North Korea is so elusive, it doesn’t even register on Google Maps.
I was first exposed to North Korea back in 2002, when it made U.S. news during President George W. Bush’s axis of evil speech. Over time, as I picked up more and more facts about the country, I came to conclusion that North Korea, officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, is one of the wildest countries out there, bar none. From its megalomaniac dictator Kim Jong-il to its strange, record-breaking Mass Games, North Korea is a secretive and otherworldly country.
Let’s examine a few of DPRK’s more peculiar elements:
The Current President Has Been Dead Since 1994
Yes, it’s true. While Kim Jong-il is the defacto dictator of North Korea, the official president is his long-deceased father, Kim Il-Sung. Following his death, Kim Il-Sung was declared the Eternal President of the DPRK. His birthday is a national holiday.
From the mid-1960s, Kim Il-Sung instituted and promoted the Juche Idea, a self-developed ideology that requires absolute loyalty to the revolutionary leader. There are currently over 500 statues of Kim Il-Sung throughout North Korea and, interestingly enough, all pictures (of which there are many) show him as viewed from his left, as he had a large growth on the right side of his neck.
Kim Jong-il’s Cult of Personality
Kim Il-Sung’s son, Kim Jong-il, may not be the “Eternal President,” but as of April 2009, it is stated in the constitution that he is the “Supreme Leader.” Close enough.
Jong-il inherited an elaborate cult of personality from his father. His birthday, like his father’s, is one of the most important holidays in the country. Many North Korean citizens believe he has the ability to control the weather based on his mood.
Kim Jong-il has a severe fear of flying and takes armored trains during his visits to Russia and China. He owns 20,000+ video tapes and particularly enjoys Rambo, Godzilla, Friday the 13th and any movie with Elizabeth Taylor. He refuses to consume any food or drink not produced in North Korea, the only exception being wine from France. Oh, and in case he ever needs to flee the country, Kim Jong-il has (reportedly) secretly stashed US$4 billion throughout a number of European banks.
The Largest Non-Auto Racing Stadium in the World
The Rungrado May Day Stadium can seat 150,000 people, and while it’s used for various athletic matches, it’s most often featured during the mass Arirang Festival, an annual event that celebrates the late Kim Il-sung’s birthday on April 15. The performances are typically held in August and September.
In August 2007, the Arirang Mass Games, which kick off the two month festival, were declared by Guinness World Records as the largest event of its kind. Recently, North Korea has opened up this event to foreign tourists.
Citizens are hand-selected (from as young as 5 years old) to serve for the Arirang Festival for a number of years.
The State Maintains and Controls…Everything
Yep, pretty much everything. The Propaganda and Agitation Department or the Culture and Arts Department of the Central Committee of the KWP control media and literature, and of the few Communist states around the world, North Korea (and Cuba) has an almost entirely government-mapped, state-owned and highly centralized economy.
While many citizens do not own computers, those that do use Red Star, a highly censored home-grown computer system. Red Star uses a popular Korean folk song for it’s start-up music and employs a calendar based on the birthday of Kim Il-Sung . It only takes 15 minutes to install!
The World’s Most Brutalized People
Human Rights Watch has mentioned that North Koreans are “some of the world’s most brutalized people,” due to the severe limitations of their political and economic freedoms. The DPRK has also been accused of having one the worst human rights records of any nation. Many citizens are malnourished, and convicted political prisoners are sent to secret detention camps, of which there are an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 inmates, nearly 1% of the population. Within the camps, the following atrocities have been reported: torture, starvation, medical experimentation, forced labor, rape and forced abortions.
- The Staycation: A Mental Break, Sans “Breaking the Budget”
- Greetings from the World’s Northernmost Capital
- The Walk Across America
- The Carry-On Only Experiment, A Success
- Açaí, the Amazon and Ipanema: Two Weeks in Brazil
- Business Travel 101: The Pros and Cons
- Nostalgic for Dal Bhat (and a free book)
- An Introduction to Bereavement Fares
- 4 Offbeat Countries I'd Visit Again
- Here's Looking at You, Iceland
- Dark Tourism: Seeking Death and Suffering
- Traveling Rough, and Getting Paid for it
- Serbian Royalty for a Weekend
- 4 of the Best (non-Internet) Travel Magazines
- Syria: Images and Impressions from Damascus and the Desert
- An Introduction to African Cinema
- A Taste of Siberian Hospitality
- One, Two, Three Bribes a Charm
- The 10 Most Difficult Countries to Visit as a U.S. Citizen
- Ode to the Hotel Workout
- 14 Books for the Armchair Traveler
- Fifty Countries, Lessons Learned
- Inside Zimbabwe: Nine Nights, Good Times
- From Zambia, With Love
- Financing Your Next Vacation
- 9 Tips for the Intermediate Travel Photographer
- Exploring the Seven Summits: Atop the World's Highest Peaks