Beginners Guide to North Korea


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Thanks to the podgy dictator, Kim Jong-un, attention on North Korea at the moment is pretty exciting. ‘Exciting’ in the sense that threatening the world with a nuclear attack is exciting.

North Korea has been on my radar for about a decade, because it’s a black hole. I used to make a joke to clients about how social media is compulsory: either you do it, or someone else will do it for you, and how if you want to avoid it, the only thing you can do is move to North Korea.

No-one laughed now I think about it.

I also recall seeing a satellite map of the Earth at night and how North Korea was pitch black squished between every other country which speckled in electrical activity.

Then came the stomping goose-step marches by the army, and the flashing of coloured pieces of card in the stands of sports events mimicking a LED effect of 8-bit graphics in perfect synchronicity.

‘Wow!’ I thought at the time, ‘They are so skilled!’

Fast forward to today, and I no-longer think ‘wow’ to anything done in N. Korea. I didn’t know then that every single resident is effectively being held hostage by a mass-murderer. And that it is absolutely imperative to the survival of you and three generations of your family to show complete loyalty to the ‘Dear Leader’ and the country. And that everyone is spied upon by everyone else, so there is no personal space to escape other than in your mind. Step out of line and everything is either punishable by a lengthy prison sentence or death.

On the upside, if you threaten everyone with death for their entire life, eventually, as we’ve seen by plenty of defectors, people stop fearing death.

‘Death’ becomes a bit like forgetting to buy a train ticket or speeding. Travel back and forth across the border with China is only a bribe away–guards are so poor that they will never turn down a chance to benefit.

In fact, life is so hard outside of the capital Pyongyang, that prison isn’t much different to daily life anyway.

Pyongyang, btw, is nothing more than a brochure for western guests. Tourists can visit and come away thinking, ‘Oh, it’s not too bad. People are friendly.’ etc. But that’s the plan. Dupe the stupid tourists into believing that they’re in a ‘normal’ country, when in reality you couldn’t be further from it.

During the famine in the 90s, only the well-off little chubby school kids were wheeled out in front of the aid agencies to show that things ‘weren’t so bad’.

In the winter, it wasn’t uncommon for people to dig up radishes with their hands and eat them to clean their teeth.

During the height of the Famine, Cannibalism was on the menu, as often the very young and very old were the first to die, and that’s a lot of meat to waste when you could be next.

Another thing which amazed me: there’s 25 million people in the country and if it were to collapse (toppling the dictator, etc), China and S.Korea couldn’t handle that many people flooding across the border to find work and live. Because of this they ‘allow’ a proportion to come across each year (defectors, that is) to manage the problem, but neither side wants too-many! 

Why doesn’t everyone defect? You ask. Many can’t handle the ‘freedom’ and simply go back. ‘Back’ will mean ‘prison’ (or Death) btw, but hey-ho!

What’s the solution? Businesses need to step in and set up factories.

A country who have been starved of all resources, are used to working for pennies (if that), and who have been slaves for their entire lives, are the perfect workforce. Better than those wealthy Chinese! Give a N.Korean a job to do and it will be perfectly executed as fast as possible (remember that threat of death, which never really worked?).

Am I being cruel to suggest this? No. N.Koreans would be the most efficient/cost effective production line in the world for decades to come, and they frickin’ need it!

Liberating N.Koreans to go about their merry way ‘enjoying life’ is simply not an option. It’s easy to just hop on Twitter, pop to the fridge for some leftovers, then look up a campsite for the weekend, and assume that the average N.Korean might choose to do the same, but no.

When your entire life has been devoted to loyalty to the Dear Leader & country, the threat of Death, and everyone spying on your every move, freedom, enlightenment, and the joys of frivolous existential wonderment are absent from the palette.

Setting people up to do a fair days work for a fair days pay gives them some stability, security, and sense of accomplishment, which would be the best thing one could do–at least for one entire generation.

As you can probably tell I’ve read many books on the Political, Social, and Economic state of this very fucked up country, including:

  • Dear Leader
  • Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
  • The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel of North Korea
  • The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story
  • A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Incredible True Story of North Korea and the Most Audacious Kidnapping in History

And next I’m reading, ‘Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il’

Where will it end? Am I obsessed? Why do I bother?

No-idea. But it’s been bonkers filling this huge gap in my knowledge about one of the most secretive countries on Earth.

I believe I will write a (fiction) book about this one day.

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