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North Korea: Life Under Tyranny

John Bridges is a published author of history, and politics. His doctorate is in criminal justice.

Kim Jong-un

Kim Jong-un

North Korea is one of the most mysterious and reclusive countries on earth due largely to its political and social detachment from most of the world. It is the most secretive nation on earth and has gone to extraordinary lengths to guard those secrets against outsiders as well as its citizens. It is unlikely that people living in the capital city of Pyongyang know much about the lives of people outside the city and vice versa.

Much of our knowledge about life inside North Korea comes from people who risk their lives to get information out of the hermit nation; defectors and spies. This information is often tainted by the individual's own experiences and does not reflect the situation in the country as a whole.

Tourism does exist in North Korea, but it is limited and highly controlled. Those who visit North Korea are usually restricted to the capital city of Pyongyang and the specific site the government authorizes them to visit. Photography is restricted as is the use of personal electronic devices. A good analogy you be taking a tour of Disney World and only being shown one ride. The ride might be impressive, but it would be impossible to evaluate the entire park based upon the staged snapshot you could take. Tourists may not travel alone. They have limited, if any, contact with the local population, and what they can see is highly controlled and orchestrated. It may seem very restrictive to westerners, but the freedom tourists are granted is far greater than the average North Korean citizen.

All maps in North Korea show a Unified Korea, as does this tourist card. While tourists are welcomes, their actions are highly controlled and monitored.

All maps in North Korea show a Unified Korea, as does this tourist card. While tourists are welcomes, their actions are highly controlled and monitored.

Most North Koreans are restricted from entering Pyongyang. In North Korea, internal movements are also controlled. Citizens need a certificate issued by the government to travel from one city to another. Only those deemed to be most loyal to the government can enter, work or live in the city. Only government officials and those tied to the government have access to private vehicles. There is rarely any concern about traffic in North Korea.

Restricted movement provides the regime with an additional layer of protection from its own citizens. Aside from Pyongyang this policy is strongly enforced for people allowed to live near and work in Kaesong. Kaesong is a special industrial zone on the border of South Korea. As part of the “sunshine” outreach of 2002, South Korea collaborated with the North to provide around 50,000 factory jobs to North Koreans. This collaboration allowed a much-needed influx of cash to the North and inexpensive, skilled labor to the South. Those who are authorized to work in this zone are chosen for their demonstrated loyalty to the North’s regime, but they continue to work under heavy scrutiny. Any lapse in judgment or discussion about life in the North can result in the worker being punished. The punishment often extends to his or her entire family. The pressure to remain loyal is great.

In North Korea, there is no freedom of speech or freedom of the press. Criticism of the regime or the leadership in North Korea can cause a citizen and his or her family to ‘disappear’ from society. They could end up in a political prison camp or face execution. The government officially denies the existence of these camps, although they have been exposed through spies, defectors and satellite imagery.

There is no free media inside the country. The only opinion allowed to be voiced inside the country is that of the regime. The media of North Korea is amongst the most strictly controlled in the world. There are three television stations in this country and each is controlled by the government.

The regime controls all radio and television stations.“Radio and TV sets in North Korea are supplied pre-tuned to government stations and radios must be checked and registered with the police. According to reports from dissident and defector groups, some North Koreans purchase a second radio set that is not registered, enabling them to listen to foreign broadcasts”. (BBC Staff Writer, 2011)

Internally made radios and televisions cannot translate information from external sources. Even if a person lives close enough to the South Korean border to receive signals, the equipment would not be able to process the signal.

Some North Koreans own Chinese radios which can receive foreign stations. Listening to foreign broadcasts is prohibited and the punishment is severe. Foreign broadcasts are jammed and due to planned incompatibility between television systems in the North and South, South Korean television programs cannot be received in the north. There is an active black market for the sale of USB flash drives containing foreign entertainment, despite the threat of severe punishment.

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Elite citizens have restricted access to government-sanctioned foreign news sources. China has covertly trained several North Korean journalists to report events inside North Korea. Journalists risk their lives to provide footage of executions and the predicament of the people to foreign media.

“Internet access in North Korea is restricted to a small section of the elite who have received state approval, and to foreigners living in Pyongyang. The only option, in the absence of a broadband network, is through satellite internet coverage, which is available in some tourist hotels”. (BBC Staff Writer, 2011)

In North Korea, there is no freedom of information. Propaganda is pervasive and comprehensive. Young children are taught that the United States is evil and American soldiers kill and eat Korean children. Children are told that the Kim family are living Gods. Propaganda even extends to art which often depicts the victories of North Korea, the God-like nature of the Kim family and the evil of America.

Propaganda is prevalent throughout North Korea. At a young age, children are taught that Americans are evil, and eat North Korean children.

Propaganda is prevalent throughout North Korea. At a young age, children are taught that Americans are evil, and eat North Korean children.

How Well Do You Know North Korea? Take a Quiz to Find Out.

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. The largest stadium in the world in in North Korea. How many people does it hold?
    • 75,000
    • 100,000
    • 150,000
    • 200,000
  2. In the 1990's all teachers were required to learn to play this instrument...
    • Piano
    • Drums
    • Accordian
    • Harmonica
  3. The North Korean Constitution grants the following rights to citizens
    • Freedom of Religion
    • Freedom of Expression
    • Freedom of Democratic Voting
    • None of the above
    • All of the above
  4. Pulgasari is a North Korean film that was ripped off from...
    • Jaws
    • Star Wars
    • Godzilla
    • Thelma and Louise

Answer Key

  1. 150,000
  2. Accordian
  3. All of the above
  4. Godzilla

Understanding the threat that external information poses to their propaganda and ideology, the regime has invested massive resources in maintaining information. With knowledge comes power. The regime maintains power by blockading and keeping its monopoly as the only source of information available to the North Korean people. There is no access to the Internet except for a few hand-picked and monitored officials. Most of those people actually have access to a government-controlled intranet and not the actual Internet which is reserved to the most elite people in the regime and the cyber warfare army. North Korean landlines and mobile phones cannot make international calls.

There is no religious freedom in North Korea. Organized religion is seen as a potential threat to the regime and therefore nothing apart from token churches built as a facade of religious freedom for foreign visitors is allowed. Thousands of Buddhists and Christians have been purged and persecuted throughout the history of North Korea. People caught practicing or spreading religion in secret are punished harshly, including public executions, or exile in political prison camps.

When dealing with North Korea, it is important to understand that people live in a society that differs from most of the developed world. What seems odd to us, is simply the norm for them as they are unaware that anything else exists. They are aware of their own hardships, of course, but likely assume everyone lives a life under tyranny.


BBC Staff Writer. “North Korea's Tightly Controlled Media.” BBC Asia-Pacific, 19 Dec. 2011,

All photos used in this article are public domain. The video used in this article was created by Amnesty International

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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