Separating fact from fiction regarding North Korea is not easy. The isolated country's leaders try to block information from entering or leaving the country, and when stories do emerge, the eccentric and gruesome exploits of its rulers make almost anything seem plausible.
The horror of atrocities in North Korea -- including prison camps, sexual violence and deliberate starvation -- might defy belief had they not been documented, as they were in a recent United Nations report. Yet the world has very little information about daily life in North Korea, or how its leaders in Pyongyang think, and rumors often fill the gap.
"Critical thinking just goes out the window on North Korea," NK News founder Chad O'Carroll told The World Post. Too often, international media outlets rush to regurgitate Japanese and South Korean press reports about North Korea without doing the same fact-checking they would on other stories, O'Carroll said. As North Korea's neighbors and host to its refugees, Japan and South Korea do in fact have rare access to information about the insular regime. But some of their media outlets have no qualms about reporting based on one anonymous source, O'Carroll warned, and these stories are often later debunked.
Michael Madden, who authors the site North Korea Leadership Watch, wrote in Foreign Policy that such reports from North Korea often involve gross exaggeration. "Little snippets of information are imaginatively threaded together by creative diplomats or intelligence officials ... and peddled to journalists working in the hyper-competitive South Korean and Japanese media markets," he wrote.
However, Madden also noted that some stories contain a kernel of truth, as gossip leaks out from inside North Korea. "It is as dangerous to dismiss all stories as to blanket accept that they are true," O'Carroll said.
Given what is often an utter lack of information, it can be difficult to tell the difference. So let The World Post be your guide to some of the strangest stories of life and death in North Korea, where they came from and what we know about them.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Mangyongdae Revolutionary School in Pyongyang, North Korea, Jan. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service)
1. North Korea ordered male students to cut their hair like Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.
Source: Radio Free Asia's Korean service quoted a source inside North Korea, speaking on condition of anonymity, who described an unwritten directive from the ruling Workers Party to students in March 2014.
Verdict: Dubious. If the recommendation was made it does not appear to have been enforced. Visitors and journalists inside North Korea told The Associated Press that there was no sign of students' hairstyles changing to look like Kim's cut.
2. North Korea has 28 government-approved hairstyles for men and women.
Source: Hong Kong's Phoenix TV reported on images of the state-sanctioned hairstyles in 2013, according to Taiwan's Want China Times.
Verdict: Dubious. NKNews says the viral images are barber shop posters that offer a selection of possible cuts, not mandatory styles.
3. But, North Korea's government does have an official hairstyle policy.
Source: The BBC reported on several North Korean state media campaigns in 2005 showcasing official hairstyles and shaming people with long hair.
Verdict: Likely, and the reported rationale is bizarre. One state TV show warned that long hair harms intelligence by consuming the brain's energy, according to the BBC. Yet defectors from North Korea say while the hairstyle directives are real, they are not a big deal, as most people voluntarily stick to conservative styles and the rules are not seriously enforced.
4. North Korea's government has a fashion policy.
Verdict: Likely, although experts say Kim Jong Un has relaxed the fashion rules in order to appeal to a younger generation, and they were not uniformly enforced. For example, women were allowed to wear trousers to work.
A defector at a Seoul rally holds a picture of a North Korean soldier being executed, April 14, 2011.
(AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
5. Kim Jong Un fed his uncle to hungry dogs.
Source: After North Korea announced the execution of the supreme leader's uncle and second-in-command in December 2013, Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po detailed a particularly brutal execution method. The paper said Jang Song Thaek and five aides were stripped naked and fed to 120 dogs who had been starved for five days.
Verdict: Dubious. Blogger Trevor Powell discovered that the story originated with a satirical social post on China's Tencent Weibo, according to NPR. Whatever the method, Kim did have his uncle very publicly arrested and executed in December 2012, the most high-profile casualty in a purge of top officials.
6. Kim Jong Un had his ex-girlfriend -- and other pop stars -- executed for making a pornographic video.
Source: Two versions of this story emerged in September 2013. South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that dozens of singers, including Kim's alleged ex-lover, pop star Hyon Song Wol, were executed for making pornography. Meanwhile Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun said the porn charges were leveled at former bandmates of Kim's current wife, Ri Sol Ju, who were executed after they were overheard discussing her sexual past.
Verdict: Inconclusive. North Korea said the reports were fabricated, but the pop groups stopped appearing in public. Experts interviewed by The Guardian about the story warned that with few high-level defectors coming out of North Korea, such stories from the heart of the regime are almost impossible to verify.
7. North Korea had officials executed by flamethrower.
Source: South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported in April 2014 that one of the officials in Jang's former department was burned alive, in an "execution by flamethrower."
Verdict: Inconclusive. Coming so shortly after the debunked "execution by hungry dogs" story, this anonymously-sourced story in Chosun Ilbo rang alarm bells. However, it was not the first time such a gruesome execution method was reported. A month earlier, undercover reporters in North Korea for Rimjingang magazine described a widespread rumor in the country that officials loyal to Jang were killed by rocket grenade, and that "the remains of their bodies were incinerated by a flamethrower."
8. North Korea had officials executed by bombing them to smithereens.
Source: Chosun Ilbo reported in 2012 that a top military official was found drunk during the mourning period for Kim's father and predecessor Kim Jong Il, and was executed by mortar round after Kim gave the order to leave "no trace of him behind, down to his hair."
Verdict: Inconclusive. The story reappeared in Choson Ilbo seven months later, citing South Korean intelligence reports that the general executed with mortars was the deputy defense minister. Michael Madden, editor of North Korea Leadership Watch, cautioned in Foreign Policy that such stories of official purges can be wildly exaggerated without the ability to verify facts. The mortar story, he concluded, is probably a deliberately-circulated rumor to intimidate other military officials, due to the triviality of the offense and its reemergence in the media.
The North Korean version of "Godzilla" is shown in this scene from the 1985 movie "Pulgasari." (AP Photo/Raging Thunder)
9. North Korea produced its own smartphone -- dubbed the Pyongyang Touch.
Source: North Korea's official news agency in August 2013 announced the launch of the North Korean Arirang smartphone, manufactured in the country using "indigenous technologies."
Verdict: Dubious. Technology website GSM Insider compared images of the North Korean phone with a Chinese model, and concluded that the Arirang was a re-branded clone.
10. Kim Jong Il kidnapped a famous director to build the North Korean film industry.
Source: Director Shin Sang-ok and his wife, actress Choi Un-hui, said that the notoriously movie-obsessed Kim Jong Il had them kidnapped and ordered to improve North Korean film, which they did until their escape eight years later.
Verdict: Likely. Defectors have described how popular the couple's films became in North Korea, including the North Korean version of Godzilla. Further, Shin smuggled out secretly-taped conversations with the late leader, and wrote a detailed memoir giving rare insight into the hermit kingdom.