other places in the country. Currently, there are over 3 million subscribers to this phone network, which consists of both foreigners and locals. Only calls within North Korea are allowed on Koryolink however smuggled phones into China are used to connect North Koreans with the rest of the world.
6. North Korea has a direct debit system
Although it doesn’t entirely work the same way our direct debit system works, North Korea has an electronic payment card called “Sangyon” which can be used and topped up inside North Korean department stores. The card has been launched in 2015 as a “credit card” by North Korea’s Institute of Commercial Science, but it is unclear how the card is supported by its legal and financial infrastructure.
Aram got his own direct debit card from the Golden Triangle Bank in Rason, a Special Economic Zone in North Korea where foreign investments are allowed. The card cannot be used outside of this zone.
7. There is a North Korean intranet with its own social network
As you can imagine, North Korean citizens (apart from a small number of government officials) don’t have any access to the internet as we know it. As an alternative, the government has set up its own “intranet” called Kwangmyong. This is a strictly monitored so-called “walled garden” network that only allows computers from inside North Korea to use it with an estimate of 1.000 to 5.500 websites to browse through. It may be accessed by web browsers and it has an e-mail service, social network, newsgroups, and internal search engine.
The intranet is publicly accessible via universities, major industrial and commercial organizations, and Pyongyang’s public internet cafés (or should I say intranet cafés?). From 2013, a number of North Korean Android-based tablets and smartphones have access to the intranet as well. Fun fact: North Korean computers have their own operating system called Red Star OS and their own browser called Naenara which is based on Firefox.
8. There is a mobile 3G network for foreigners (although the network speeds are unstable)
The same company that provides North Korea’s telecommunications network, Koryolink, has also installed a 3G network for tourists in 2014. While it isn’t possible for locals to browse the “regular” internet, this special 3G network allows its users to browse any website. Well, probably not every website, as restrictions have been put in place. The price of use is very high: you can buy 500MB of data for $200.
9. North Koreans want a 42 inch LED screen just as much as you do
Consumerism isn’t as primitive as you might expect in North Korea. There are about a dozen Special Economic Zones (SEZs) where foreign investments are allowed, with various intended functions and foreign-friendly regulations. Products can be bought here by either Chinese Yuan or North Korean Won.
Frank Ruediger from North Korean news site 38north.org noticed that there were much more shopping opportunities for the growing middle class in 2017 compared to 2016. He notes that Westerners’ experience of commerce is often limited to hotel lobbies, stamp and bookshops, souvenir stands at major sights and other hard currency stores.
It’s rare to experience the way North Koreans do their regular shopping, but Aram was able to capture a street portrait of a woman transporting a LED TV on her bicycle and a saleslady selling these TVs in one of the SEZs.
Infrastructure, Transport, and Energy
10. Pyongyang (the capital of North Korea) has a metro network
The Pyongyang metro system consists of two lines: the Chollima Line, which runs north from Puhŭng Station on the banks of the Taedong River to Pulgŭnbyŏl Station, and the Hyŏksin Line, which runs from Kwangbok Station in the southwest to Ragwŏn Station in the northeast. The stations have grandiose names such as Victory, Unification, and Glory. The metro network is one of the deepest in the world, with its track going as much as 110 meters (360ft) underground.
The metro system was opened in the early 70s; its biggest stations, Puhoong and Yonggwang, were finished in 1987. The metro carriages, imported from East Germany, are still going strong today, making the Pyongyang metro lines a true blast from the past.
11. North Korea is moving rapidly to Green Energy
In the last few years, North Korea has invested significantly in renewable energy. Yes, yes, bear with me. The North Korean power grid is facing a shortage of electricity, hence the demand to look into other ways to generate this commodity. In this day and age, solar power and wind energy is the logical answer. Even in North Korea, as the construction and maintenance of the solar panels and wind turbines is funded by Chinese investments.
Some more reasons why investing in solar energy is one of the few solutions for North Korea’s energy crisis, courtesy of Facebook commenter “Гуся Маздаки“:
- 82% of the DPRK’s territory is covered by rocky mountains, most of it is really dry — that means only 18% is arable land.
