If you merged the Soviet Union under Stalin with an ancient Chinese empire, mixed in The Truman Show, and then made the whole thing Holocaust-esque, you have modern-day North Korea.
I was only in North Korea for five days, but that was more than enough to make it clear that North Korea is every bit as weird as I always thought it was. I was allowed in, along with a small group of other Westerners, accompanied (at all times) by three North Korean guides. We saw Pyongyang and a couple other regions, and the North Koreans we laid eyes on throughout were likely the people faring the very best in the country.
1. The leaders are a really big fucking deal.
That’s not even a strong enough statement. They’re the only deal. These are the big three:
Kim Il Sung (1912–1994)
He’s their George Washington and their Stalin and their Jesus and their Santa Claus combined, all in the form of one pudgy dead Korean man. He’s the Eternal President — eternal because he had the position abolished for all future time so that no one can ever be president again. And they’ve created an almost entirely fabricated story about all the legendary accomplishments he didn’t accomplish.
There are an estimated 34,000 statues of Kim Il Sung in the country, everything possible is named after him (if they were starting the country today, it would be called Kimilsungland), every adult is required to wear a pin on their shirt with his face on it every day, all students dedicate a large portion of their study to memorizing his speeches and learning about his achievements, and his birthday is the nation’s biggest holiday. They even changed the year — it’s not 2013 in North Korea, it’s Juche 101 (101 years after Kim Il Sung’s birth).
As tourists, we were told to only refer to him as President Kim Il Sung.
Kim Jong Il (1941–2011)
He’s Kim Il Sung’s son, and the dick we all got to know well in the last decade. It’s said in North Korea that he was born on a sacred Korean mountaintop (he was actually born in the Soviet Union) and that his birth caused winter to change to spring (it stayed winter).
He’s a really big deal too, but like one-third as big a deal as his father. Some outsiders question whether people are actually obsessed with KJI or just scared to not act obsessed.
We were told to only refer to him as General Kim Jong Il.
Kim Jong Un (1983 or 1984–)
Despite being the current Supreme Leader, KJI’s son took over well before everyone expected him to, with KJI’s surprise death in 2011 (unlike KJI, who had been groomed for leadership for a couple decades before he took over), and while the propaganda machines are superb at depicting the legendary accomplishments of the elder two Kims, no one is really sure what the hell KJU has accomplished.
Part of the issue is that the population never heard much about KJU until recently — he has two older brothers who would have presumably taken over had one not been too feminine (i.e., maybe gay) and the other not snuck into Disneyland on a Dominican passport and gotten caught, ruling both out for potential supreme leadership. My sense being in the country was that there isn’t that much genuine hero worship going on for KJU.
That didn’t stop them from making us refer to him as Marshall Kim Jong Un.
And everywhere you go in the country — everywhere — you see this:
I saw these guys so much it eventually started to seem completely normal, and I began referring to them as “the bros” in my head. Their side-by-side portraits are not only in every public place possible, it’s required that they are on the wall in every single home in the country, and there are random spot checks by the government to check on this. Each family is also given a special towel, the only allowed use of which is to shine the portraits clean every morning. Normal country.
There are also a lot of rules regarding the leaders that apply to visitors as well. When you come up to a statue of one of the bros, you must bow. You must also keep your hands by your side and not behind your back. When you take a photo of one of the statues, you must take the photo of the entire body — it’s not permitted to cut off any part of it. If you have a newspaper or any other paper with a leader on it, you’re not allowed to fold the paper or throw it away. Normal country.
Surprising no one, North Korea comes in dead last in the world in the Democracy Index.
2. Everyone lies about everything all the time.
The government lies to the outside world. The government lies to the people. The press lies to the people. The people lie to each other. The tour guides lie to tourists. It’s intense.
The lies range from big things — the government hammers away at the message that the US is preparing to attack North Korea, the press depicts South Korea as a suffering and American-occupied country, the leaders’ speeches talk about North Korea being the envy of the world with the highest quality of life — to tiny things — we met a soldier we were told was a colonel, and after he left, a retired army major on my tour told me that he had studied North Korean army uniforms and that the soldier was in fact a captain.
Facts are not a key part of the equation in North Korea.
And it can really mess with your mind as a visitor. I’d find myself in these perplexing situations trying to figure out if a lie-spouting North Korean was in on it or not. Was she thinking, “I know this is false, you know this is false, but I live here so I gotta play the game”? Or was she fully brainwashed and thought she was telling me the truth? It was impossible to tell.
During interactions, I’d find myself thinking, “Are you an actor in The Truman Show and you think I’m Truman? Or are you Truman and I’m one of the actors? Are those kids on the street just pretending to be playing for my benefit? Is any of this real? Am I real?”
