Of all the Koreas in the world, North Korea has the most murderous dictators per capita. We've had a lot of fun riffing on the craziest facets of the Hermit Kingdom, but beyond all the hilarious propaganda and somewhat less hilarious threats of nuclear war, North Korea is a nation of 25 million people living very weird, awful lives.
We wanted to know what life was really like for those people, so we sat down with an escaped North Korean refugee, an American journalist who spent time exploring Pyongyang, and the grandson of an anonymous Asian nation's ambassador to North Korea. They told us ...
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North Korea's number one export to the world is unintentionally hilarious propaganda, but when you're living there, those bombastic pro-Kim messages are the background noise of your entire life, and it's a whole lot less funny. For Mr. Lee (the refugee we spoke to), each morning of his childhood started the same way: A loudspeaker blared the accomplishments of the Kim family and their regime. Sun up? "Kim Jong Il invented the hamburger!" Sun down? "Kim Jong Il is the world's greatest golfer!" Combine that with radios that don't turn off, and you've got a whole nation's worth of captive audience.
"First you'll laugh, then you'll cry, then you'll praise our Dear Leader for all his heavenly blessings."
So the next question the average Westerner asks is "Do the people there actually believe Kim Jong Un has magic powers?" Not all of them -- Mr. Lee grew up with a great-aunt who had zero time in her life to take shit from the government. When the loudspeakers started up, she'd say, "Oh there they go again, spreading their lies." Mr. Lee's family had never been counted among the party faithful, and by his teen years he realized that his national government ran on bullshit. He felt like most of his countrymen bought into most of the propaganda, but Michael Malice (an American journalist who spent time in Pyongyang) had another suggestion: Most North Koreans know the propaganda is ridiculous, but they're too scared to say anything. "When you are in the public space you'd better sound like a true believer. An actor immersed in a role is going to be better at it."
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If Daniel Day-Lewis were an entire nation.
And that training starts early -- overall, Mr. Lee says about 30 percent of his education was useless because it only pertained to the Kim family. There were classes when he was younger on the lives of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, but when he got older, the teacher would spend 10 minutes talking about the Kim of the day and his accomplishments and then sprinkle more stories during other classes. Imagine if your algebra teacher had to link every lesson back to George Washington, and also George Washington was a living, ridiculous-looking little man.
North Korean schools treat world history as an afterthought, the way American schools treat art classes. He learned about World War I and II and the Allied and Axis powers, but not the Italian Renaissance. He's aware of things like Sputnik, but he wasn't aware that an American was the first man on the moon (he was aware that someone landed on the moon, but they never specified whether it was an American or a Russian). You're also forced to participate in mass games, from middle school on. You've seen demonstrations like this:
It's like a television with shitty resolution, but made of people.
Well, ever wonder how those kids get so precise with their movements? It's because they start training for it at a young age (including on weekends), and North Korean teachers don't hesitate to use corporal punishment.
And the parents know to do their part. Another of our sources, who lived in North Korea for several years as the grandson of an ambassador, relayed this story:
"All over Pyongyang are pictures of the Great Leader surrounded by flowers, and regular flocks of adoring citizenry ... they would go to these little kiosks to buy flowers, and then set those flowers out at the shrines. Later in the day people with push carts come, pick up the flowers, and bring them back to the kiosks to resell to more people."
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And the great circle of foliage goes on.
"One time I saw this little girl, maybe 4 or 5, she trundled up with a pretty big bouquet -- almost as big as her, but she carried it to the shrine one-handed. Her parents rushed in, screaming at her. Dad slapped her full on the face. The crime? Not using two hands to lay down those flowers. So they bought her a bigger bouquet, this one was even bigger than the little girl, and she laid that down with both hands."
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"FLOWERS FOR THE FLOWER GOD!"
That's what happens when the punishment for a public fuck-up is prison camp. For you see ...
