Warning: out of all pages under Housing around the World section, the North Korea page gets heavy traffic of school-age children and adults with low IQ. Please contact me ONLY IF you have been in North Korea and have information to share, otherwise just read this article and DO NOT contact me to ask questions, most of questions cannot be answered. Example: serious chats vs stupid chats.
North Korea is an interesting country for being full of mysteries. It is the most isolated country in the world because there is NO internet connection (except embassies and government elite) and only information comes from government media, tourists and defectors, which contradicts each other, so all articles about North Korea found on internet are written by foreigners and have less or more degree of inaccuracy, including my own article.
North Korea is widely considered as the worst place to live. In reality, it is not that worse, living there is just… different than the rest of world. North Koreans have no contact with outer world and live happily, brainwashed by government that their country is the heaven on earth. While the industry is lagging several decades behind rest of world, the population is one of the most educated in the world, reaching a level of order and discipline that should be example for any citizen in the outer world.
At first impression, North Korea looks a developed country, with high literacy rate, beautiful architecture and well-planned cities. While both Koreas had similar GDP per Capita at the time of 1945 division, since 1970s South economy boomed while North stagnated. Collapse of Soviet Union in 1991 turned North Korea into one of the poorest countries in the world, and the single highly educated country suffering by famine. Is estimated that between 240,000 and 3,500,000 people died from starvation according Wikipedia. They currently survive only because of foreign food aid. The economy started rising again in 2000s, but most of money goes to political elite and their nuclear program, while most people suffer from malnutrition.
Economy and lifestyle
North Korea runs on a centrally-planned economy model that is not based on money. Everyone must obey their leader, which in their turn obey another leader, and so on until Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of North Korea. Not obeying leader, you risk being killed. Kim Jong-un ordered execution of many officials that were against his ideologies, including his own half brother!
People cannot choose where to work, government choose your job based on your skills. Nobody can start a private business.
People cannot purchase apartments or houses. The government own all real estate, and give everyone rights to occupy a home, free of cost, the location, size and quality of home depends by your job. Nobody is homeless or begging. Good work performance allow you to move to a better home and receive free goods from government, so the monetary salary (if it does really exist) is not so important. Cost of living is almost ZERO.
Note: illegal black markets where people trade goods privately are emerging. The country is under economic sanctions that limit trade, but they do informal trade with China, smuggling sponsored by government. Even apartments can be “transacted” illegally by bribing officials to change your home address.
People cannot travel freely across their own country, never mind overseas vacations, unless your job require to do so (for example people exporting goods, sport teams or Kim’s staff when he visit another country).
Foreigners cannot enter and travel freely in North Korea, other than guided tours through designated places, or invited by government.
North Korea does not have poor and rich class, but rather privileged people living in Pyongyang and ordinary people living elsewhere. Out of 24 million population of North Korea, 3.2 million are selected to live Pyongyang, healthiest citizens who perform well at work, they enjoy a modern life, having cars, computers and mobile phones, good education, health services, plenty of food, leisure activities, etc, to give a good image to foreigners.
Handicapped, disabled, poorly-working people and retired people are housed in countryside, where living conditions have not changed for decades, fuel stations does not exist, so cars are rare, bicycles are the only transportation, mobile phone coverage does not exists, land phones are rare, power blackouts are frequent, food is insufficient, etc.
How much North Koreans earn is unknown, we assume less than 100 USD per month, we also do not know where they can spend the money, since government provide many free services, including housing, intranet connection to Kwangmyong, public transport, healthcare, etc, all these are free. I also believe that cars, TV sets and computers cannot be bought with money and are given for free to privileged people only. Thus, good-working people can enjoy higher standard of living compared with people from other countries with similar salary.
Architecture and housing
Pyongyang is well planned city with wide boulevards, some leading to nowhere (example: Tongil Street, shown in header photo), massive apartment buildings with large open spaces and even more massive monuments, good public transport, smooth traffic and low pollution due to very few cars (there may be some pollution from factories). Built to show to the world that they are an advanced country, they are a waste of resources that left population in poverty.
There is no street lighting, except for major boulevards and monuments. Viewed from space, North Korea looks like a black hole!
North Korean apartments blocks are massive like the South Korean ones, 40-storey skyscrapers already existed in oldest Google Earth satellite photo from 2000, they are likely to be built during the 1980s golden era, they may have been the tallest public housing in the world until completion of 50 floors Pinnacle @ Duxton in Singapore in 2009 (further research required).
