This post is all about the North Korean memory team and their unprecedented success at the 2019 World Memory Championship in Wuhan, China.
Disclaimer (because some people might misinterpret this information): I am not a supporter of the North Korean government and their regime. I am simply a proud, peaceful American and world traveler who is also fascinated to learn about and meet people from other countries and cultures. I will never apologize for that. North Koreans interest me since there is little known about them to the outside world or about their country and way of life. I admire their 6 memory competitors and their hard work. I have no idea what conditions they live and train under. The information in this article is meant to be informative.
I’ve been getting tons of questions from friends and fellow competitors about what I know about their historic performance.
If you weren’t aware, a North Korean is the new World Memory Champion. The North Korean team won the team event and several world records were SMASHED by North Koreans.
Fellow competitors that were at this championship (and many who weren’t at this championship) believed these scores to be highly suspicious.
Was there cheating?
How could they memorize so much in an era when we thought memory scores were closer to reaching their peak?
This is what I learned…
Before the Championship
Before the 2019 World Memory Championship (WMC) even started, North Koreans were the talk of the town. As you register for the WMC, you are required to submit all your decks of cards for the Hour Cards event on day 2…that way they can be shuffled and prepared ahead of time.
Competitors can submit as many decks as they like. It’s a sign of how many decks a competitor can memorize, so everyone is trying to figure out who brought the most decks.
The world record (WR) for this event going in was 37 decks of cards. So, I would suspect the top competitors to bring in around 40 or more decks of cards. I was quickly informed by my Vietnam team that the North Koreans had brought 50-60 decks.
I couldn’t believe it. I kept telling everyone that I genuinely thought it was an intimidation tactic. “There’s no way you can memorize that many decks and write them all down in order in the recall phase.” I believed the North Koreans were great memory competitors, especially after seeing their scores for the first time at the 2018 WMC, but I didn’t think they could do that well.
Sure enough, I checked the sign-in paper and all 6 of the North Koreans had brought between 50 and 55 decks each. Their top competitor from last year Pang Un Sim (who finished 2nd place) had a blank entry. I learned later that she was sick and couldn’t attend this year. Would their scores and WRs be even higher if she had come?
Another sign of things to come was the fact that the North Korean team requested 5,000 digits for the Hour Numbers event. Just for perspective, the WR going into this event was 3,260 digits by Zhang Ying of China. The thought of someone even getting to the 5th page during memorization (each page has 1,000 digits) was unbelievable. Again…I thought this was just an intimidation tactic.
I’m going to just jump in and show you the highlights from the North Korean team.
First of all, I was wrong about the intimidation tactics. Most of their scores were unbelievable.
*You can search all the 2019 WMC results here:
and soon on the official site here:
*You can see WRs at these links:
WMSC (recognized as Guinness WRs):
and IAM: https://iam-stats.org/records.php
30 min Binary
Previous Official WR was 5597 digits (Lkhagvadulam Enkhtuya – Mongolia)
Unofficial WR was 6270 digits (Munkhshur Narmandakh of Mongolia at an IAM event in 2017)
2019 North Korean highlights:
1st – Ryu Song I: 7485 digits!!!
2nd – Kim Su Rim: 6805 digits
3rd – Jon Kum Phyong: 6585 digits
4th – Jon Yu Jong: 6495 digits
5th – Kim Ju Song: 6155 digits
One thing most people don’t know is that all the competitors who requested more than 6,000 binary digits (all the North Koreans, Wei Qinru from China, and a few Mongolian competitors) had to RE-DO this discipline on the 4th day.
Apparently, the organizers accidentally duplicated one of extra binary sheets (so 2 pages were exactly the same). The top competitors noticed this during memorization and told the organizers afterwards. So, the organizers decided to redo the event for these competitors…meaning all of them either REUSED their journeys or had to choose new journeys to do this event on day 4. That makes these scores by the North Koreans even more unbelievable.
Previous WR was 3,260 digits (Zhang Ying – China)
2019 North Korean highlights
1st – Ryu Song I: 4620 digits!!!