People in North Korea are taught from childhood to inform on anyone they see being the least bit dissident. So forget about staging a mass protest or sit-in -- you don't even dare raise objections in private conversation. As Mr. Lee explained, "It is something you never talk about in public places, maybe to your closest friend you might mention you aren't happy with the Kim regime, and even then only after a drink or two. Even with your wife you want to be careful."
Booze: Subverting totalitarianism since forever.
Before Mr. Lee escaped, he witnessed several of his neighbors get deported to camps. North Korea isn't a big fan of the whole "disappearing people in the night" thing popular with so many repressive regimes. No, soldiers just take away whole families at a time, in full view of everyone. They all get to watch while the newly doomed deportees load their stuff onto government vans.
The locals are aware that this isn't business as usual everywhere in the world. But what can you do? If you're imagining yourself going Braveheart on the evil king, keep in mind that crimes like "treason" and (more commonly) "looking like you might be about to commit treason" are punishable by life imprisonment or execution ... for both the accused and three freaking generations of his or her family. You're not just dooming yourself. You don't just watch your words, but your inflection.
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"Upturned lips can mean sarcasm. Send her family to the famine mines."
Our source in the [anonymous nation's] embassy recalls the time a high-ranking North Korean officer took him aside and -- in English -- came shockingly close to criticizing the regime:
"He said, 'It's a shame, what's happening ... but our leader will take us to the right path.' He left a pause in the middle, and I think the first half was to share his opinion with me and the second is what he had to say ... I saw his assistant look at him during the pause, and I kind of worry about him today. I never saw that guy at another event."
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The weirdest thing about North Korea, aside from, well, all of the other things about North Korea, is the sheer concept of an isolated country in the 21st century. When Ukrainian protesters are live-tweeting their revolution and half of us have personal Internet friends who live on the other side of the planet, it's bizarre to think about this quarantined population that's totally in the dark about anything outside their own border.
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This man will be shot as soon as he finishes his shift with the goggles.
The truth is, some material does leak in. The North Koreans that our diplomatic source met at Kim Il Sung University would share their contraband:
"One guy in particular told me he'd read '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.' I was surprised, 'Is that book allowed?' 'No!' He'd smuggled it in. And he asked if me if people had built underwater settlements yet. I told him there were underwater hotels in the world now, and man, the smile on his face was great. It was like seeing my little brother on Christmas."
But in general, subversive devices like cellphones, DVD players, and modern movies aren't readily available to locals. Possession of any of those things is punishable by death for you and anyone who happens to be standing nearby when you're caught. You might expect North Korean citizens to do without. If so, you're drastically underestimating the human need to watch badly dubbed bootlegs of the latest Iron Man movie.
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"Tony Stark is a capitalist pig, but I like how he drinks while operating military-grade hardware."
Mr. Lee told us that foreign movies and gadgets are smuggled into North Korea regularly, but not out in the open. Dealers will spot a likely buyer and approach them in the market. "They'll start with Chinese movies, and then maybe if you're receptive move on to the American stuff." In other words, Hollywood films are the heroin of North Korea's black market (along with actual heroin, of course).
"Anchorman 2? Not. Even. Once."
All this adds up to a hermit kingdom that's much less isolated than you might expect based solely on the news. Mr. Lee was able to speak with family members in South Korea, including a sister who escaped several years before he did. North Koreans are quite aware that famine isn't an everyday fact of life in America, or even South Korea. And rather than just shooting everyone who figured this out, the North Korean government has adapted their propaganda.
Michael Malice, Kim Jong Il's unofficial biographer and one of the rare Americans to visit Pyongyang, explained, "The propaganda used to be 'We have nothing to envy.' Now that the outside is creeping in, they claim they're maintaining the idea of Korea while South Korea is being raped by America."
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"Lies ... find a way."
Once Mr. Lee's sister made it to South Korea and confirmed that this "rape" by America was more of a "friends with benefits" sort of thing, he began to plan his own escape. That's when he found ...