North Korea is kind of an obsession of mine. For a country filled with brutal oppression and horrifying human rights abuses, it has some very interesting and often amusing quirks.
But first, a brief history of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (their official name) if anyone needs to be brought up to speed.
Korea was colonized by the Japanese from 1910 until the end of World War 2. When the allied powers were breaking up the axis empires, Russia and the US agreed that Korea would be split into two, the North being Communist and the South being a Democracy. In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea, with Russia and the US lending support in classic Cold War fashion. The Korean War (or, as the north calls it, The Victorious People’s Liberation War) never technically ended; there has simply been a ceasefire for over 60 years. North Korea still wants to reunite the two countries. In fact, their literature never capitalizes the s in South Korea, as way of not recognizing South Korea as its own country.
North Korea is completely closed off from the world, possibly because they suffered tremendously under Japanese rule and decided they would rather tough it out on their own (according to a philosophy of self-reliance they call Juche) than submit themselves to foreign influence again. However, despite having all the trappings of a Communist country, their government much more closely resembles the same pre-WW2 Japanese fascism they so thoroughly detested, right down to worshipping their leader like a god.
Their first ruler was Kim Il-Sung. And despite his death in 1994 (or year 83 in North Korea, because their calendar starts in the year he was born), he is still the country’s “Eternal President.” In a maneuver never undertaken by a Communist leader before, he named his son, Kim Jong-Il, as his successor. This caused an uproar, as many top government officials felt the son did not have the same qualifications as the father. Which may explain why the party compensated by turning the God shtick up to 11.
Kim Jong-Il’s birth supposedly took place on the holiest mountain in Korea, was heralded by a swallow, caused winter to change into spring, and was coincided by the appearance of both a shining star and a double rainbow. He could walk and talk by the time he was six months old, change the weather with his mood, and never urinated or defecated. In college, he wrote 1,500 books and six operas, all of which his biography says are “better than any in the history of all music.” The first and only time he played golf, he shot 38 under par. He could fire a fully automatic submachine gun and hit the target with every bullet. To the people of North Korea, he was a real-life Chuck Norris joke. Many refugees who have escaped the country have said that for years after fleeing, they still didn’t dare think any negative thoughts about him, lest he find them by reading their minds.
Kim Jong-Il had quite a few eccentricities. He loved movies so much that he abducted a South Korean director and a famous actress and forced them to jump start North Korea’s film industry. One of their productions featured a Godzilla knockoff uniting with peasants against a corrupt landowner. He built a city that nobody lived in on the border to South Korea just to show off. He also loved basketball and brought the sport to his country, but the rules were changed in the process. In North Korean basketball, dunks are worth three points, missing a free throw makes your team lose a point, a three-pointer that doesn’t touch the rim is worth four points, and making a shot while the time is running out is worth eight points. His love of basketball was passed on to his son and successor, Kim Jong-Un, who for a time fostered a friendship with Dennis Rodman. Dennis Rodman was able to learn more about the head of state than the CIA has been able to.
The leaders’ faces are literally everywhere. It is mandatory for every citizen to display photographs of them in their homes. These pictures are in frames that slant forward, so the Dear Leaders are always looking down on you. Statues of them are scattered all across the country as well, and it is illegal to take a photograph that only includes part of a statue or where a person’s head is higher than that of a statue. Some of the statues are filled with bombs, though, so that they can be knocked over to impede tanks in the event of an invasion.
North Korean cities are also littered with signs featuring extremely verbose slogans, such as “According to the party’s leadership, let’s work vigorously to a more prosperous country and homeland!” and “Long live the Workers’ Party of Korea, the leader and the organizer of all victories of the Korean People!”
The Kim family may be idolized by the common people, but in order to stay in power they need the favor of their military’s top brass. Thus, they frequently give them lavish gifts to keep them happy. However, the North Korean economy is in dire shape and their currency may as well be Monopoly money anywhere else in the world. So in order to earn foreign money to buy these gifts (as well as materials for their nuclear arsenal, no doubt), they turn to state-sponsored crime. After all, no court can really prosecute North Korea for anything. They make meth, counterfeit cigarettes, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, and counterfeit money, sell weapons to Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, traffic poached ivory and rhino horn, and send their citizens to Russia as unpaid contract workers. They also have a knack for committing insurance fraud against international companies. When an accident happens on North Korean soil, the insurance companies aren’t allowed to send investigators into the country to verify the claims, and any legal contests must be made in North Korean court, they have no choice but to pay up.
To bring in additional income, North Korea began marketing a wonder drug that can cure Diabetes, Hepatitis (all types), Tuberculosis, multiple cancers, STDs, drug addiction, heart disease, Arthritis, impotence, liver disease, influenza, colds, “harm from use of computers” (Carpal Tunnel Syndrome perhaps?), Insomnia, thyroid problems, Gangrene, Epilepsy, cysts, acne, and more. Yes, this is all one drug. North Korea also gives tours to foreigners. However, these tours are closely scripted and tourists are watched by guides at all times to ensure they don’t go anywhere they aren’t supposed to see. There is also a book sold in their gift shops called “Kim Jong-Un – Let us Brilliantly Accomplish the Cause of Juche Holding Kim Jong-Il in High Esteem as the Eternal General Secretary of Our Party.”
That’s everything entertaining I know about North Korea, but there are a lot of horrifying things I didn’t touch on. Political dissidents (and frequently their entire families as well) are publically executed or sent to dreadful prison camps. They have widespread famine and hospitals that don’t have soap, and any foreign humanitarian aid rarely gets into the hands of those who actually need it. They also have nuclear weapons, and although they have so far shown enough self-preservation to want to avoid nuclear war, their arsenal could fall into the hands of someone more willing to watch the world burn if their regime is ever destabilized.
I haven’t tracked down all the places where I learned these things, but here are a few sources I used for last-minute fact-checking.
japanese rule: http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/main_pop/kpct/kp_koreaimperialism.htm
filmmaker abduction: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31628415
insurance fraud: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/17/AR2009061703852.html
wonder drug: http://kumdang2.com/