Things You Can't Buy In North Korea

It's hard to know what to believe when it comes to the Hermit Kingdom — there's no place on Earth as isolated and paranoid as North Korea, and that makes it one of the world's most intriguing cultures. Whispers from people who have visited (and somehow managed to not end up in a North Korean labor camp) and those who have defected are where we get the truest picture of what it's like to live in North Korea, and sometimes it's the absence of the little things that's the most shocking. Although members of North Korea's elite can get their hands on just about anything they want, ordinary North Koreans are resigned to a world without many of the things we Westerners take for granted.


There are only two countries in the world where Coca-Cola does not do business: Cuba and North Korea. Sanctions have made it impossible for the soda giant to infiltrate the Hermit Kingdom, but that doesn't mean the North Korean people don't have a taste for The Real Thing, even though what they usually get is The Fake Thing. You can buy any number of different Coke knock-offs in ordinary restaurants and grocery stores, and at least one of them kind of sort of looks a little bit like a real Coke (but not much). If you hold your nose and wish really hard, you can probably imagine that you're drinking Coca-Cola, but you're going to want to avoid reading the entire label, which only claims to be a "Cocoa-flavored sweet soda drink." At least the counterfeiters had the decency to refrain from ripping off the name, too.

According to The Telegraph, if you're a wealthy North Korean, a Chinese businessman, or a tourist, you can probably buy genuine Coke from a fancy grocery store or swanky restaurant, but even then you'll be reassured by the American-hating waitstaff that you're not drinking cola made by "saber-rattling imperialists." No, it's "Italian Coke," whatever that is.

Kim Jong-un's Haircut

A few years ago, Kim Jong-un's haircut was actual fashion. Men all over the Hermit Kingdom wanted to look like their Dear Leader, so they had themselves cut to match. Yes, intentionally. Now, despite a viral story that fooled plenty, the haircut was not in fact mandatory — people were doing it out of love. (Again, yes, intentionally.) But alas, all that flattery-by-imitation started to annoy Jong-un and he's had the cut left off of the list of "state-approved" haircuts. The real mystery in all this is not why someone whose happiness seems so dependent on the love and devotion of others wouldn't want to rule over a land populated by his own clones, but rather why anyone would really want to steal that guy's do. You can still buy mirrors in North Korea.


What could be more imperialist than a venti skim milk four-pump extra-hot double-shot caramel macchiato with sugar-free syrup and extra whipped cream? Nothing! And that's why there aren't any Starbucks in Pyongyang ... probably. Sanctions probably have something to do with it, too, but no one in North Korea will tell you that.

There are coffee shops in North Korea's capital — a lot of them, actually — and the funny thing is that if you walked into one of them, you'd probably think to yourself, "This place reminds me of Starbucks," but don't say that out loud. Starbucks is still Yankee imperialist trash, and there are no Great Leader-loving North Koreans who would ever lower themselves to drinking it, even if they could. "I think it's for people who don't really understand good coffee," one North Korean barista told Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Yeah? Them's fightin' words, lady.

Hair dye

Going blonde is not an option for North Koreans, and neither is going red, going green, or going rainbow-striped. Everyone's hair has to be black, unless it's gray — only then do you have the option of dying it. Black. Hair dye is a "capitalist trend," and must therefore be crushed like a small bug, smashed like a boiled pumpkin, and hacked apart like a Sony Pictures email server. So what happens if you defy the regime and get your hair dyed anyway?  Both you and your hairdresser get punished. It's not totally clear what that punishment might be, but in a nation where you can be executed for owning a Bible or watching South Korean soap operas, you probably ought to learn how to love your natural color, just in case.


North Koreans also can't get McDonald's. That's not so bad, since not having a McDonald's on every corner is roughly the health equivalent of not eating a stick of butter with a knife and fork twice a week. What's hilarious about the North Korean ban on the Golden Arches is that North Korean elites have been known to have McDonald's burgers flown in from China. That's right, flown in on the national airline, at great expense, and without regard for the people who are actually starving in North Korea's lower classes. It's okay, though, because former (now dead) leader Kim Jong-il actually invented the hamburger, did you know that? It's true! According to The Guardian, his invention, called "Gogigyeopbbang" (pronounced however you like) was gifted to the North Korean people in 2000. So McDonald's totally stole his idea. With a time machine. Or something.


Long, long ago, North Korea got its fertilizer from South Korea, and we all know how that turned out. More recently, the Hermit Kingdom has been getting fertilizer from China — but U.N. sanctions are getting in the way of that friendship, too. A lack of fertilizer is a pretty big problem for a nation that's as isolated as North Korea — if crops fail, that means trouble for an already hungry nation.

Like everything else, the regime sees this as a great opportunity to spread propaganda and pump up national pride, and it's been cheering on devoted farmers who are producing a fertilizer of their own creation. According to the Associated Press, this home-grown fertilizer is called "juche," which is really just a generic word used to describe anything that makes North Korea more self-sufficient. Now it's not really certain what "juche" fertilizer is made of, but there isn't much in the way of livestock in North Korea, and they have to use poop of some kind, so ... yeah, it's exactly what you're thinking. Ew.


