Eight things people get wrong about North Korea

Kim Jong-un

For one of the world's most secret societies, there is a constant stream of news about North Korea.

This week there's been a lot of noise surrounding its nuclear programme.

It's because leader Kim Jong-un says his country's weapons should be ready to use "at any time". So is that true?

And what of all the other claims about enforced haircuts and unicorns?

Asia expert John Nilsson-Wright helps us sort out the facts.

'North Korea is about to nuke us all'

Kim Jong-un nuclear signs

No. This isn't true, despite the country's recent threats.

"It's classic North Korean behaviour to talk things up when they feel threatened," Nilsson-Wright tells Newsbeat.

"The fact that they've tested a crude nuclear device four times is obviously a reason to be worried, but that's very different from believing they're going to drop a bomb.

"I think most analysts don't think they're at the stage where they can put a nuclear bomb on a missile."

'Kim Jong-un doesn't know what he's doing'

North Korean leader

His barber might not, but he does according to Nilsson-Wright.

"We should take any North Korean leader seriously. They have a million men in their army, a nuclear programme and a chemical weapons stockpile.

"The cartoon image of him being bad, mad and dangerous is only partially right.

Kim Jong-un is not crazy
John Nilsson-Wright

"North Korean leaders are rational.

"They know attacking the South will invite instant retaliation from the US and the South and North Korea will swiftly disappear.

"Kim Jong-un is not crazy."

'There are no elections'

Ballot box

Wrong again. There are, although there's only ever one candidate on the ballot paper.

You can theoretically vote against that person by scratching out their name, but if you like being alive it's not recommended.

"The cost of doing that in terms of your own personal security is a huge risk," says Nilsson-Wright.

Unsurprisingly pretty much everyone who can vote does, and the winning candidate tends to get 100% of the vote.

'You can't leave'

North Korean soldiers at gate

Travel agents don't do big business in North Korea, but it is possible to leave.

Basically, the state doesn't like people leaving in case they never come back.

Some students are allowed to go and study abroad, but there is a strict rulebook.

"Invariably they travel in pairs," says Nilsson-Wright.

"It's a means to moderate one another. And they leave their family members behind as sort of hostages.

"If anyone is minded to leave or defect, the state will think of nothing of punishing their family members."

'It's 2016'

2016 calendar

Bizarre as it may sound, it's not 2016 in North Korea.

It's 104.

The country bases its calendar on the date of birth of their former supreme leader Kim Il-Sung which was 15 April 1912.

'Everyone has the same haircut'

Kim Jong-un

"There's reportedly pressure on men to copy the style of the current leader," says Nilsson-Wright.

Though it's thought men can choose from a list of styles when they go to the barbers, even if they are all slight variations on a short back and (very short) sides.

'They don't drink'

Pint of beer

Many things are banned by the state, but booze certainly isn't one of them.

"They are very serious drinkers," says Nilsson-Wright.

"They like to drink. They like to sing. And they like to take part in North Korea's equivalent of karaoke."

Marijuana isn't legal though, despite some reports.

'There's no such thing as unicorns'


There is... if you believe North Korea's state media.

Back in 2012 the government's mouthpiece claimed scientists had "reconfirmed" the burial site of the unicorn ridden by King Dongmyeong, the founding father of the ancient Korean kingdom of Goguryeo.

According to the report, the unicorn's grave was rediscovered near a temple in the capital Pyongyang.

And as far as we're concerned we're taking this one at face value. Long live the unicorn.

John Nilsson-Wright is head of the Asia programme at Chatham House and a lecturer at the University of Cambridge.

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