Unlike South Korea and Russia cities dominated by rows of identical buildings, Pyongyang feature vibrant skyline, old 4-5 storey walk-up and 8-10-storey blocks with lifts are mixed up with newer, 20-40 storey high-rise apartment buildings, traditional houses can be found between tower blocks, for example in Pipa-dong. High-rise living is not so desirable, due to electricity shortages you may not be always able to use lifts.
I never found any apartment floor plans, other than what I can see in satellite photos at under construction blocks (example: 38.96750 125.73550). New: a billboard shows floor plan of a tower with 2 units per floor, 4-bedroom, 180 sqm and wrap-around balcony.
This forum post says that average apartment size in North Korea is 150 square meters, but does not have any source. Probably it is valid to high-end apartment complex built for political elite, because anyone can measure blocks using Google Earth and see that sections with 2 units per floor have about 80-100 sqm apartments.
Ryugyong Hotel was planned to be tallest hotel in the world, having 330 meters and 105 floors, construction began in 1987 and was scheduled to be opened for the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students in June 1989, but it failed to meet schedule and abandoned in 1992. Construction resumed in 2008 and was announced to be opened in 2013, but as 2019 it is still unfinished.
Rungrado May Day Stadium is the largest stadium in the world, opened in 1989, having 150,000 seats.
More random photos, notice in first photo few old ugly houses between apartment towers.
Source of above photos: found on Panoramio using Google Earth, I selected the best of them. Credits to their authors.
For more photos download Google Earth and browse yourself. See also beautiful buildings on SkyscraperCity.
Mansudae Apartment built at Changjon Street is the most famous residential development. Several old buildings were demolished in 2011 and 15 glass-facade buildings in various heights up to 44 floors were built in just 9 months, according successive Google Earth historical satellite imagery. Opened in April 2012 at celebration 100 years from birth of Kim Il Sung. Every night buildings are lit up by blinking lights making me questioning if any people live inside. Video of proposed development.
Kim Cheak Apartment, even taller, 46 floors, was built in 2014, completed with Mirae Scientists Street Unha Tower in 2015, with 53 floors according Emporis.
Ryomyong Street, a new iconic development was announced in March 2016, it was completed in March 2017. Some old low-rise apartment buildings were demolished, 40 new apartments buildings were built and other 33 older buildings mostly from 2000s were refurbished. Tallest building is 82 floors and 270 meters tall, it was built in just 74 days. Many experts believe in poor construction quality and thinks that it may collapse, because is not safe to build such skyscraper so fast (source).
A 23-storey block collapsed in May 2014 (map location). Source: dailymail.co.uk and nknews.org and many others. A bit unusual for North Korea to report such accidents, but this was too big to be hidden. Reports are contradictory: it was still under construction but already housed 92 families. Number of victims was not disclosed, but the photos show that windows were not moved for years and the debris was cleared in just 4 days, suggesting that the block was not inhabited, and the demolition was controlled.
Inside a North Korean home. Notice lack of toilet paper and no sign of wear of any house item. It is a fake propaganda apartment renovated in lavish style to show to tourists. Nobody lived here. The real homes we expect to be spartan and dilapidated.
Transportation in North Korea
North Korea self praise for having over 6000 km of railways, 80% of it being electrified, compared with only 3250 km in South Korea (according Wikipedia), but the north infrastructure is in danger state that slow down the trains while southern trains are running at 350 kmph in full safety.
Roads in North Korea are estimated to be about 30000 km of which only 5% paved.
North Korea does have own automobile manufacturers, Sungri and Pyeonghwa, producing several hundred cars per year. Watch a North Korean car commercial (actually is a Fiat Albea/Siena made under license), video translation is wrong for humorous reason.
Private car ownership is a mystery. Some sources say that any citizen is allowed to own cars (but why the roads are almost empty?), other sources say that all cars are owned by political elite, or state-run businesses and are driven (but not owned) by privileged citizens.
According Wikipedia, North Koreans vehicles per capita is 1 per 100 people, compared with 1 per 2.3 people in South Korea. Pollution is low and people healthy as they walk and cycle. However, if you scroll through historical imagery in Google Earth, you will see that number of cars increased significantly in recent years. Videos filmed by tourists shows a lot of cars in Pyongyang, but outside city, cars are a rare sight due to lack of fuel stations.
Until 2000s, roads were dominated by trucks (military and goods vehicles), Romanian Dacia (most common taxicab), Soviet Lada, some unknown Chinese cars, but in the recent years many luxury European cars appeared on roads, as seen in the following video (why they import cars instead of raising local production?).