- There are very few big lakes and the rivers in the DPRK don’t have enough water volume to fulfill the needs of building hydroelectric plants.
- The country produces little to no oil (and the oil it produces is low-quality oil, which is used only to keep its thermoelectric plants running). The country counts on the Special Economic Zones to acquire commodities that they don’t produce themselves, including the oil that keeps their tractors working.
- Solar power plants and panels are a smart solution to solve these problems, which have shaken the country in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.
12. North Korea’s national airline carrier, Air Koryo, is the world’s worst airline based on Skytrax ratings
It’s hard to compare Air Koryo to any other airline in the world. Sure, if you hold the high expectations of air travel in the Western world, you will get disappointed; flying with Air Koryo is truly something else. It has been voted “world’s worst airline” based on passenger ratings on AirlineRatings.com. I flew out from Pyongyang to Beijing myself on my trip to North Korea, but unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures as I got told off for taking pictures in the waiting lounge (and I had to delete the pictures on the spot). The plane I flew in was an Antonov An-24, which is a 2-propeller plane from the Soviet Union. The check-in process was low-tech but fairly smooth, I didn’t have to wait long to get checked in.
The plane trip itself was very interesting. As you can expect from a plane built in the 70s, the engine was not going to make a pretty sound. The in-flight entertainment consisted of patriotic broadcasts and concerts, with no option to mute the volume or change the channel. The food was perhaps the most peculiar thing aboard; I got a hamburger that, in itself, could be a good candidate for world’s saddest hamburger. The plane got us all to our destination, however, and the experience makes a great pub story.
13. There is a 105-story hotel in the center of Pyongyang
The Ryugyong Hotel is a 105-story, 330-meter tall pyramid-shaped skyscraper in the middle of Pyongyang. It is not a building the North Korean government is particularly proud of; when I asked my guide about it he waved it off with a simple “it’s still under construction” without elaborating further. The fact is however that the construction of this building started in 1987, and kind of became the mascot for North Korea’s (economic) problems.
The construction was halted in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union, and construction resumed only in 2008. In 2011 the exterior was completed, and it was scheduled to be opened in 2012. This didn’t happen, and a partial opening was announced for 2013 but was also canceled. As of 2017, the building remains unopened. Would it have opened in 1989, it would have been the world’s tallest hotel. Now, it just has the “honor” of being the tallest unoccupied building in the world.
14. North Korea holds the Guinness world record for largest gymnastic display
The Arirang festival, also referred to as “Mass Games“, is a grand spectacle in many ways. It is an artistic and gymnastic festival held in the Rungrado May Day Stadium, the largest stadium in the world with a staggering capacity of 114.000. Citizens from as young as 5 years old are selected based on skill level to perform in the Arirang festival, which in most cases will then be the way of life for them until retirement.
In August 2007, the Arirang Mass Games were recognized by Guinness World Records as the largest gymnastic display in the world with 100.900 participants. In recent years, foreign tourists have been allowed to watch one of the many performances. I have visited the Mass Games myself in 2013 and it was without question one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Read more about my Mass Games experience with pictures and videos. Interested to see the whole spectacle yourself? Aram Pan filmed the full 2013 Mass Games.
15. Pyongyang organizes an international marathon every year
For the fifth year in a row, the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon will be organized in 2018. By signing up for the Pyongyang marathon tour with Koryo Tours it is possible for amateur running from all over the world to participate and, for the first time, the race is open for people with disabilities. The route starts and ends in the Kim Jung-il stadium and takes you through the center of Pyongyang past many iconic buildings, monuments, and streets. The race distances are 5k, 10k, half-marathon, and full marathon, and you will get a finisher’s medal as well. More info about the marathon.
Brands and advertising
16. Doraemon, Captain America, Transformers, Disney and Hello Kitty are popular in North Korea
Due to the import of foreign goods from China and the growing demand for foreign trade, North Korean kids can be seen wearing clothes or playing with toys from common Western children’s brands.
