Sunday, April 30, 2017


The Hermit Kingdom. It’s a country that leaves many people wondering how exactly it came to be the way it is. For many people, it represents the stereotypical dictatorship. For others, it represents a perpetual problem and threat: a volcano due for its turn. North Korea has certainly made the news in the recent years and especially as of late. The stories I read about this country leave me bewildered (to say it mildly). It’s almost seemingly the opposite of Western civilization as we know it today. But what’s it really like? Few people have been allowed to venture there and have reported back on what it’s like in their everyday lives. 

The name Korea stems from the word Goryeo (also spelled as Koryo). When Persian merchants stopped by, they botched it and pronounced it as Korea. However, its current version wasn’t used until the 17th century when Hendrick Hamel of the Dutch East India Company wrote about it when they were shipwrecked in Korea. After the countries split, it was given the distinction of being North Korea vs. South Korea. North Korea became known as Chosun or Joseun, and in English, its full name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

North Korea is located on the Korean Peninsula (no kidding?) in East Asia, and get this—it’s on the northern part of the peninsula. I’m totally not joking. Some places are a misnomer (I’m looking at you Iceland and Greenland), but North Korea is exactly where you think it is. It shares a border with South Korea to the south (surprise!) and China to the north and a very short border with Russia in the northeast corner. The Sea of Japan is to the east and the Yellow Sea (and Korea Bay) is to the west. Mountain ranges cross the country; the highest point, a volcanic mountain called Mt. Paektu, is over 9000 ft. There are coastal plains in the west, and nearly 70% of the country is covered in forest. Summers are hot and rainy while the winters are frigidly cold from the winds that blow in from Siberia.

Kim Il-sung
The oldest remnants of pottery in Korea dates back to around 8000BC. By the time we reached the Iron Age, the peninsula was controlled by three kingdoms and eventually united to form the Goryeo Dynasty. In the late 1300s, the Joseon Dynasty took over and implemented a number of reforms including the adaptation of the Hangul (Korean) alphabet. After a period of relative peace, the Korean peninsula began to be invaded, which led to its initial isolation. By the mid-1800s, European powers were making moves throughout Asia and the Pacific, and Korea was still unwilling to modernize itself. After several rebellions and some socio-political changes, they became known as the Korean Empire in 1897. Japan annexed Korea and occupied the country in 1910. They began fighting the Japanese with guerilla tactics, and one of the resistance leaders was Kim Il-sung. At the end of WWII in 1945, Korea was divided along the 38th parallel, with the northern part occupied by the Soviet Union and the southern part occupied by the United States. (Keep in mind—no one consulted the Koreans on this matter.) Kim Il-sung was recommended to become Chairman of what became North Korea. By 1949, most of the Soviets and Americans have bowed out, but there were rumors that the North was going to invade the South. Those rumors proved true in June 1950 as the Korean War took off. It’s often used as an example of a “proxy war”: a war where two powerful groups (Soviet Union and US) use other smaller groups (North and South Korea) to fight the war instead. It still remains divided by the DMZ (demilitarized zone). [Side note: I once briefly dated a guy from South Korea who had to patrol the DMZ when he was in the military. He once stepped on an old land mine and had to stand perfectly still for nearly 8 hours as he waiting for people to fetch the land mine expert and diffuse it. I have a hard enough time standing in line at the grocery store.] After the war, North Korea remained isolated and introduced the ideology of Juche to differentiate itself from other communist countries like China and the Soviet Union. Juche is like libertarianism on steroids. After Kim Jong-il took over in 1994, they got even more introverted and really fixated on the military. During this time, North Korea began to suffer from food and energy shortages. Today, Kim Jong-un is the one in charge and has apparently done all of these “miraculous” feats (like his father and grandfather), and he’s also really obsessed with nukes. 

Situated along the Taedong River, Pyongyang is North Korea’s capital city. With a population of between 2.5–3.2 million people, the city is actually well planned: most of the streets run either north-south or east-west. It’s not only the center of government, but it’s also the center for commerce, education, transportation, and industry. There are a few examples of modernity to its main attractions if you were to look at its cityscape, but it’s contrasted with run-down, drab buildings.

Because North Korea has adamantly insisted upon their closed-door economic policies and strived to be completely self-sufficient, their economy has suffered. Coupled with a series of unfortunate events (famine, lack of arable land, natural disasters, lack of skilled labor, low energy supplies, crumbling infrastructure, loss of trading partners), North Korea’s economy basically went into the toilet. There are electricity shortages. Everything is highly nationalized. Their healthcare and education are free, housing and food receive huge subsidies, and taxes were axed back in the 1970s. There are a few places where foreign companies can come in and work, especially in fields like technology and science. But overall, their economy is far behind that of its southern counterpart. However, I saw a headline today that their economy may be slightly improving.

Technically speaking, North Korea is an atheist state. But I think that it’s somewhat of a misnomer and not fair to everyday atheists who for the most part, don’t really care if someone follows a particular religion so long as it’s not forced on everyone. But even at that, there are a few religions found in North Korea: Korean shamanism, Chondoism (a Korean version of Confucianism), Buddhism, and Christianity. Technically, the constitution grants freedom of religion, but it’s also highly regulated and controlled by the government, and some religions are highly persecuted as well. North Korea has also implemented this idea of Songbun, a sort of loyalty ranking. It goes back two generations to determine how much you support your government. The three leaders (Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un) are treated like royalty and gods even. This is why I falter at calling it an atheist state: because the government is their gods. They want the people to live in awe and fear of them, never to speak ill against them, and uphold the craziest accomplishments attributed to them (like Kim Jong-un being able to drive at age 3, or Kim Jong-il walking at age 3 weeks and talking at 8 weeks).

North Koreans also speak Korean, but there are a few dialectal differences between the Korean spoken in North and South Korea. The Korean used in South Korea incorporates many loan words from Chinese and English and also uses hanja (writing Korean words using Chinese characters). However, in North Korea, many of the loan words have been changed to purely Korean words, and they don’t use hanja; rather, they write Korean using choson’gul (the Korean alphabet, also called hangul in South Korea). 

Kim Jong-un with Dennis Rodman
Almost everyday, I get a news pop-up on my phone about some crazy thing concerning North Korea involving nuclear testing or something. Here’s your homework: I would also suggest watching VICE’s 2008 documentary called “Inside North Korea” and watch Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. But you should also check out the VICE episode from Season 1, Episode 10 called “The Hermit Kingdom: Basketball Diplomacy”(2014). It’ll give you an idea of what it’s really like over there. But in the meantime, we’re going to TRY to delve into its cultural arts in a desperate attempt to make sense of this country.

Up next: art and literature

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