U.N. sanctions and "deranged" American presidents are nothing compared to the heinous threat of Levis, Calvin Klein, and United Colors of Benetton. Jeans, like hair dye, are "toxins of capitalism," so now we're back to that whole bug-squashing, boiled pumpkin thing again. Interestingly, the movement against Western fashion trends is not being led by old men in Jong-un's regime, but by North Korean youth groups. According to The Telegraph, kids as young as 15 have volunteered to lead the fight against imperialist denim by patrolling the streets in search of fashionable citizens.

The ban appears to be directed mostly at people who live in the North Hamgyong and Yanggang provinces, which border China — citizens in these regions are apparently at greater risk for capitalist contamination because of China's great love of selling stuff to the U.S. What happens to the trendiest dissenters? They could be sent to labor camps, which let's face it is probably where bootcuts and bell-bottoms ought to end up anyway.

Foreign movies

North Korea is one of the most isolated places in the world. Like penguins in Antarctica, citizens don't really have any idea what's going on outside their devastatingly uncomfortable world. Unless, of course, they can get their hands on illegal copies of American movies and television shows.

Now, Happy Feet or any of the five Sharknados (yes, they really made a fifth one) probably don't have the potential to inform North Korean viewers about the real world, but apparently the regime thinks so. According to NPR, films made in Western nations are seen as threatening because they can inspire actual thought, and possibly encourage the asking of dangerous questions like, "What if things aren't really so bad over there?" and worse, "What if things are really so bad here?" Perhaps instead of banning Sharknado, the Dear Leader ought to make it required viewing for North Koreans instead — surely life in a land where sharks fall out of the sky is at least marginally less desirable than life in a land ruled by Kim Jong-un.


You can get your ears pierced in North Korea, but forget a nose piercing or a cute little belly ring. Piercings are (yawn) symbols of Western imperialism, toxins of capitalism, blah, blah, blah, etc. etc. Like jeans and hair dye (and apparently ponytails are on this list, too), piercings can get you in trouble with the youth brigade, which is frankly terrifying when you consider how snarky teenagers can be when they don't actually have the authority to send you to a labor camp because of the way you're dressed.

According to The Telegraph, the North Korean fashion police are also in search of skirts that are too short, shoes that aren't the right shape, people wearing T-shirts, and unmarried women who are running businesses in public marketplaces. Also, dogs and cats forming inappropriate relationships, and people who use too much oxygen. (Just kidding about those last two, but you almost believed it didn't you?)

An iPhone

North Korea is a conundrum. It spends vast amounts of money on nuclear weapons development, its elite feel perfectly comfortable splurging on McDonald's hamburgers, Hennessy Cognac, and Armani watches, but it can't keep the lights on for more than a few hours a day. Yet despite these obvious problems, the regime desperately wants everyone, including its most impoverished citizens, to believe that North Korea is a prosperous nation. And what is the top symbol of prosperity? An iPhone!

Weirdly, jeans, hair dye, and body piercings are symbols of American imperialism but apparently iPhones are not, despite the fact that Apple is an enormously successful American company and there's an iPhone stuffed in the ear of more than 85 million American cellphone users. But whatever, Kim Jong-un likes them, so they're officially okay. Here's the problem though: like Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and McDonald's, Apple doesn't do business in North Korea. So what's a dictator to do? Have someone design a knock-off!

There are plenty of rumors that Kim Jong-un owns a genuine Apple product, but there is also a North Korean smartphone that looks suspiciously like the iPhone. Its App Store probably isn't very full, though, but since almost no one in North Korea can afford a smartphone of any kind, that's clearly not the point.

Music the regime doesn't like

Music is a sensitive subject for our friend Jong-un. If it doesn't say nice things about him, or at the very least nice things about his departed ancestors, the regime, and the great land of North Korea, it's a crime punishable by, yes, death. The regime recently had 12 musicians (including Jong-un's ex-girlfriend) publicly executed for such crimes as singing about stuff the dear leader doesn't approve of. The official reason for most of the executions was "pornography" because who can find any fault in killing someone for that, right? Oh and Bible possession. That's a pretty heinous crime, too.

Even if you're not a North Korean pornographer or Bible owner, it's probably a good idea to go through your CD collection and destroy anything on the banned list, and that list even includes certain songs written and performed in North Korea. If you don't, the regime (or perhaps its pubescent moral authority squad) is likely to do it for you, and which is pretty dang terrifying.

The good news for everyone (except Jong-un) is that the ban seems to be making things harder for Dear Leader. There are even some reports that the ban is generating interest in old, prohibited songs, many of which have been more or less forgotten about. So good for you, Jong-un. Like so many other dictators, your own policies might be your undoing.