17. There are billboards with advertisements in North Korea
You might wonder, why does an extremely socialist country need advertisements? The answer is not that simple. First, it’s good to know that advertisements are still very rare in North Korea. Second, very few people are allowed to own a car in the country, so using a mass communication method such as a billboard doesn’t sound very logical. Even though international trading is an upcoming trend in North Korea, the reason these billboards are put up is most probably propaganda, to showcase a developing industry and market.
18. Foreign trade isn’t completely halted
In a closed country such as North Korean, you might expect that there is hardly any trade with foreign countries. At the start of the Cold War, North Korea only had diplomatic recognition by Communist countries. When the Eastern Bloc collapsed in the years 1989–1991, however, the DPRK made efforts to improve its diplomatic relations with developed capitalist countries. The North Korean constitution states “[..] that foreign trade by the DPRK will be conducted by state organs, enterprises, and social, cooperative organizations while the country will develop foreign trade on the principles of complete equality and mutual benefit”. As of today, North Korea holds diplomatic relations with 164 countries.
When it comes to trade, there are a lot more things happening than they used to be. In 2002, the North Korean trade minister has visited several EU countries and the country has been known to send short-term trainees to Europe. North Korea’s largest trade partner is China. North Korea’s biggest export products to China are mineral fuels (coal), ores, woven apparel, iron and steel, fish and seafood, and stone. North Korea, on the other hand, imports mineral fuels and oil, machinery, electrical machinery, vehicles, plastic, iron and steel, and petroleum from China.
India is a big trade partner as well with a total trade value of around half a billion dollars. Many North Korean nationals receive training in India in the fields of IT and science and technology.
An interesting annual affair is the Pyongyang International Trade Fair. 300 companies from 13 countries, including Singapore and Germany, show off their wares here in a commercial fashion. Speaking of fashion, according to Aram Pan, at the Trade Fair in 2016 “the bulk of the 220+ exhibitors are beauty and health care related as North Koreans now pay a high emphasis on looks and personal well being. Most of the visitors seem to be women in the Ajumma category”. Perhaps a peculiar fact is that most goods here are bought with USD.
Check out Aram’s video report if you’re interested to see how the Pyongyang Trade Fair looks like from the inside.
Health & Personal care
19. You can visit a gym, but you might leave with a bit of a rusty butt
Of course, there aren’t any public gyms available to the North Korean masses. It is, however, possible to visit a gym during a stay in a hotel or ski resort. The quality of the gym equipment can vary enormously, and if you’re unlucky you will end up doing chest presses on a machine from the Soviet era!
20. Even North Korean men might need some assistance in the bedroom
Even North Korean men aren’t superhuman…
21. North Koreans care about fashion (and love the catwalk at the annual Pyongyang Fashion Exhibition)
Fueled by the North Korean all-female pop group Moranbong Band fashion and personal styling have seen a surge in recent years. The pop group, with 18 members who have been hand-selected by Kim Jong-un, has been designed to show “modernization” of the arts in North Korea. This involves showcasing “daring” clothes and haircuts, which is surprising for a conservative country like North Korea.
The capital of North Korea holds an annual Fashion Exhibition, where the boundaries of the country’s rigid state are pushed. Although men’s fashion has not changed much over the year, sticking to monochromatic attire and military outfits. “However, women’s fashion seems to be evolving – and it isn’t isolated just to Pyongyang”, Aram tells The Independent in their article on the fashion exhibition. With more than 1.000 people attending the exhibition, there is clearly a demand for creativity in the way women dress. “Based on the reports I’ve read over the years about laws banning women from wearing trousers or restrictions on bright colors, this fashion show came as an absolute surprise”, says Aram. To get a better idea of this event, check out Aram’s video with footage of the fashion show.
22. Haircut styles are limited in North Korea
There is a lot of speculation on this point. Some say that the only hairstyle legally allowed is that of the leader himself. Aram checked with two barbers in North Korea and asked them about this law. “Even before the translator finished talking to them, I already saw the puzzled look on their faces. Seems they never heard of such a “law”. However, they did say that some men do like to cut the Kim Jong-un hairstyle”. Myth busted, I guess.
