The ‘Wonders’ of North Korea or 15 Things You Did Not Know About the Hermit Kingdom

Downtown Pyongyang


For the past year or so whenever the subject of North Korea comes up (and it does quite a bit especially when you work on a great program like the U.S. Congress – Republic of Korea National Assembly Exchange Program), folks always ask me what was it like going there, how did I get to go there in the first place and why, and is it that weird as the media portrays it. Aside from the Korean experts I had the privilege of getting to know over the years, most younger folks get their news about North Korea from social media and lists of any kind are especially popular. Last week I came across an article on the Telegraph’s Travel Section title 10 things you didn’t know about North Korea. Unlike most (here and here a few more), this one is nice and illustrated but, I must say, quite “thin” on its facts.

With that in mind I thought I’d do one better and make my own list of not ten but 15 things I bet you didn’t know about North Korea! To illustrate my list I also used a few photos I took during my travels there. So while I didn’t know the North Koreans were just about to detonate a hydrogen bomb here some of the things I do know:

1. All the apartments in North Korea are state property. They are only “given to be used” to those who live in them, and should they not properly “respects the values of DPRK” they can have that “privilege” taken away.  The implication here is that the alternative housing will be a jail in the best of instances or a labor camp in the worst.

Panoramic view of the city from atop the Juche Tower.

2. The residents of the above mentioned apartments are not allowed to put up blinds, curtains or other any other object which may obstruct the windows or implicitly, the ability of others to see inside the said apartments.

Close up of an apartment building. Note the lack of curtains!

3. One cannot leave the house without wearing the pins with the portraits of the “Eternal President” Kim Il Sung and of the “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong Il. These pins vary in size and shape and are an unspoken guide to the social standing of the wearer.

4. The Juche Tower in Pyongyang was built to be (almost) a meter taller than the Washington Monument in the Nation’s Capital. Despite what the folks at the National Park Service may say, Juche Tower is in fact the tallest granite monument in the world.

The Juche Tower sits on the bank of the Taedong River, opposite the Kim Il-Sung Square. It is named after the North Korean ideology of self-reliance and was build to celebrate the anniversary of Kim Il-Sung’s 70th birthday. At 170 meters tall it is 28 inches taller than the Washington Monument.


A close up of the Juche Tower and of the statue located immediately in front of it.

5. The Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang was also built to be 10 meters taller than the original in Paris.

The Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang commemorates the Korean resistance to Japan from 1925 to 1945.

6. There are virtually no traffic lights in Pyongyang; traffic (in as much as there is one) is controlled by the famous Pyongyang Traffic Ladies.  And when I say “famous” I do mean it – they have a cult-like following on the web. Just Google them!

Some say that the Traffic Ladies of Pyongyang move with their dance like directions even when there is no traffic!


One more; this one with traffic!

7. The names of the three Kims are always written with a font that is a bit larger than the rest of the text. Also, when their picture appears on the front page of a local newspaper, these have to be folded in such a way as not to bend the said photo.

Note how the name of Kim Jong Il is written in this wonderful piece of journalistic marvel!

8. Visitors to North Korea are not allowed to take partial photos of the statues of the two Kims (as far as I know they have yet to erect a statue of the “little” Kim). Only photos that include the whole body are allowed.

Side by side: Illegal photo vs. Legal photo.

9. Men (and I think women) are forced to choose from a list of 29 state-approved haircuts. Neither one resembles the current haircut of Kim Jong Un.

10. The USS Pueblo is the only U.S. military vessel controlled by an (enemy) country – North Korea. The boat is anchored in down-town Pyongyang and serves both as a “tourist attraction” and a source of propaganda that vividly demonstrates the aggressiveness of the country’s public enemy no. 1, the U.S.!

USS Pueblo seen from afar.
Close up of the USS Pueblo. The vessel, attached to U.S. Navy intelligence, was attacked and captured by North Korean forces on January 23, 1968.

11. Most of the villages in North Korea were systematized – meaning that all the old / original houses were torn down and the entire village was rebuilt using the same floor plans and the same materials.

An almost idyllic setting for this village. Note the propaganda poster; quite a few of these dot the landscape throughout the country.
All the houses (and their fences) are the same! I should add that this was a more privileged village close to a main road (on which tourists traveled!). This is reflected both on the size of the houses and its overall aspect. Most villages were not this nice.

12. The Pyongyang Metro (which has its own special museum to document the “on spot guidance” provided by the great leader Kim Il Sung during its construction) is only available on one side of the Taedong River which divides the city in two. Sadly, North Korean engineers have been unable to build a tunnel under the river.  Two alleged tempts ended in massive collapses and significant loss of life.

Visitors are routinely taken to visit two of the Pyongyang metro stops. They are lavishly ornate and well lit. Ever since tourists and Western media speculated that these may only be there for the show and that there is no working underground metro system, the tours now include not only these two famous stations but also a ride through four more and a final stop to a fifth and far more modest station.
The inside of a metro car; omnipresent are the two Kims.
The Metro Museum details the “crucial” role of the Great Leader in the construction of the Pyongyang metro. The museum includes a light-up map with the locations of the “on spot guidance” provided by Kim Il Sung and virtually any object he might have touched during his working visits.

13. Kim Il Sung played a perfect game of bowling the first time he tried the game. The pins and the ball used during that game are placed prominently in the lobby of the main Pyongyang bowling arena. Such “achievements” however, are apparently not that unusual.  It is being said that he also played a perfect game of golf – the first time he stepped on the green. Given such accomplishments he could have been the one-man team of North Korea at the Olympics!

The pins and the ball used by the Great Leader himself!


The inside of the main bowling hall in Pyongyang. Quite impressive!

14. The three Kims not only travel(ed) in private jets and private trains but they also have their own dedicated train stations and even separate airport terminals. These are only for their own personal use and cannot be used by any other dignitaries!

Picture here is the private airport terminal for the Kims located new Mt. Paektu in the northern part of the country.

15. The Communist Party of North Korea (officially the Korean Workers Party) is the only one who doesn’t have as its symbol a hammer and sickle. Uniquely, the Party’s symbol includes, besides those two traditional tools, a calligraphic brush.  This is to represent the “working intellectuals” of the country.

The author, Bogdan Banu, in front of the monument of the Korean Workers Party.