If all the world's countries were a family, North Korea would be the weird uncle that shows up late carrying a bowl of live snakes and periodically leaves to feed the girl tied up in the trunk. North Korea is so secretive that most of what we know about its interior workings come from refugees that have managed to escape. One thing we do know is that private enterprise was until very recently completely illegal and is only now becoming somewhat accepted. It therefore shouldn't surprise anyone to learn that virtually all the companies in North Korea are owned and operated by the government, and those that aren't are almost all subsidized by it.
In a country with such a tight grip on its citizens' lives that people are required to choose from a list of government approved hairstyles, it should surprise no one to learn that all commerce is controlled by the state. However, no matter how odd we acknowledge North Korea is, it’s tough to overstate just how bizarre their money-making enterprises are.
North Korea is known as the “hermit kingdom” due to its nearly total isolation, but no country exists in true isolation. North Korea does receive discounts on international trade prices for essential goods from China, but it still needs money to spend. To get that money, the government has some … interesting occupations available.
There is a specific, secretive government agency in North Korea tasked with making money for the Kim family. It's known as Office 39, and most of the entries on this list are operated by that office. Some people say the only difference between crime and government is mandate and, well, that difference is completely academic when it comes to Office 39.
5 Super Bills
Do you know the difference between a genuine, honest-to-goodness American $100 bill and a counterfeit bill made in North Korea? Neither does the secret service. The only difference, according to the treasury department, is the country of origin. North Korea is not the only producer of super bills, but the enterprising nation is the first that is suspected to have made an actual industry of it.
According to one North Korean defector, these bills could be purchased at the North Korean embassy in Moscow for between $50 and $70 each, which raises an interesting paradox. If these bills are indistinguishable from genuine Benjamins and are purchased with regulation $100 bills, what could stop someone from infinitely doubling their net worth? Purchase two hundred dollars in fakes with a genuine one hundred dollar bill, then use those two fake hundreds to purchase four fake hundreds and so on and so forth... Flight to Moscow, anyone?
From the same department that brought us super bills, office 39, comes state-manufactured crystal meth. Look, there's good money in drugs and there just aren't enough medicines in North Korea. Something else there isn't enough of is food. And productivity. Meth is the solution to all of those problems.
Meth is the picker-upper all North Koreans love. According to the New York Times it's offered as casually as coffee, and it kind of makes sense. Methamphetamine kills appetite in a country where not too long ago two million people died of starvation thanks to a famine. Besides that, Meth's a popular drug, and therefore a fantastic export.
As reported in the LA Times, lots of meth originates in North Korea, although nowadays it's mostly produced by private entrepreneurs. Yeah, it's illegal, but it's completely tolerated. The business, I mean – private business is illegal in North Korea. Crystal meth is absolutely okay.
In late 2013, one bust stopped 220 pounds of meth from being smuggled from North Korea to the USA and since 2008 there have been at least 16 busts with quantities of up to twenty two pounds seized. North Korea's best customer for Meth? South Korea.
Of course if it works, diversify. Office 39, producer of counterfeit bills and crystal meth, also makes Heroin! Ah, is there nothing one cannot achieve when they have a government mandate, slave labor and a complete lack of morals? Nope – not when they have a fishing ship they can fill up with 110 pounds of Heroin. Except, maybe, deliver that Heroin.
After the Pong Su capsized and made a whole bunch of fish into opiate fiends, North Korea's drug trade gained international notoriety. As reported on Bloomberg.com, a former high-ranking North Korean official says our favorite insanely criminal country began manufacturing heroin to make money in the 1980s and never stopped.
Now, remember, analgesics are scarce in North Korea, and there is no better pain killer than opiates. Opium salts like heroin are a wonder drug to a person with a broken bone or an incurable headache. Of course, they also cause their own incurable problems.
2 The Pyongyang Restaurant Chain
And now for something completely different. Pyongyang, named after the capital of North Korea, may just be the one and only state-operated chain restaurant. If you're interested in learning what the government of North Korea wants you to think North Korean culture is actually like, this is where you go. Where else can you enjoy such delights as... cold noodles... and... dog meat soup... and an aphrodisiac made from bears.
While “enjoying” these delicacies you can be entertained by the waitresses who, in traditional dress, perform karaoke with frighteningly robotic smiles.
Pyongyang restaurant is another product of Room 39, making it slightly less surprising that all of the staff live on the premises and attempted escapes have led to the closure of several of the restaurants. Pyongyang restaurants can be found in China, Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia. Photography is not permitted, but if you want a look at creepiness in culinary form there are images available at a Google's notice.
1 SEK Animation Studio
Speaking of creepy, how would you like to know what North Korea thinks of American culture? Have a look at the cartoons produced by Scientific Educational Korea Animation Studio, or SEK for short.
SEK animates films for European production companies, but they seem to have produced quite a lot about the USA. And just what does an Italian film made in North Korea say about American culture? Well, evidently they think we are all as dreamy-eyed as meth-addled heroin addicts. The faces of the characters drawn by SEK studios genuinely look so stoned that they could ride through a brick wall without dropping their smile.
SEK has been rather prodigious in its output and is considered by Animation Career Review to be the 85th most influential animation studio of all time which is impressive for a country where color is likely rationed and distributed only for two hours on weekends.
Not bizarre enough an entry for this list, you say? Consider this: Your children could very well be educated and entertained by the art from a country whose chief export is Crystal Meth.