Media in North Korea
To prevent people access to information about outside world, all radio and television sets should be registered at state department where are sealed to receive only government stations, any manipulation to receive foreign broadcast is a CRIME.
Mobile phones were introduced in 2002, banned in 2004, reintroduced in 2008, and cannot dial out of country (read more on Wikipedia).
Internet connection is available only for high ranked officials, foreigners working in embassy, and hotels housing foreign tourists.
North Korea developed own national network similar with Internet (abbreviation from International Network), it is called Kwangmyong and have unlimited free access via dial-up, usually in schools and factories and rarely in private homes. Few dozens websites operated by government agencies offering filtered content from Internet, primarily from science fields, are accessible on Kwangmyong. However, some people smuggled satellite Internet terminals, which are confiscated and often resold to population by corrupt officers. According StatCounter, the world’s websites are getting significant Internet traffic from North Korea starting from 2010. Probably they just granted Internet access privilege to more people.
IT industry is developing and make North Korea an IT outsourcing destination, thanks to skilled and cheap workforce. Probably they saw how successful is India in IT outsourcing so decided to join, but is a mystery how does work without allowing regular people to access the internet.
Moranbong Band is the first music band from North Korea reaching international popularity. Is rumored that the girls forming the band are selected by, and the lyrics of their songs are written by Kim Jong-un.
Korean Central News Agency does have a website kcna.kp and provide good news from what happens inside country plus fake news in which foreign people praise their supreme leader. Tourists are the only other source of info of about what happens in North Korea.
Visiting North Korea
I get a lot messages asking me how to emigrate / reside in North Korea (example). Unless you live in Syria ravaged by war or an African country with malnutrition and no modern technology, you would not have a better life in North Korea. But since you are reading this article, you live in a developed country with internet access. WHY would you want to move in North Korea which means going 20-40 years backwards in technology, suffer from malnutrition, lose internet access and all means of communication with anyone outside country?
The ONLY foreigners residing in North Korea are the ones invited by government to work at embassies or joint venture business (if I am wrong please provide contrary evidence). I did not heard any case of foreigner immigrating or getting North Korean citizenship.
Ordinary foreigners can visit North Korea via guided tours through designated places. You are housed in Yanggakdo Hotel located on an island in middle of Taedong River, or Koryo Hotel located in city centre near railway station, far away from poor areas. You cannot leave hotel without being attended by Korean guiders, not allowed to roam freely through city, use public buses or taxi, or interact with local people (but these guiders aren’t locals? Yes they are but are not allowed to tell you about their personal life). Due to these reasons, very few tourists choose North Korea.
Until 2013, mobile phones were confiscated when you enter North Korea and returned when you leave, now you can bring phones in, but cannot make or receive calls. Photography is theoretically allowed only in designated places, but the tour bus occasionally travel through not-so-good areas, taking photos of anything that depicts poverty or bad acting people is forbidden, at end of day guides check your cameras and delete offensive pictures, however some guides are corrupt and many photos and videos been smuggled and posted on internet showing the other side of North Korea that government do not want us to see. Example: Eric Lafforgue photos on dailymail.co.uk.
Embassy staff may enjoy some degree of travel freedom but need to obey same photography rules. Breaking rules you risk a lifetime ban from entering North Korea, or worse… remember Otto Warmbier, an American tourist sentenced to 15 years of jail and hard labor and eventually died, just for stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel. Since 1 September 2017 United States Department of State has prohibited use of US passports to travel to North Korea.
Human rights and stupid laws
In North Korea everyone worship the Supreme Leader. It is a legal requirement to display portraits of Kim Il-sung, and Kim Jong-il in every public building, school or home (will they be modified to add 3rd leader, Kim Jong-un?). Each home include a built-in radio tuned to receive only government broadcast and cannot be turned off (source). What about power outages?
Human rights are severely violated, you risk going to jail for doing thinks that are 100% legal in western world, including possessing any foreign publication about North Korea, any religious item or anything else that is against Kim ideologies. Wearing jeans and skirts shorter than knee are banned (probably skirt rule do not apply for festivals, I do see on YouTube dancers with short clothing). People have “freedom” to choose one of the few dozens haircuts allowed by government. But smoking marijuana is legal.
Committing a crime will put in jail not only you, but also your parents and children, where you will eventually die by starvation, hard labour or torture. Consequently, citizens need to be careful about behavior of their relatives too.
North Korea allegedly have the biggest ratio of imprisoned citizens in the world, more than United States which is officially the country with most prisoners, because the government deny the existence of prisons so nobody knows how many were imprisoned and how many are still alive. Read more on Wikipedia: Prisons in North Korea.
