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10 Completely Normal Things That Are Banned in North Korea

by Aron Santarossa
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

North Korea is the most closed-off and secretive country in the world, but that doesn’t mean we don’t know anything about it. When it comes to North Korea, many of us know that the country is different from others. Its citizens must abide by peculiar laws and are not allowed access to certain websites or communication. Most North Koreans probably don’t even know they live in a restrictive state because they don’t have access to outside information. Here are 10 things that you do every day that are forbidden in the closed-off country.

Related: 10 Horrifying Accounts Of North Korea’s Prison Camps

10 Using the Internet

Can you imagine a world without the internet? Or someone telling you what websites you can and cannot access? Probably not, since the world as we know it is centralized around the web. We are constantly finding new and interesting information to better our lives by browsing it. Unfortunately, not everyone has this luxury.

It is against the law to use the global internet in North Korea. The government has strict controls over the internet and only allows a select few government officials, scientists, and students to have access to it. For everyone else, the government controls how it’s used and has its own state-ran network called Kwangmyong.

The internet is seen as a threat to the North Korean government because it is a tool that can be used to connect people from all over the world. It allows for the sharing of information and the exchange of ideas. This is something that the government of North Korea does not want its people to have access to. Citizens are even restricted in their phone access. They want to keep their citizens isolated from the rest of the world. [1]

9 Smiling

Everyone loves a smile. But what if there were laws on when you could do it? Sound nuts? Believe it or not, it’s against the law for North Koreans to smile on July 8, the anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s death.

If Citizens do happen to break the law for this rule, they could be sent to concentration camps or even pay with their lives. The same goes for being loud, drinking, or having a birthday party. So, whatever you do, don’t smile on July 8.

Current leader Kim Jong-un also initiated an 11-day mourning period for his late father, Kim Jong-il, on the 10th anniversary of his death. During this time, North Koreans were banned from laughing, drinking, and shopping (or other leisure activities).[2]

8 Watching TV

Watching a football game with friends, curling up for a nice movie, or just channel surfing are all things we love to do. Can you imagine only having one program to choose from? I suppose that would eliminate the argument many couples have about what to watch. But hey, we all like choices, right?

North Koreans are not allowed to watch foreign television or even listen to outside radio. Like the internet, they have their own state-run television. Anything that is not official North Korean media is prohibited, as doing so would expose them to Western culture. In fact, it’s illegal to own a television or radio that even has the ability to tune into anything other than the official North Korean media. Can you imagine watching the same thing all the time?[3]

7 Driving

What if you had to walk everywhere? That doesn’t sound fun.

Can you believe North Korea allows only one in a hundred people to own a vehicle? It’s true. Even then, if you’re a woman and need to get somewhere, you’re out of luck, that is, unless you have a male escort. Women are prohibited from driving entirely, even if they are working as traffic officers.

At one time, women were even banned from riding bicycles around town. However, that restriction has been lifted, and women can make use of the limited transportation. But while they can ride a bike now, many women still mainly work in the home, caring for their families. Those who work focus on trading and the local markets, while their husbands work in state-run jobs.[4]

6 Leaving the Country

I Escaped North Korea. Ask Me Anything

Speaking of travel, don’t plan on leaving any time either. The people of North Korea can’t just go anywhere they please; they are essentially stuck in the country. Any travel must be government approved. There have been few that have made it out, and many have lost their lives in efforts to escape. The few who do succeed in getting out usually have to pay a 3rd party to smuggle them out of the country. Even then, it’s risky. If caught, they and their entire family could be sent to prison concentration camps or even killed.[5]

5 Wearing Jeans

Fashion is very much a part of who we are as individuals. It allows us to express ourselves in so many ways. We have the freedom to dress how we want. However, not everyone around the world has this freedom. The North Korean president has decided that skinny jeans are out, and you cannot wear skinny jeans in North Korea. Because they resemble a form of western civilization, they are banned.

If you do happen to break this fashion rule, you’re taken to court, where you must confess your crimes in writing. You will only be released when someone brings you something appropriate to wear, and your employer will be notified. The same goes for dyed hair and piercings. Patrols in the city of Chongjin even target popular youth spots to try and catch people red-handed in their crimes.[6]

4 Talking on the Phone

Making an international phone call could get you killed in North Korea. Sadly, a North Korean factory chief in South Pyongan province was executed by firing squad at a stadium in front of 150,000 spectators in October 2007. The crime was for making international phone calls.

He apparently had 13 phones installed in the basement of his factory in order to make international calls. Six people were killed, and 34 others were injured when a stampede occurred as crowds were leaving the stadium.[7]

3 Choosing Your Profession

Okay, so maybe we don’t all have the dream job we fantasized about as a child. But North Koreans really don’t get to choose. When first finishing high school, all citizens must join the military. Men stay for 10 years, and women stay until the age of 23. After the military, they are then assigned their life’s work.

Job assignments are not up for negotiation and mostly consist of farming and agriculture. Other jobs consist of street sweepers, factory workers, traffic workers, and teachers. AlleEmployees are supposed to work a 48-hour work week and only have Sundays off. Once in 2016, the entire country, aside from the elite workforce, had to work 70 straight days due to government order in efforts to boost the economy.[8]

2 Getting a New Haircut

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Occasionally, everyone loves a new look. It’s nice to change it up every once in a while, right? For North Koreans, not so much. They have exactly 28 haircuts to choose from.

Women have 14 style choices, and most of them are shorter since it’s customary for married women to have shorter hair. Men are not allowed hair longer than two inches (5 centimeters), and spiky or dyed hair is a no-no because it’s not considered a “socialist hairstyle.” If a person were to get a style that was not on the approved list, they would be expressing anti-socialist behavior.[9]

1 Talking Smack about the Government

North Korea threatens U.S. over Hollywood film

How many times do we criticize or critique the way our government does things without giving it another thought? This is not something that happens in North Korea without severe punishment.

All North Koreans who live under Kim Jong-un’s rule must swear loyalty and obedience to him, his family, and the state. Those who threaten or even insult the supreme leader or his family will be imprisoned or even executed. This goes for visitors as well. American student Otto Warmbier was arrested at Pyongyang International Airport while waiting to leave North Korea as part of a guided tour group. He was arrested for stealing a billboard from his hotel room. North Korea saw this as an insult, and he was imprisoned and died after being released in a vegetative state in June 2017.

It has been said that the country is somewhat like the show The Handmaid’s Tale, which is set in a dystopian future. Although North Korea is one of the most isolated and secretive nations in the world, there are some things we do know. So next time you’re annoyed at what one might sarcastically call a first-world problem, just reread this list and be thankful you’re not living in North Korea.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen