This article was published in the Escape Artist Weekly Newsletter on May 28, 2018. If you would like to subscribe to the newsletter, please click here.
As of today (May 28), it looks like the Trump-Kim Summit will still take place in Singapore on June 12. Peace between North and South Korea would be an astounding achievement, previously deemed utterly impossible. That it may be possible to see, this December 10 in Norway’s Oslo City Hall, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un awarded the Nobel Peace Prize boggles the mind.
I have been to North Korea three times, 2010-2012. Now might be a good time to tell you about it.
As you may know, I’ve been to every country in the world (198 – counting 193 UN member states, 2 UN observer states, and 3 sovereign countries blocked from UN membership: Taiwan, Kosovo, and Somaliland), as well as over another 100 separate political jurisdictions.
So it is with some authority I can say North Korea is far – far – away the weirdest place on the planet. It is George Orwell’s 1984 made real. Thus, it is not easy to describe something so off-the-wall bizarre, so totally over the top that there’s nothing to compare it to.
Let’s start with the unexpected. For example, North Korea is an environmentalist’s paradise.
Before my first arrival, I had a clear picture of what North Korea would look like: a denuded landscape, rocky hills stripped bare of vegetation, people in rags so skinny with starvation they’re skin and bones with their ribs sticking out, people slumped with the weight of oppression on their shoulders.
Nope. We drove hundreds of kilometers around the country, and flew over hundreds more, and were continually surprised at the lushness and physical beauty of North Korea – it is green, not brown. Endless unlogged forests, clear streams and rivers, spectacular waterfalls, beautiful lakes, coastlines with great beaches.
Of course, the beaches were wired with electronic fences to prevent the South Koreans from invading.
We saw (driving past or flying over) countless rice and corn fields.
Most of it goes to feed the gigantic Nork Army. Nonetheless, there were two medical doctors with me who watched carefully for signs of hunger or malnutrition (like kids with pot-bellies you see so often in Africa) among people in the scores of villages we passed through, and they didn’t see any. They saw people whose health looked good to them, who seemed to have enough rice, corn, and vegetables to eat.
Certainly not more than that. The only cattle we saw were pulling ox-carts. We saw, very occasionally, small (no more than a dozen at a time) groups of goats, no sheep, and not a single chicken.
We saw no one in rags, everyone wearing serviceable clean clothes. Everyone walks or rides an ancient single-gear bicycle. The highways and city streets are deserted – save for military and delivery trucks, beat-to-crap dilapidated street cars, and ever so often, a car of the ruling elite.
The photo below is from driving down a main street in the capital of Pyongyang in the middle of the day:
Check out this commissar’s Beemer:
Contrast this with the incredible mok tan cha or “wood-burning truck” with a kind of steam engine and a boiler in the truck bed that burns wood chips, emitting the most amazing amount of smoke and soot. They’re all over the place, but we were not allowed to take a picture of them, much less examine one.
Here’s a shot of one a friend sent me (the only photo in this article not mine):
The most constant refrain of our guides was “no photos.” No photos of people, no photos of anything without our two guides’ express permission.
We were not allowed to talk to anyone without their permission. We were not allowed to go anywhere without their permission. We could not go out of our bus, we could not go out of our hotel, without their permission. Literally… if you try to step outside your hotel lobby unaccompanied, you will be physically stopped.
In NorkLand, this is normal. No ordinary North Korean can do anything without the permission of the government. Why should foreign devils be different? In North Korea, you live your life until you die in the village where you were born – unless you get permission to move elsewhere.
And if you really, really prove your loyalty and usefulness to the government, then you get to be a part of it, and even live in the capital of Pyongyang. Here is a picture of Pyongyang from my hotel room at morning rush hour. Note the traffic jam on the boulevard below:
Here is a picture of the same view in the evening when people have returned from work:
One faint dim light bulb is all you get in your apartment – and that’s in Pyongyang, the capital. Note the lack of street lights. Drive in the evening out in the country and the villages are all dark. Yet everywhere, in villages and city streets, throngs of people are walking and riding their bikes – all in the dark.
Electricity must be conserved – in order to have all the monuments to the NorkCom Revolution and its founder, Kim Il-Sung, all brightly lit. Here’s one, albeit during the day:
It is the Cult of Kim – and the Norks’ worship of it – that makes North Korea so ridiculously bizarre.
Every single village in North Korea, every section of every city, has an “Eternal Tower” dedicated to him, with the same exact inscription carved in stone: The Great Leader, Comrade Kim Il-Sung, Will Always Be With Us.
Below is one in the town of Kaesong. Note that at the end of the street to the left there is something sticking up in the sky. That’s a giant statue of Kim Il-Sung.
