North Korea, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or the DPRK, and often and accurately called the Hermit Kingdom, is a rather strange place. You know that girl from college with the dyed black hair who played the harp and spent a lot of time in the single occupancy dorm room she managed to get even though it was freshman year? The girl who seemed to get stranger and stranger the more time she spent alone and isolated, despite the fact there were so many people and so much to do all around her? Yeah, North Korea is kind of like that.
Even as the rest of the world has become ever more inter-connected and as nations are ever more aware of one another’s people and cultures, the DPRK has grown even more cutoff from the global community as the years passed. Today, taking a glimpse inside North Korea is not just like looking at another country, it really is like looking at a society that developed as if on another world. Today we’ll look at a few things that help exemplify just how strange and remote the DPRK really is. (Like, they have a four point shot in basketball. Bizarro World indeed.)
15. Lots of Pictures of Guys Named Kim
If there’s one thing North Koreans (are forced to pretend they) love, it’s propaganda pictures of Kim Il-Sung, Jim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong-Un. You will see posters of these three men, the founder of the DPRK, his son and successor, and his grandson and the country’s current leader, respectively, pretty much everywhere you look. There are massive billboards of their faces plastered around cities and there are portraits of Sung, Il, and Un hung in every home. By de facto law, by the way. And usually these charming guys are depicted with huge grins.
14. Dennis Rodman Is A Friend to the Country
Now to be clear, yes, I say that Dennis Rodman is a crazy thing you can find in North Korea in two ways. First, Rodman is pretty much crazy. His on-court antics when he played for the NBA and his off-court eccentricities are all legendary, but his regular presence as a guest of honour in North Korea is rather odd; his referring to the murderous young premier of the Hermit Kingdom, Jim Jong-un, as a “friend for life” cemented the crazy angle. His visits commenced with him hosting a basketball exhibition in 2013, and he had visited many times since, ostensibly as a goodwill ambassador using sports as the vehicle for contact and communication. Maybe he’s the world’s most unlikely spy, or maybe he’s just a rather odd person.
13. Fake Missiles Everywhere
The North Korean military loves staging huge Soviet-style parades that put their apparent martial might on full display. The problem is that a lot of the weapons and military vehicles they claim to have are either nonexistent or at least woefully ineffective. Still others are simply fakes. International experts agree that this was the case in April of 2017 when a massive parade of military hardware and munitions seemed to include a number of dummy missiles. The apparently fake weaponry wobbled as if hollow and some of the “weapons” had nose cones that were clearly out of alignment. Just an FYI to the DPRK: fake it till you make it doesn’t work if a shooting war breaks out.
12. Cute and Creepy Toddler Musicians
If you spend much time browsing the Internet (and, guess what? Looks like you do), then you might have seen some of the videos out there that show very young North Korean children playing instruments with virtuosic proficiency and in drill team style unison. May I state clearly for the record that all the adults behind these performances can choke on a piece of mulch and go straight to hell. Anyone who has spent time with a child aged two to four years old, give or take, can appreciate the amount of ruthless coercion that must be necessary to force these poor kids into mastering the skills they are then made to show off, surely to the delight of many asshat officials.
11. Crushing Poverty
If you want to see the real North Korea, you have to actually go to North Korea. And then slip away from your government handlers and off the carefully planned tour route set up for you. Experts estimate that more than half of the country’s population lives in abject poverty, meaning more than twelve million people without basic services, sufficient nutrition, and so forth. But you won’t see any of that on North Korean TV, in pictures they release to the international community, or pretty much anywhere else save for media recorded at great peril. DPRK officials seem to think hiding something and foxing something are pretty much the same thing.
10. Soldiers Standing In Funny Positions
Apparently the military commanders in North Korea think their country will be better protected and best represented by soldiers who are essentially posed like action figures. If you ever venture to the DMZ (the demilitarized zone along the 38th parallel, the border between North and South Korea), you will see that the North Korean soldiers stationed on guard duty there pose with their feet spread wide and their fists bared and held in an awkward low ready stance. They look totally badass until you remember that you’re not witnessing the approach to the boss level of a video game, but in fact are seeing actual people tasked with defending a country.