4 of their 6 competitors broke the previous WR
Their lowest score was 3220 digits (8th place)
This was the first announcement that spun everyone’s heads. Since the Binary results from Day 1 weren’t official (due to the retest), the scores from Hour Numbers got everyone buzzing about this team. Imagine everyone’s shock after hearing that the WR was shattered by 1,360 digits (42% increase).
Previous WR was 37 decks (Munkhshur Narmandakh – Mongolia)
2019 North Korean highlights
1st – Kim Su Rim: 48 decks + 34 cards!!!
2nd – Jon Yu Jong: 45 decks + 4 cards!!
3rd – Kim Ju Song: 44 decks!!
4th – Ryu Song I: 43 decks + 28 cards!!
Munkhshur finished 5th with 41 decks + 9 cards.
The “worst” score from North Korea was 35 decks.
Note: The recall time for this event was increased to 2.5 hours this year (previously only 2 hours).
Spoken Numbers (hearing 1 digit spoken per second)
Previous WR was 456 digits (Lance Tschirhart – USA)
2019 North Korean highlights
1st – Ryu Song I: 547 digits
Here is what’s unbelievable about this score. There are 3 trials (attempts) in this event. The first trial you hear 200 digits. 2nd trial you hear 300 digits. The last trial you hear the previous WR + 20% (so this year = 547 digits). So, to beat a WR you only have 1 chance…on the last trial.
Ryu Song I got a PERFECT score in each trial! 200, 300, 547. Not a single mistake. This has never happened before.
Final Overall Results
1st place – Ryu Song I (North Korea): 9533 points!!
2nd place – Wei Qinru (China): 9091 pts
3rd place – Jon Yu Jong (North Korea): 8913 pts
4th place – Kim Su Rim (North Korea): 8812 pts
5th place – Ri Song Mi (North Korea): 8523 pts
6th place – Munkhshur (Mongolia): 8491 pts
For perspective, the previous highest ever point total in a WMC was 8,647 points by Alex Mullen in 2016…which is now equivalent to 8,149 points (standards and point totals are adjusted every year with the increase of scores).
Also, for perspective on the top 6 overall:
-Wei Qinru was the 2018 Champion.
-Munkhshur was the 2017 Champion.
I admit I was suspicious of their scores during the competition. I never really suspected cheating, but I kept thinking “how can they do that!?”
I wasn’t the only one. Dominic O’Brien, 8-time World Memory Champion and world famous memory author & speaker, called for the all the World Record breakers to be spot checked (quizzed after the fact) on Hour Cards and “re-tested” on a few events (Spoken Numbers, Numbers, Binary) to uphold the validity of their scores.
This is standard practice for anyone who smashes a record or is suspected of cheating.
One of the arbiters who was present for this retest told me that the North Koreans seemed overly excited and confident during this process.
Everyone ultimately passed with flying colors. They were legit.
How Do They Do It?
If you’re a memory competitor, this is probably the section you want to read the most.
This is what I learned about the systems that the North Koreans use.
Just for disclosure, most of this information was told to me by other trustworthy competitors and arbiters. I didn’t realize that one of the North Korean competitors spoke English until day 3. I had assumed it would be hard to communicate with them. So, I didn’t talk with them until the last day.
This is probably the most unbelievable thing of all…
The new World Memory Champion, Ryu Song I, started memory training THIS April. She said that she trains 5 hours per day. Very hard to fathom how she learned systems that fast, created all her journey locations, and improved that quickly. It really is otherworldly. She is only 19 years old. Incredible all-around.
Most of the other North Koreans have been training for 3 to 8 years.
I assume they have national competitions within North Korea and many other memory athletes who train. I’m guessing they only bring their best to the WMC. This is only their 2nd year competing. Only 2 of the 6 that came this year were at the WMC last year (Kim Su Rim and Ri Song Mi).
North Korea has no internet access in their country. Their government blocks all outside access. They’re isolated from the outside world.
Imagine never having a cell phone. No Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…No candy crush, no notifications, no technology anxiety…
Basically, what life was like 40+ years ago.
