North Korea (officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a country that is interesting to me, if only for the fact that it is so closed off from the rest of the world that not much (correct) information is known to us. From its auspicious beginnings in the aftermath of the Korean War armistice; to its unrequited aggression towards the United States, South Korea, and Japan; to its constant geopolitical struggles and occasional economic collaborations with Russia and China; the DPRK is an interesting country indeed.
Here are some quick facts about the so-called “hermit kingdom”:
-Kim Il Sung, the country’s first president, is also its ONLY president technically. Since he passed away in 1994, the laws were amended to make him North Korea’s eternal president. Kim Jong Un, his grandson and the current leader, is informally known as the Supreme Leader, and his official title is the First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
-Although they are widely known as a communist state, North Korea has a lot in common with fascist ideologies. They are a very nationalistic country, with official propaganda stating they are the “cleanest race”. Other propaganda is used to racially make fun of U.S. caucasian and black citizens, and even makes fun of South Korean citizens whom they consider to be a bastard and diluted race ever since the U.S. became their ally. They have very little typical commercial outdoor advertising, but this state sanctioned propaganda permeates the entire country, even on their one official radio station and four official television channels.
-North Korea has attacked U.S. citizens several times since the Korean War armistice, including the infamous 1968 capture of the Navy ship USS Pueblo and the imprisonment of its crew (they still have the ship, which they dry-docked and turned into a museum), the 1969 shooting of a Navy EC-121 reconnaisance plane which resulted in the deaths of 31 crewmen, and the 1976 killing of two Army soldiers in the “Axe Murder Incident”. This type of unrequited aggression continues occasionally to this day, mostly against South Korean and Japanese civilians and their militaries.
-Ever since the hacking of Sony Pictures due to the movie “The Interview”, there has been speculation on North Korean hacking capabilities. Websites in South Korea regularly get hacked by North Korea, as do any website that reports on North Korea in a fashion that they do not approve of. Contrary to the stereotype of them being technologically incapable, North Koreans have made information technology a top priority in the past decade or so. It is believed that the North Korean government is placing a top priority on hackers as well, since this fits in well with their history of asymmetrical warfare. Hacking requires nothing but knowledge, a computer, and internet access (something they curiously lost a few days after the Sony hacking incident); and it appears that they have moved beyond DdOS (denial of service) attacks to locking out website administrators and retrieving website users’ personal data.
-They have had tens of millions of people die over the last 50 years due to famine, disease, and deaths from imprisoning their citizens in concentration camps (some of which are labor camps that produce goods for the state, other ones are more punitive and concentrate on ideological reform). As of 2015, there are approximately 20 of these camps across the country. When someone commits a crime that is considered treasonous (anything from attempted defection to watching South Korean TV shows), the punishment extends to the person’s relatives, and their parents, spouse, grandparents, and children will usually get locked up and/or executed. Occasionally, executions are forcibly shown to mass audiences, much like the Romans used to do. When party leader Jang Sung-Taek was executed in 2013, it was speculated that his immediate family members were executed, as well.
-Although they preach a communist belief system that the worker is the ultimate hero of the state, the average citizen in North Korea is overworked and underfed. A considerable amount of workers don’t even get paid, and have to hope for food rations from their workplaces, if anything at all. This has been ultimately what led to their “gray economy”, or what we would call a black market, where people can sell and barter goods. Many illegal things can be found here, including United Nations food donations which has been marked up for sale by the state.
-And like all communist countries, the top party leaders manage to lead lives of relative luxury, although not at the huge disparities like one might find in China. Even in Pyongyang, the capital and showcase city, they have electricity and water shortages. The only places with consistent electricity are the lights surrounding the multitude of statues of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un, along with most hotels and important party buildings.
I have been studying North Korea for the past few years, and find it utterly fascinating. I don’t know if I’d want to actually visit it, but I’m sure it would be quite interesting to see in person. Here are some recommended books I have read, if you want to learn more about the DPRK:
“A Capitalist In North Korea”, by Felix Abt
“Jia: A Novel Of North Korea”, by Hyejin Kim
“Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea”, by Barbara Demick
“Act Of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the capture of the spy ship USS Pueblo”, by Jack Cheever
“The Aquariums Of Pyongyang”, by Kang Chol-Hwan
“Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee – A Look Inside North Korea”, by Jang Jin-Sung
“Escape From Camp 14”, by Blaine Harden