Image: Ben Mack
North Korea. The very name of the Asian country conjures images of legions of goose-stepping soldiers, atomic bombs, Kim Jong Un and – perhaps – Dennis Rodman or Team America.
Almost completely closed off from the outside world for more than 60 years, it’s sometimes easy for people to ridicule the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – North Korea’s official name – as something out of a bad movie.
But make no mistake: North Korea is a very real place.
So what, exactly, is the deal with North Korea? Villainesse explains.
How did North Korea come to be?
The DPRK was founded on September 9, 1948 by a man named Kim Il Sung, who had been a guerrilla army leader and folk hero during several decades of Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula. In the closing days of World War II, the Soviet Union helped Kim Il Sung drive the Japanese out of present-day North Korea, while the United States forced the Japanese out of present-day South Korea. But with the Cold War quickly descending on the globe, neither the US nor the USSR wanted North Korea and South Korea to be unified for fear of giving the other side an advantage. Tensions between the communist-aligned North and capitalist South soon exploded into a war, known as the Korean War.
Exactly who “started” the Korean War is a matter of debate (despite claims to the contrary, there’s evidence to suggest North Korea was goaded into attacking by the United States and South Korea), but one thing that’s not debatable is that its effects were devastating. More than 1.5 million North Korean civilians died, and almost every city and town was obliterated. The United States alone dropped 635,000 tonnes of bombs – among which was at least 32,557 tonnes of napalm – on Korea, more than was dropped in the Pacific against Japan in all of World War II.
China came to North Korea’s aid during the war, forcing the United States, South Korea, and the United Nations into a stalemate. An armistice between North Korea and South Korea was signed in 1953, bringing an end to major operations.
Since the conflict ended in an armistice, and not a peace treaty, North Korea and South Korea remain technically at war. The so-called Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two countries is the world’s most heavily fortified border, but despite this cross-border incidents – some of them deadly – are not uncommon.
How does North Korea survive?
The DPRK has excelled in resisting threats – both real and perceived – inside and outside its borders. Against external threats, its biggest international “ally” is China, from where nearly all imports come from.
Against internal threats: dissent is brutally repressed, with thousands of people thought to be held in political prison camps. According to the US-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), tens of thousands are most likely imprisoned, in conditions said to be similar to Soviet gulags. Some people are never allowed to leave. If you’re a citizen from elsewhere in the country, just visiting the capital of Pyongyang requires a special permit.
Over the years, North Korea has become increasingly isolated internationally, particularly after testing nuclear weapons in 2006, 2009 and 2013. Today, it survives under some of the strictest sanctions in human history.
The isolation has at times made life difficult for everyday North Koreans. A famine in the late 1990s is thought to have led to millions of people starving to death, particularly in the more rural north. The period is known in the DPRK as the “Arduous March.”
As a result of its isolation, North Korea is extremely self-reliant. In fact, self-reliance is one of the guiding principles of the country’s philosophy, known as Juche.
Why is North Korea so dangerous?
In short: they have nuclear weapons.
While North Korea has never used nuclear weapons against an enemy, it has threatened to do so on numerous occasions. The danger is that the country’s foreign policy often relies on brinksmanship – pushing others as close to the edge of all-out war as possible in order to gain concessions such as humanitarian aid or public apologies from world leaders (which help the ruling Kim family portray itself as powerful, thus discouraging internal dissent). The danger with brinksmanship is one small mistake – such as a military commander misinterpreting orders, or a foreign government overreacting to North Korea’s posturing – can accidentally lead to a real war.
North Korea is also highly sensitive to criticism of the Kim family. Even things such as movies made for foreign audiences that make fun of the Kims can provoke a harsh response. In 2014, the Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy “The Interview” was said to have angered the North Korean government so much, they allegedly hacked the studio behind the film in one of the largest cyberattacks in history.
The hack led to the theatrical release of the film – which had a US$44 million budget – being cancelled.
How are women affected?
The answer is a complicated one.
North Korea is, if nothing else, a land of contradictions. On one hand, it has a higher percentage of women in the workforce than any other country in the world. But on the other hand, the type of work women do is highly gendered, and women are rarely in management positions unless managing other women or children.
Women are also paid less than men; in other words, despite outsiders’ perceptions of gender equality, North Korea is actually a very patriarchal society.
Domestic violence in North Korea is also a huge problem, which is made worse by high rates of alcoholism.
An intensely conservative country, there is unfortunately a very strong victim-blaming culture towards victims of sexual violence. Prosecution rates of rapists and sexual offenders is thought to be low, though as with almost everything about the internal workings of North Korea reliable statistics are almost impossible to come by.
Sexism is also prevalent in North Korean media. Rival South Korea is currently led by a woman (Park Geun-hye), and North Korean media have resorted to sexist attacks against her several times. The phrase “venomous swish of skirt” is a serious insult in Korea (basically it means a woman is “overly aggressive,” but in far more derogatory terms), and has been used by DPRK media to describe Park. She’s also been called a whore and a bitch, among other things.
What about New Zealand and North Korea?
Although New Zealand and North Korea technically have diplomatic relations, in practice they are virtually non-existent. New Zealand fought on the side of the United States in the Korean War, a fact that has overshadowed all Kiwi interaction with the DPRK. The last high-ranking New Zealand politician to visit North Korea was then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters in 2007. Trade is practically zero; almost all Kiwi-made products in North Korea are brought in from China.
Travel to North Korea by ordinary citizens is also strongly discouraged, though about 6,000 tourists visit each year anyway on carefully-planned itineraries from a number of specialised travel agencies.
Are things changing?
North Korea and its system of government have survived for nearly 70 years, and there’s little indication that things will change anytime soon. The culture is slowly changing (for instance, Western fashions are beginning to become more visible in Pyongyang) thanks to expanding use of mobile phones and the internet, but the DPRK remains so different from Aotearoa that visiting is almost like setting foot on another planet.
*NOTE: This reporter has been to North Korea twice. Some information in this article comes from personal experiences.