9. The World’s Largest Stadium
North Korea may only rank 48th in the world in terms of population (there are an estimated 25,155,000 people there), but it has the largest stadium on earth in terms of capacity. Construction of the Rungrado May Day Stadium was completed in mid 1989, and it has held its title ever since. The stadium can hold some 114,000 people and occupies more than 50 acres of land. Rungrado May Day gets its name both from the island on which it is built, and thanks to the annual May Day celebrations that honour workers of the world.
8. The Fake “Town” of Kijŏng-dong
Kijŏng-dong, AKA the Peace Village, looks like any other prosperous small North Korean town inhabited by about 200 families that work the surrounding farmland in a harmonious collective arrangement. I say looks like, because that’s about all the Peace Village does. Better known as a Propaganda Village, under close scrutiny, Kijŏng-dong appears to be uninhabited and maintained only to give the appearance of productivity and prosperity. Viewed through a telescope, most of the brightly painted buildings appear to be empty shells, and the lights seem to go on and off via timers. The village was erected in the 1950s and has been failing to fool anyone ever since, yet still it persists.
7. Pulgasari – The North Korean Godzilla
Oh no, it’s not Godzilla, it’s Pulgasari!!!! That’s right, there’s a North Korean Godzilla. Why? Because when Kim Jong-Il saw the Japanese film Godzilla, he decided he just had to have a North Korean version, and no Korean subtitles were going to do. To make his masterpiece, Il had the director of the original Godzilla movies kidnapped and brought to the Hermit Kingdom, where he was coerced into making Pulgasari, a movie that blended plenty of propaganda in with the madcap action. Instead of terrorizing everyone, the iron dragon-like creature fights alongside a band of peasants who are trying to overthrow an evil king.
6. Kim Jong-Il’s Lifeless Body
Not only is the lifeless body of late leader King Jong-Il embalmed and on display in a purpose-built mausoleum, but in fact the dictator’s corpse is arguably the most popular tourist attraction in the entire country. Kim Jong-Il died at age 70 in December of 2011, but he is still wildly popular with his countrymen, who throng to his very public resting place. Quick side bar: it’s reported that Kim, already in weak health in the years leading up to his death, died as a result of a heart attack brought on by a fit of rage. Seems fitting, right?
5. Not a Lot of TV Options
If you love kicking back in front of the television to enjoy a wide range of fine programming, then remember not to move to North Korea. While the rest of us are suffering from information overload brought on by the hundreds of channels piped in via cable, satellite, and streaming services, North Korea has a whopping four TV channels, all of which are owned and strictly controlled by the government. Most programs are (fake and/or curated) news or pure propaganda. Although sometimes there’s sports and cartoons.
4. Accordions Aplenty
The accordion is one of the rare instruments in most parts of the world, but is one of the most common instruments in North Korea. In fact, in the late 20th Century, it was required that all school teachers learn to play the accordion — often referred to as The People’s Instrument and prized for its portability — in order to accompany patriotic sing-alongs of songs like, “We Have Nothing to Envy in the World.” While no longer strictly required, the accordion is still much more common in the DPRK than anywhere else save for your uncle’s living room when everyone has been drinking.
3. Drugs Are Fine, M’Kay
Alright, you probably don’t want to be caught traveling across North Korea with a pound of black tar heroin, but many drugs that are strictly regulated or outright banned in most nations are perfectly permissible in the Hermit Kingdom. Amphetamines, including the woefully addictive crystal meth, are common among people in many walks of life, taken both for recreation and to help workers put in more hours. Marijuana is so casually permitted that many people smoke it more often than tobacco. It is both cultivated and grown wild in many parts of the country.
2. So Many Statues
Despite having been dead for many years, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Il-Sung, is still very much revered and is in fact referred to as the Eternal Leader and even more specifically as the Eternal President, a title he was granted several years after his death. As further evidence of his enduring influence, note the nearly 35,000 statues of Kim Il-Sung that have been erected around the nation. That’s right, between 34,000 and 35,000 statues of this one guy. And some of the statues are four stories tall. Most of the population is starving and plagued with poverty, but it’s OK because they at least have statues.
1. They Are Engulfed In Darkness
If you want to see a visual example of why capitalism is better than communism, and why democracy works better than totalitarianism, look no further than a satellite image of the Korean Peninsula at night. You will see the prosperous southern half of the landmass, AKA South Korea, glowing brightly thanks to its healthy electric grid and the thriving communities all around the thoroughly modern nation. To the north, you will see but a few points of light on any given night; most of the country is dark and barren after sunset. It’s a very spooky sight to behold indeed.
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