Haircuts, Unicorns, Wild Dogs: North Korea Fact or Fiction?

North Korea's isolation lends itself to some fabulous mythmaking. Here are a few stories that are more likely fiction than fact.

By Sam Schulz
|  Thursday, Mar 27, 2014  |  Updated 5:59 PM EDT
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A new report says men in North Korea are being forced to cut their hair in the fashion of leader Kim Jong Un, but there's reason for suspicion.

A trio of experts interviewed by the Washington Post said they were skeptical of Wednesday's report, which seems to originate with a Radio Free Asia story that's online only in Korean.

Not only does such a diktat not make much sense, the experts said, but also Kim's haircut — which appears to split the difference between a high-top fade and a fauxhawk — is distinctive in his country.

But such stories' allure just underscores how little reliable information the rest of the world has on the reclusive country.

North Korea's over-the-top reverence for its leaders (where else names flowers after them?) and stranglehold on independent news media leave the country ripe for fantastic rumors and help blur the line between rumor, reporting and state propaganda.

Here are three other tales of North Korea's leaders that could be too outlandish to be true.

"Unicorn lair"

Remember the report that North Korean archaeologists had claimed had found a unicorn lair? They hadn't found one, obviously — and never really claimed they had, either, despite an odd story from North Korea's state media. File that report under Unfortunate Mistranslations of State Propaganda.

The "unicorn lair" in question was actually a mistranslation of the name of Kiringul, a historical site associated with the founder of an ancient Korean kingdom.

Essentially, experts told both the Guardian and i09, North Korea was claiming to have discovered that ancient site — and suggesting, in true state propaganda fashion, that North Korea might be the inheritor to that ancient kingdom's greatness, as Foreign Policy magazine explained.

Corpse-eating dogs

It was shocking enough that Kim Jong Un had his own uncle Jang Song Thaek executed, so plenty of news outlets — NBC News among them — also cited a report that the purged uncle, once a close advisor, had been fed alive to 120 hungry dogs.

But the story originated with a single Hong Kong-based newspaper, in a report that didn't cite a source, the Washington Post noted. One U.S. official told NBC News at the time that the report wasn't "ringing any bells here."

It was not picked up by the mainstream South Korean news media, which often does report many other stories out of the North, often citing defectors as sources in light of the northern neighbor's media blackout, The New York Times explained in its Lede blog. Chinese media didn't report it, either, despite their relatively close ties with North Korea, the Washington Post added.

How many holes-in-one?

Then there are the supposed claims that Kim Jong Un's late father, former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, was some kind of golf prodigy — a narrative that news site NK News calls the "granddaddy" of North Korea rumors.

Of all the fabulous claims about the eccentric former leader, the supposed claims about his prowess at golf are some of the hardest to pin down and trace to their origins.

Some reports have North Korea claiming that Kim recorded five holes-in-one on his first-ever round of golf back in 1994. Other reports say it was 11 holes-in-one. Reports of how many under par his country claimed he putted varied widely, too.

The trouble is, none of the mentions seems to cite an actual source. Instead, stories cite each other or else North Korean media generally. Nothing about the late Kim's golf record can be found on state news agency KCNA's website.

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