3. Most visitors to the country are forced to stay in the same hotel when they’re in Pyongyang.
This is it. You know why they put all visitors here? Because it’s on an island in the middle of the city:
The government’s biggest fear with visitors is that they sneak off at some point and take photos of something they’re not supposed to see, so this island location (with guards surrounding the hotel) is perfect. We were never let out of our guides’ sight during the day and told that we weren’t to leave the hotel at night under any circumstance.
And even when the rest of the country and much of Pyongyang is without electricity, heat, or air conditioning, the Yanggakdo is always bright and comfortable — all part of the plan to project a certain image of the country to visitors.
4. Propaganda is absolutely everywhere.
From the suffocating number of billboards and murals to the postcards and pamphlets and newspapers to everything on TV, the North Korean people are forced to live and breathe North Korean pride around the clock. There’s even a creepy propaganda band, Moranbong Band, whose members were handpicked by Kim Jong Un. This video of them played in its entirety on both the flight into and out of the country and in nearly every restaurant we went to, and subsequently haunted my sleep. Goebbels couldn’t hold a candle to the Kims.
The propaganda I saw fell into four categories: 1) The leaders and their greatness, especially Kim Il Sung, 2) images of the North Korean military and its might, 3) negative depictions of the US and South Korea, and 4) images of North Korean people living joyous and sunshiny lives.
5. The tour guides apparently don’t find it awkward to constantly refer to Americans as “American imperialists” even though I’m standing right there.
The postcard pictured in the last item was just the tip of the iceberg. If one half of the North Korean story is “Kim Il Sung is a great man,” the other half is “The American imperialists started the Korean War and lost, and ever since they’ve been trying to kill and rape us all and take the country over, but our great military won’t allow it.”
The North Korean government is very into anti-US sentiment — largely because they’ve figured out a way to blame basically all of their problems on the US and use fake fear of the US to justify being a poor country the size of Pennsylvania that also has the world’s 4th largest army (not to mention spending an unthinkable amount on nuclear weapon technology).
Check out this anti-US video we were shown on the deck of the USS Pueblo, a US naval ship captured by the North Koreans in 1968 (it’s also funny how he says “people”):
6. It’s not cool to call North Korea “North Korea.”
The correct term is “Korea.” All images of the country depict the whole peninsula, what today is North and South Korea combined. In their view, they are proud Koreans, living in Korea, the south half of which is unfortunately currently occupied by the imperialist Americans.
7. Kim Jong Un’s exact year of birth is not a subject you should try to gather information on while in the country.
This is because the exact date is not really known, which apparently upsets them.
8. The same physical place can be fancy and shitty at the same time.
North Korea specializes in the simultaneous fancy shitty place. Simultaneous fancy shittiness happens when a poor country tries to act like things are going fantastically. So there will be a gorgeous museum with huge chandeliers and polished marble floors, but the water won’t be running in the bathroom. Or a high-end restaurant with upscale decor that’s also sweltering hot because the air conditioning isn’t working.
I was told that sometimes visitors are all ready to head into North Korea for their tour when they learn that it’s been mysteriously canceled, and the true reason is something like the water not running in the Yanggakdo Hotel that day.
9. North Koreans still talk about the Korean War constantly.
The Korean War is not a part of everyday life in South Korea. The war ended 60 years ago, and today, South Korea has other things to think about, like being a relevant nation with the world’s 15th biggest economy.
In North Korea, the war is a constant topic of conversation, and almost everything North Koreans learn about it is flagrantly incorrect. The big lie they’re told is that the war was started when the US, occupying South Korea at the time, attacked the unsuspecting North to try to take control over the whole country. They’re told that Kim Il Sung valiantly staved off the Americans, and the Americans shrank back in defeat, then continued to occupy South Korea until this day.
Of course, the real story is that Kim Il Sung (who was nothing more than a puppet leader installed by the Soviets because they knew they could control him) tugged on Stalin’s sleeve for years, asking him if he could attack the South with Soviet backing, until finally Stalin said, “Ugh, fuck it, fine,” and the North attacked. The US was, granted, playing a large role in the South at the time, but they were more focused on other things by that point and were caught off guard. They responded to the North’s attack by heading in with the UN and joining the South in the fight. Whatever your opinion of the US’s role at the time, they certainly did not start the war by attacking the peaceful North.
But facts never stopped the North Korean government before. There are things like this in every newspaper I looked at.
At the Korean War Museum, known there as the Museum of American Atrocities, our tour guide spent the whole time telling us that the Americans started the war — everyone in the room knew the truth except the tour guide.
10. All kids wear the same uniform all the time, even when they’re not in school.
It’s not actually all kids — it’s kids from the most well-off families. But those are the families they let visitors come into contact with, so that’s what it looked like to me.