Now, imagine the advantage they have over the rest of the world in areas of focus, patience, concentration, and the ability to sit in training for long periods of time.
I believe this is their biggest advantage against the rest of the world.
- I heard a rumor that if one of them won the WMC, that they would get a house.
- I heard that their best competitor in speed cards was in tears when he failed to get the WR (he memorized a deck in 15.562s. Official WR is 13.96s).
Most of them use a 3-digit system (1,000 images. 1 for each number between 000-999).
One or two of them use a 2-digit system since they started training more recently.
They HAND DRAW lines on their papers for the Hour and Speed Numbers events. They don’t use a transparency sheet. I’ve never heard of this.
For those with a 3-digit system, they draw vertical lines between every 3 digits…for 13 rows.
13 lines x 3 digits = 39 digits
This leaves 1 digit at the end (since each row has 40 digits).
They memorize the last row separately (horizontally).
I got conflicting info on how they review for Hour Numbers. Possibly because they each do it a little differently. I heard one of them reviews after each page and then doesn’t review a 3rd time.
I heard the champion, Ryu Song I, reviews the first page 4 times in total!…and that she also reviews other pages 2-3 times each.
Their pace/speed is incredible here to be able to encode and review that much. I heard that in training they are able to memorize and review a total of 800 digits in 5 minute Speed Numbers.
They don’t use the same system.
Some have 64 images for binary (2-digit system).
Some of them have 1,024 images (turn 10 binary digits into 1 image).
Others have 512 images for binary (3×3 grids possibly).
They use a 2-card system…meaning 2 cards together is 1 image.
They have 2,704 images total (52 cards x 52 cards = 2704 possible images).
For Hour Cards, one of the North Koreans shared that she memorizes 20 decks, then reviews 20 decks, memorizes the next 20 decks, then reviews those 20 decks, memorizes 10 more decks (possibly reviews), then reviews the first 40 decks again.
For spoken numbers, all of them use a 2-digit system (images for 00-99) and put 4 digits per location in their journey.
This is really smart.
The downfall of using a 3-digit system in this event (like I do), is that it is very hard to find any gaps (missing images) that you might have. Since 3-digit has 1,000 images, it’s impossible to search thru all your images to figure out what’s missing. By using only 100 images, with a 2-digit system, you are able to search easily through your images to find any gaps.
The Hour Disciplines (Hour Cards and Hour Numbers)
I was told they train so that the hour events feel short.
To me, this means that they train longer than 1 hour for these events. Imagine training 2 Hour Cards or 3 Hour Numbers at home…just so 1 Hour Cards and Numbers feels like a cakewalk.
I didn’t meet their team until the awards ceremony on day 4.
To my shock, one of them (Jon Yu Jong) spoke great English. I was amazed just for the fact that North Korea is known for their government’s hatred of America. They’re also isolated from the rest of the world, so why would they learn English…or be ALLOWED to learn English?
I assume since these competitors are given permission by their government to travel to international competitions, that they were allowed to learn English.
When I approached them for the first time (carrying my American flag), I asked if they would take a picture with me. I was told “we need to ask first.” They asked the official that was with them and they returned with their DPRK flag.
I’m pretty proud of this picture. How many pictures in the WORLD exist with North Korean(s) and American(s) with their flags TOGETHER??
L to R: Me, Ryu Song I (champion), unsure his name, Kim Su Rim, Jon Yu Jong, and Ri Song Mi.
*The other male competitor was cut off in the photo. Between the two guys, I don’t know who is Kim Ju Song and who is Jon Kum Phyong.
Out of curiosity, I shook all of their hands. I just wanted to see their reaction to meeting an American.
Most of them happily shook my hand. One complimented me and said “you are very good.” Two of them gave me uninspiring, weak handshakes and looked unsure of how to handle the situation. Maybe I intimidated them 😉
I asked Jon Yu Jong if it was ok for them to meet with an American. She said yes.
I asked about the relationship between North Korea and America. She said it is still not good yet.
I told them I admired their achievements and wished them well.
Here’s our selfie afterwards:
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