Is rumored that government recruited 2000 girls for sexual pleasure of high-ranked officials, called Kippumjo, some young as 13, usually ending their service at age 22-25 and are receiving gifts in exchange of keeping secrecy of their membership in Kippumjo.
Propaganda lies & war against United States
What we know: Korean peninsula was divided in 1945 between communist and capitalists governments, American troops withdrew from south in 1949, none of countries liked the division and both dream a reunification of Korea but under their own regime. In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea, starting the Korean war. The Korean Armistice Agreement was signed three years later, creating a four-kilometer wide buffer zone where nobody would enter, known as the Demilitarized Zone. The countries were technically still on war, until 2018 when Kim Jong-un met Moon Jae-in and signed a peace treaty.
What does North Korea say: North Koreans call their country Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK, the only Korea, considering the south a land devastated by United States, rather than a country, and they can conquer the south lands by destroying United States.
DPRK is in a state of war, citizens talk about war all time, children are taught from school to be “hostile with the fucking United States”, in libraries you can find books titled “Americans of the South that started Korean war”. In Pyongyang, most billboards do not advertise products but anti-US propaganda, paintings with Koreans beating US soldiers, ripping American flag, etc.
Government spend a lot of money on military programmes to prepare against an imminent attack from United States, developing nuclear bombs and testing rockets, which other countries see as a threat. In my opinion they just want to scary other countries from invading North Korea.
United States together with United Nations impose economic sanctions on North Korea hoping that they will end their nuclear program, but this makes it to threat even more. United States do not want to bomb North Korea, because China will join North Korea if United States strike first, but will remain neutral if North Korea strike first.
What is possible, will be an anti-government uprising like in Romania 1989 revolution, but unlikely to happen, because North Korean government is improving living conditions since 2000s and people are brainwashed that North Korea is the paradise and do not know that other countries offer better living conditions so they love their leader, compared with Romanian living conditions that were worsened by Nicolae Ceausescu in 1980s and people were hating the leader but not showing off, until enough people joined together and convinced army to kill the leader.
Even if Kim regime fall, Korea reunification is not possible without a major plunge of south economy, which South Koreans will not accept. While East and West Germany had an 1:3 economy difference, North and South Korea difference is over 1:20. North Korea will need a period of transition and massive investment, to be ready for reunification.
At Singapore summit on 12 June 2018 Kim Jong-un promised closing nuclear program and Donald Trump promised major investments, but no timeframe been announced. The next step: North Korean government should start economic reforms and open the country for private-run businesses and foreign investment (see China reforms, 1986 Vietnam reforms, 1989 USSR reforms, which made these countries economies to boom). But this is unlikely to happen, because if they allowing foreign investors, population will realize that their country was NOT most advanced on earth like how government claimed.
When coronavirus outbreak in China in January 2020, North Korea suspended tourism and closed borders, because if the virus spread in, its fragile medical system cannot cope. Since the country depends by foreign ad, on-going pandemic into 2021 kept trading halted and caused major shortages. North Korea claims itself as virus-free country with 0 confirmed cases, but this is unlikely to be true. Kim Jong-un acknowledged the food crisis in April 2021 and warned population to be prepared for a famine like in 1990s. Multiple countries offered to donate vaccines to North Korea, but government reject all foreign aid. On 12 May 2022 North Korea reported COVID-19 cases for 1st time, hundred thousands cases per day, a figure highly contested.
Mysteries that need to be clarified
The population is brainwashed by government propaganda purporting North Korea as the best country in the world and all countries are jealous to their level of development, or that North Korea won every event at FIFA World Cup (where actually they did not even participated) or Olympics where they did participated with poor results, sport teams are among few people privileged to leave country, but probably are not allowed to tell anyone about living conditions overseas.
KCNA TV occasionally broadcast negative news from other countries, to give impression that capitalist system turned the world into poverty and violence while the DPRK, the only remaining socialist state, is the “people paradise on the earth”. Example: this video saying that ordinary americans live in tents, eat birds and drink snow, and they (North Koreans) are helping them with good food. But homes shown in first part of video do not have the sash windows common in United States, second half of video is filmed in Romania main train station (Gara de Nord) known for homeless people begging (who believe in this shit “there are no birds because all were eaten yesterday” but what they eat tomorrow? also what they drink during summer when there is no snow?).