It does seem however that the creativity in choosing your own hairstyle is limited to a number of choices. You will often see framed posters hanging at barber shops, with a series of haircuts, each with their own number. It does make the question “what will it be?” a bit easier, doesn’t it?
23. North Korea has their own cigarette brand (and also produces cigarettes for the Iranian market)
Smoking is not only a problem of the Western world; in fact, it is a big problem in North Korea. Smoking is culturally acceptable here for men, with 45% of North Korean men smoking daily. Female smoking is a taboo in North Korea, and only 2.5% of women smoke daily (and the biggest part are older women from rural areas). Smoking is the leading cause of death in North Korea, with 34% of men and 22% of women die due to smoking.
North Korea has many different tobacco companies (making about 30 different cigarettes). The biggest one if the North Korean Tobacco Corporation.
24. North Korea has a ski resort…
Yep, you read that right! And perhaps the best thing, you can visit the ski resort as a tourist! The resort is called “Masik”, meaning horse resting pass, and opened its doors in 2013 after a $7.5 million deal with a Swiss ski-lift manufacturer had been controversially blocked by the North Korean government. There are 9 main runs and 2 beginner slopes. The slopes have different lengths, but the most beautiful one is 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) runs from the summit of the mountain to the hotel in the valley. What hotel, you ask? Check out the next point on the list.
25. … with North Korea’s most luxurious hotel next to it
The hotel on the Masik Ski Resort is an important landmark and a symbol of national pride. Constructed in only 10 months by North Korean soldiers, it got its slogan “Masikryong speed”. The hotel has many facilities, including a swimming pool, sauna, massage room, beauty parlor, billiards room, fitness room, restaurants and an ice staking rink. A deluxe double room costs €120 per person, a standard double room costs €75 per person.
26. Pyongyang has an amusement park with an Italian “belly down” roller coaster
Actually, Pyongyang is not the only city with an amusement. There are a total of 7 amusement parks all around North Korea, and there aren’t all as shoddy as you might expect. Some might need some maintenance, but others, especially the Kaeson Youth Park in Pyongyang. Even though it has been around since 1984, rides have been added to it as the years went by. The latest addition is a “belly down” roller coaster, imported from Italy in 2010. In 2013, bumper cars, teacups, a swing ride and a “double shot” vertical drop were added. All rides cost 1600 won for locals, which is about €1.50 ($1.75). Most foreign tour groups are able to visit the park and even ride a few rides.
27. You can do a bicycle tour through the cities of Pyongyang and Wonsan
On some of the organized tours through North Korea, it is now possible to do a cycle tour through the city center of Pyongyang or Wonsan. Like all other tours, the bike tour will be lead by a North Korean tour guide; you won’t be able to cycle off on your own. It is sure to give you an interesting perspective on these two North Korean cities!
28. North Korea has a year-round water park with 8 slides
2013 was a year of openings and celebration, as it was the 65-year anniversary of the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Opening the massive Munsu water park was part of the festivities. It has indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a volleyball court, basketball court, rock climbing wall, a hairdresser and a buffet restaurant, cafe, and a bar. The park is open for public; access is granted as a reward to workers, students, and their families. It is possible to visit the water park on a tour.
29. North Korea has some stunning nature
If you are like me (before I visited the country), you might picture North Korea as a grey, uninteresting patch of land. This might be your brain playing tricks on you, however, as you hardly ever see any images of the beautiful North Korean nature in the media, or anywhere else for that matter. A highlight is the Mount Kumgang National Park in the south-east of the country, where it is possible for tourists to hike.
30. There is a Kim Jung-il flower
As part of the written and unwritten rules, tour groups are asked to bow and lay flowers on one or two occasions in front of statues of Kim Il Sung when visiting monuments of national importance. The flowers you will be laying at the statues are, and I’m not making this up, called “Kimjongilia”. It is closely related to begonias and was used to adorn Kim Jong-il’s corpse in public when he died in 2011. Despite its name, the Kimjongilia is not the official national flower of North Korea, which is a type of Magnolia.