North Korea is an enigma to the West, a strange, reclusive Stalinist dictatorship that has somehow survived well into the 21st century. North Korea is the world’s first and only communist dynasty, a fact that would make Karl Marx roll over in his grave. The mantle of leadership has passed down through the Kim family from “The Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, to his son Kim Jong-il (aka “The Dear Leader”), to the current head of state, grandson Kim Jong-un (“The Marshal”). While the leadership periodically changes, horrible human rights violations, poverty and hunger remain. And the disastrous conditions are accompanied by ridiculous government propaganda efforts to make the country seem like a paradise. North Korea truly is stranger than fiction, as stories leaking out of there often sound more like something from The Onion than reality.
5. Fake Symbols of Prosperity Are Everywhere
Foreigners visiting North Korea are shown faux displays of wealth and abundance, reminiscent of Soviet Union propaganda during the Cold War. This includes an entire fake village built in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which separates the two Koreas. North Korea maintains the “Peace Village” is a successful farming community. South Korean observers using telescopes report the streets are empty, the buildings lack windows and the only lights in the town at night appear to be set to timers. While this village is clearly a sham — it’s earned the nickname “Propaganda Village” — illusions of wealth and prosperity can be found elsewhere. Visitors to the capital city of Pyongyang tell of wide boulevards devoid of cars and large, unoccupied apartments built for a very few privileged inner party members. Subways appear to be run only for tourists, with cars populated by actors posing as commuters. Then, of course, there is the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, a massive, ostentatious symbol of wealth that towers above the city. Work started on the tower in 1987, and the so-called “Hotel of Doom” is still under construction.
Despite the gaudy displays of supposed prosperity, the North Korean regime can’t hide the brutal reality of gulag-style prison camps that dot the countryside from the eyes of modern satellites. And officials can’t hide the news that they warned citizens in 2016 to prepare for a massive famine. A famine and economic crisis in the 1990s known as the Arduous March killed hundreds of thousands of North Koreans.
4. North Korean Films: Propaganda, Kidnapped Talent
North Korea’s film industry is an enigma in itself. The late Kim Jong-il was, ironically, a big fan of Western culture, importing cognac by the case and even inviting basketball star Michael Jordan to visit (he declined). Jong-il was also an avid film buff. Wanting to improve North Korean cinema, he ordered the kidnapping of famous South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and her ex-husband, director Shin Sang-ok, and coerced them to produce several films. They spent eight years in North Korea before escaping in the mid-1980s.
Most North Korean films are propaganda tools, with titles such as Under the Sun, Comrade Kim Goes Flying and The Respected Comrade Supreme Commander is Our Destiny. Then there is the cult classic Pulgasari, about a Godzilla-like creature that leads a socialist revolution. As you might imagine, these films always get rave reviews in the state-run media. Needless to say, North Korean cinemas won’t be screening Seth Rogen’s film The Interview any time soon.
3. North Korea Has Its Own Calendar and Time Zone
A strange time zone change shows that North Korea really does march to the beat of its own drum. In 2015, the regime announced that it would readjust its time zone 30 minutes behind that of Japan and South Korea. This was done to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Korea from Japan at the end of World War II. With a tradition of keeping true Stalinist rhetoric alive into the 21st century, the state news agency KCNA said the change was to thwart “wicked Japanese imperialists” who had “deprived Korea of even its standard time.”
North Korea not only has its very own half-hour time zone, but its own calendar as well. Known as the Juche calendar (named after the North Korean ideology of self-reliance outlined by Kim Il-sung) the North Korean calendar was formally adopted in July 1997 and marks “The Great Leader’s” birth year of 1912 as Juche Year 1. So 2016 is Juche Year 105. Really, given the cult of personality surrounding the former leader, it’s not surprising he’s honored in such fashion. Oh, North Koreans are also taught that Kim Il-sung invented the airplane.
2. North Korea is an Orwellian Nightmare Come True
Concepts such as double-think outlined in George Orwell’s book 1984 about a frightening dystopia are right at home in North Korea. Families are encouraged to report family members for talk against the regime and other seditious acts, such as watching foreign movies smuggled in on USB drives. Government-run hotlines operate around the clock for citizens to report their neighbors. In her 1993 book The Tears of My Soul, North Korean spy Kim Hyun Hee relates how wives in North Korea fear when their husbands drink too much, not because they might become abusive, but for what they might say against the regime.
There are signs that suggest that the North Korean people have had it with the regime, and that the country’s government could implode. A recent PBS Frontline expose went undercover in 2014 and caught scenes of everyday life in North Korea that paint a less-than-flattering picture, including flourishing black markets, locals arguing with officials, and other scenes that defectors say would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.
1. Executions Are Bizarre, Public Spectacles
Only three communist countries remain worldwide: China, Cuba and North Korea. Like the Soviet Union and many other communist nations in the past, political dissidents often meet an untimely death. But Kim Jong-un seems to relish executing his political opponents in grand, public spectacles. Although Jong-un probably did not order his uncle stripped and fed to a pack of 120 starving wild dogs as reported by many a credulous media outlet, he has executed political enemies and even common criminals in bizarre fashion. This includes firing squad executions via a battery of anti-aircraft guns, flamethrowers, mortar rounds, and machine guns. These executions are sometimes carried out in public in front of tens of thousands of people. Like most dictators, periodic purges are necessary to not only squash dissent, but to keep current party members in a state of fear. Just last month, North Korea executed its vice premier for education, reportedly because he did not sit up straight at a public event. North Korea also punishes the families of the vanquished back three generations, in true Orwellian fashion erasing the family names of those who slighted the regime.
Likewise, North Korean leaders must keep their military occupied, or at least on a high state of alert for a war with the U.S. and South Korea that never comes. This is amid a torrent of announcements decrying “Western imperialists” and periodic military excursions verging on a shooting war with the South. And while North Korea has tested atomic weapons and the means to deliver them with its space-launch capability, war with the West would be suicide for the regime. China, the primary force propping up the North Korean regime, tolerates such a strange neighbor, as having a unified Korea with U.S. military bases on its border would be the alternative.