Most people do not know that there is a better life outside their country, that on the earth exist more advanced countries, that humans reached the moon, etc. People thinks that their Kwangmyong is the only (or at least the first) computer network in the world, or that their Kwangmyŏngsŏng program makes Korea the only (or the first) country in the world that reached the space.
However, too much info came from south, so during 1990s the government had to admit that South Korea enjoy higher standards of living. For example South Koreans hot air balloons over the DMZ containing foreign writings about North Korea, anti-regime news, 2011-2012 Arab world uprising, or other news that are normally censored in North Korea, to incite to a regime change. Most North Koreans do not know the truth about outer world, they do not realize how bad is their government, to start a uprising.
North Koreans may be willing to go in South Korea, for example using a homemade raft during night, but is dangerous if ocean current push them in wrong direction, a safer way is on foot via mountainous terrain at border with China, then further to Mongolia or to South Asia, because if caught by Chinese police, they would have been sent back to North Korea and ending in jail or killed. According Wikipedia, 100,000 to 300,000 North Koreans have defected, but nobody knows how many others attempted and got jailed or died. If defectors reach South Korea, they are sent to Hanawon, a 3-month programme to help them adapting to democracy, some are unhappy that here everything cost money and would like to return to the “better life” in North Korea (example video), but if they would to so, they would be sentenced to death, some choose to suicide.
Kim Jong-il hate America but his funeral used an American-made Lincoln Continental limousine! They also use PCs with Microsoft Windows and Mac computers made in USA.
Look carefully at Kim Jong-il funeral, there are rumors that people who do not cry enough were jailed, but you can see that while the camera is aimed to people who mourn, in background just few are mourning. Apparently this has been directed for purpose of showing to local and foreign media how much people loved their leader. And yes, many people do really LOVE their government, see video diary made by a north korean girl, criticizing capitalist system where the money rule everything.
I am curious how does look a DPRK geographic atlas. What they know about the world? I guess that they know that humans live all around the earth, and natural features, as these info exists before communism installment, but they may be lied about technology level of rest of world. Do they know how many countries are in the world, or what is the world population, or which are largest cities? Probably they know about USSR as it was main economic partner, but how the Korean government explained to their citizens the break-up of USSR and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe?
The claim that North Korea is totally isolated country is FALSE. The government do everything to prevent people to access foreign info, but in the same time they allow everyone to enter, tourists are main source of foreign info. Any foreign publication regarding North Korea as well as any religious item is confiscated at customs, tourists are strictly guided and not allowed to talk with locals, but the guiders themselves are locals, tourists can tell them foreign news and they can spread the news?
Government deny existence of prison camps when speaking to foreign media, but citizens do know their existence? These camps employ a lot of people to take care of inmates, their family relatives do know where they are working?
In Kaesong Industrial Region, South Korean companies employ North Korean workers. The south staff can talk with north workers, giving info about life in South Korea, especially as the language is not a barrier.
I am confused how does the (lack of) freedom of speak is working there. Probably they are taught from young to not talk each other about problems and not even tell about job to their relatives, and always listen to government propaganda?
Sources & further read
– Wikipedia articles about North Korea
– Personal analysis of photos and satellite imagery in Google Earth
– The F.A.Q. / Rules of various travel agencies (beware, they hide bad things to attract tourists)
– 2008 census report.pdf contains population by city, province, age group, household size, education level, etc
– Various travel blogs, photos and videos made by tourists, for example Sue Wombat and Cezar Dumitru, romanian tourist in North Korea comparing with communist Romania (romanian language)
– A website featuring several North Korean defector writers: https://www.nknews.org/
www.retrodprk.com – 1980s and 1990s photos
https://kfaargentina.wordpress.com/2019/01/09/arquitectura-de-corea-del-norte/ – recent photos of buildings
Tourist who took camera inside North Korea expecting to find ‘really, really sad people’ is shocked to discover a happy country
I am from Romania, and interested in North Korea due to similarities with the former communist government of my country.
Page published for first time in 2011, an small article of about 500 words, and updated with more information over next years, reaching 3000+ words in 2015. Text written by me (Teoalida) and images taken from Wikipedia, Panoramio and other websites. Do you have useful information that worth adding? Did you found an error or have a contradictory opinion? Leave a comment!
Note: North Korea page is the most visited page under Housing around the World section, most visitors being American schoolkids, most of them asking dumb questions that cannot be answered (example), sometimes inviting friends to message me in same time, disturbing me from doing my daily work. Some do not read my website carefully and thinks that I am North Korean. North Koreans do not have internet access. ALL articles about North Korea available on internet are written by foreigners.