Welcome to one of the most restrictive countries in the world. Ruled by an enigmatic, tyrannical and violent leader, North Korean citizens and tourists can be threatened with jail or execution for the slightest mistake. Today we compile 11 everyday things that can send you to prison or even get you executed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. You won’t believe why one man was executed with anti-aircraft fire.
Any foreign movies, television series or music is strictly forbidden. You can be shot just for watching an American movie or, worse, a South Korean drama. Defector Yoon Mi-So was 11 years old when she saw a man executed in public for owning a South Korean drama. Witnessing executions like these is mandatory. Not doing so would be considered treason, and you could face a similar fate.
Listening to Music
Kim Geum-hyok was 16 when police raided his home in 2009 and found DVDs of South Korean pop music. He was detained and tortured for days, but he never confessed that it was his own father who gave him the DVDs. His father had connections that allowed him to bribe the guards to free his son. A few years later, Kim managed to escape the country. Nowadays, people share movies and series on encrypted USB sticks.
Foreign books are forbidden, but there is one especially dangerous to possess. The Bible. Classifying itself as an atheist state, North Korea has banned all religions. In the case of the Bible. it’s also considered a symbol of Western culture. In 2014, American Jeffrey Fowle was arrested after leaving a Bible in a restaurant bathroom. He was accused of being a missionary, charged with crimes against the state and sentenced to hard labor. After five months of arduous diplomatic efforts, Fowle was released, but his friends were kept in custody. If you practice a religion, remember that while in this country, do not bring any religious objects such as necklaces, images and especially a Bible.
I know we love them, but in North Korea blue jeans are considered a symbol of American culture. Because of this, they are strictly forbidden. In 2021, dictator Kim Jong-un also banned tight pants and lip and nose piercings. According to him, they represent a capitalist lifestyle. If you want to visit this country, you’ll have to forget fashion altogether.
In Western culture, hair is a form of expression, but in North Korea this doesn’t seem to be the case. Many reports claim that men can only choose between 10 to 15 haircuts, while women must wear one of these 18 hairstyles. As for mullets, don’t even think about it. They were banned in 2021. But wait. I know a guy with a wild haircut in North Korea. Oh, yes, that’s the guy. Well, I guess you can make an exception for yourself.
Weed grows freely on the roadsides of North Korea, a rumor that led some media outlets to believe that it was legal and cheap to sell. Some websites even predicted that the country could become the new Amsterdam. They were soon proven wrong. The plants are industrial hemp, which has very little THC. This is weed’s psychoactive component, and the authorities have made it clear that marijuana is as illegal as cocaine or heroin. Don’t be fooled, my friend, it can be a very bad trip.
It is normal for travelers to exchange for local currency when arriving in another country, but this isn’t the case in the Hermit Kingdom. The North Korean won is generally only for citizens. As a foreigner, you should use U.S. dollars, euros or the Chinese yuan. Do not try to get North Korean currency as a souvenir to take home with you since it might get you arrested. Also, never try to enter stores for the locals. The state will provide you with a guide who will “”kindly”” tell you which stores are open for tourists.
Not dusting regularly
Every North Korean family must keep a portrait of former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. They must be displayed high up so that no one can surpass them in height. The family must also keep the portraits spotless. Guards regularly inspect the frames of each house. Even a thin layer of dust can get you a hefty fine. In 2020, when her house caught fire, a mother ran to save her two children but left behind the portraits. She was detained and even denied antibiotics for her children to help with their injuries. Her fate remains unknown, but she is reported to be facing a jail sentence
Every year, beginning on December 17, North Koreans are required to mourn for one day for every year since the 2010 passing of former leader Kim Jong-Il. During this period, people cannot laugh, drink alcohol, exercise or even grocery shop. Police patrol the streets and inspect homes to make sure everyone is grieving the leader’s death. People who do not observe these strict rules are prosecuted as ideological criminals.
During a 2015 event attended by Kim Jong-un, Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chol fell asleep and failed to comply with the leader’s instructions. The dictator was so angered by the perceived disloyalty that he sentenced him to be executed, but instead of a firing squad as usual, Hyon was placed in front of an anti-aircraft gun and killed.
In 2016, student Otto Warmbier took a guided tour. He was the only American in the group. As the tourists were about to board a plane, Otto was stopped by the military. According to the authorities, Otto stole a propaganda poster from one of the restricted areas of the hotel the group was staying. While in custody, he was forced to read a confession in which he said he had committed the crime at the request of a Methodist church, a university secret society and the U.S. government. After 17 months of tense negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea, Otto was released in 2017, but the young man was in a coma. He died shortly after returning home at the age of 22. It was never clear whether Otto actually stole the poster, but the U.S. government warns Americans not to travel to North Korea because of the high risk of political imprisonment. You may have to reign in your curiosity and avoid visiting such a hostile place. As restrictive and violent as this regime is, some people have managed to escape its cruel rules.
- 21 Shocking Laws In North Korea That Will Make You Do A Double-Take. Singh, B. (2021). India Times.
- 20 Things You Must Know Before Traveling To North Korea (2023). Travel or Die Trying.
- 15 Things You Would Not Believed Are Banned In North Korea.
- North Korea, events of 2021. Korean Central News Agency (2021). Human Rights Watch.
- Why Kim Jong-un is waging war on slang, jeans and foreign films. Bicker, L. (2021). BBC News.