The top 5 lies that North Koreans tell each other

Tuesday 2nd April, 2013

North Korean lies

North Korean lies

Although North Koreans do not observe April Fools’ day, they ply each other with untruths throughout the year – and we’re not talking about the North Korean leadership. What are the top 5 lies that ordinary North Koreans tell each other?

Lie number 5: “I’ve just eaten”

According to Kang Jin-ha*, one of the most prevalent North Korean lies is “I’ve just eaten”. Until the days of the famine in the 1990s, the usual North Korean greeting was “How are you?” or “How’s it going?” During those days of famine, however, the standard North Korean greeting changed to “Have you eaten?” which has remained ever since. Nevertheless, it is regarded a faux pas to reply that one hasn’t eaten, as it may sound like a request for food. Therefore the standard North Korean reply to the everyday greeting is “I’ve just eaten.”

Lie number 4: “I’ve never watched a South Korean TV show”

Yu Sung-bok* let out a laugh as he revealed the following common North Korean lie: “I’ve never watched a South Korean TV show”. Sung-bok thinks there isn’t a single North Korean who has not watched a South Korean TV show, or is not at least aware of the story-lines of the popular South Korean soap operas. He tells us, “If you don’t watch these shows, you’re left out of most conversations.” There must be a thrill in possessing such forbidden knowledge too. Sung-bok recounts, “At work or in a public setting, when someone alludes to a line from a South Korean soap opera, we would sit there biting our lips as if we knew nothing. Although we were sure everyone knew.”

Frequently at local Party meetings and education sessions, North Koreans are tested for their guilt. For example, they may be asked about a certain South Korean show. The reply, according to North Koreans in exile, is always the same: “I’ve never watched a South Korean TV show”. Sung-bok adds, “Once we were certain the police were out of earshot, we would laugh at their hypocrisy. We know that they too were watching South Korean TV shows.”

North Korean money
Lie number 3: “I didn’t make any money today”

In North Korea, there is no freedom of movement. Hence neighbours are for life. The common North Korean saying ‘I know how many spoons there are in my neighbour’s kitchen’ stems from this proximity between households. But even if families lack basic privacy, most North Koreans actually get along fine with their neighbours and often share banter.

Kim Young-min* tells us, “Everyone lives hand-to-mouth, so a popular greeting among neighbours was ‘Did you make any money today?’ If I had made money on a day my neighbour had not – or vice versa – the situation would turn very awkward. So we told each other, day in day out, that we had not made any money.”

Lie number 2: “We can buy the US mainland if we sell our nukes”

Based on our interviews with North Korean refugees, lies number 1 and 2 were clear winners. They came way ahead of the other North Korean lies in terms of frequency. Kang Jin-ha* describes how around April 2012, lectures at workplaces and at compulsory ‘people’s meetings’ described how the launch of a short-range rocket would persuade South Korea to give food-aid, while the launch of a long-range rocket would persuade the US to offer food-aid.

How could the authorities be so blatantly cynical? Here is the motive behind it all, as recounted by Jin-ha: “They told us, ‘The US tempts us to give up our nuclear weapons, saying they will pay us to get rid of them. Their offer is so large that it is enough to feed our country for a hundred years.’ The lectures inculcated us with the might of North Korea’s Songun (Military-First Policy).”

And from then on, North Koreans would tell each other, “Apparently, we can buy the US mainland if we sell our nukes.”

Number 1: “For three generations, we have been blessed by our Suryong and our General”

In recent months, North Koreans have been attending compulsory weekly lectures on the theme of ‘three generations of being blessed by the Suryong (Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung) and the General (Kim Jong-il)’. In particular, sources say that the focal point of these lectures is the description of Kim Jong-un as “an exact likeness of Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung – not only in appearance, but in his character”.

It is due to the frequency of theses lectures that the following lie trumps all other North Korean lies plied, tongue-in-cheek, among ordinary North Koreans: “for three generations, we have been blessed by our Suryong and our General”. Sung-bok adds, “even the officials who lectured us on this theme can’t have missed the awkward comparison. Kim Il-sung was dubbed by the state as ‘Suryong: the Supreme Leader of Great Achievements’, but Kim Jong-un is being dubbed by the state as ‘Suryong: Similar to the Supreme Leader’.


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