These statues are all over the place, with the biggest in Pyongyang’s main square:
It is flanked by huge waving red flags and fighting soldiers of stone, all portrayed in full-out socialist-realist heroic mode. At their forefront is one of the soldier-heroes holding a book on high: Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto:
It is a sacred ritual for all couples on their wedding day to bow before the statue:
Every single adult North Korean – if they wish to be considered loyal and patriotic – wears at all times a pin on their shirt, blouse, or jacket with a picture of Kim Il Sung:
We never saw a single exception, in any village, town, or city. They all wore the pin. Now here’s the key: They don’t consider it an obligation, much less a threat if they don’t wear it. They consider it an honor. We couldn’t buy one. No one would sell one to us. To wear the Kim pin is a great achievement they have earned, it is proof of their sacred devotion to the Cult of Kim.
North Koreans have drunk the Kool-aid. It’s been force-fed to them since infancy. They know nothing of the outside world except what the state media tells them. All forms of communication with the outside world are blocked. (We, for example, had to turn in our cell phones to Customs upon entry to the country, which were returned to us upon leaving; there is, of course, no internet.)
The propaganda for the regime is constant, ubiquitous, and unrelenting. It never stops and there is no escape. It is Orwell’s 1984 made real. Here’s a typical billboard. It reads: Defending the Headquarters of the Revolution with Our Lives!
What got to us all the most is not just that North Koreans believe the BS, but it is their passion in believing it. They really do, in fact, really love Big Brother – they passionately love Big Brother, they religiously worship Kim Il Sung.
So who is this guy? It’s possible you may have never heard of him, or just barely. The Norks believe he is revered all over the world, and that uncountable millions on every continent cried their hearts out in pain and misery as did they when he died in 1994. Get ready for this, for you will not believe the laughable nonsense of what the Norks believe is his true life story.
He was born in 1912 near Pyongyang, but due to a famine, he fled with his family in 1920 to Manchuria (northeast China). In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria, with its military turning it into a puppet state called Manchukuo.
Like all Koreans, young Kim hated the Japanese – for, in the wake of Japan’s defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Japan brutally colonized Korea and treated Koreans as sub-human. The famine of 1920 was a consequence of Japan’s colonial rule.
So Kim joined a Communist anti-Japanese guerrilla group in Manchuria set up by Soviet agents right across the border. The Japanese hunted the guerrillas down until, by 1940, Kim fled to the Soviet Union to join the Soviet Red Army, where he became a Captain stationed near Khabarovsk in Soviet Siberia.
Immediately after the U.S. nuked Hiroshima on August 5, 1945, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, with the Red Army invading Manchuria, and then Korea from the retreating Japanese who had surrendered to the U.S. on August 15.
Truman warned Stalin not to go as far as Seoul, Korea’s capital city – American troops arrived by early September, and Korea was divided into U.S. and Soviet “spheres of influence” along the 38th parallel (the basis of the border today).
Because of his loyalty to the Soviet Union and his malleable youth, Stalin chose Kim to rule Soviet Korea and had him brought from Khabarovsk to Pyongyang. Now 33, he had not been in Korea for 26 years, had but a rudimentary education as a child, could read only Chinese and Russian, and could hardly speak Korean.
But Stalin gave him the money and weapons to form a Korean People’s Army (KPA), while Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s head of the KGB, set up a ruthlessly efficient Korean KGB to wipe out any internal dissent. By 1949, North Korea was a total Communist dictatorship run by Kim, who proclaimed he was the rightful ruler of South Korea as well.
Yet, when Stalin was told Kim was planning to invade and militarily conquer South Korea, he balked. It would involve killing American troops stationed there, and he did not want a war with America. So he withdrew his support, money, and weapons – yet on June 25, 1950, Kim’s KPA invaded anyway.
What few American troops were in the way were overrun, the ROK (Republic of Korea) troops retreated, and by the end of August, the KPA had seized all of South Korea save for a region around Pusan (the “Pusan Pocket”) on the southeast coast.
Then on September 15, General Douglas MacArthur staged the brilliant and famous Inchon Landing deep behind KPA lines (Inchon is Seoul’s port city on the west coast). The KPA was caught in a vise between rearmed U.S./ROK forces advancing from Pusan and MacArthur.
Out of the quarter-million KPA troops that invaded the South, only about 10% of them made it back to the North. One month after the Inchon Landing, U.S./ROK forces captured the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.
But MacArthur wanted to go further – all the way to the Yalu River (the Nork-China border) and beyond. This prompted Mao Tse-Tung to send massive numbers of Chinese cannon fodder soldiers to repel the U.S. out of the North.
At the cost of over a million dead Chinese, many of whom fought in flip-flop sandals – what’s a million deaths of his own countrymen to Mao? He succeeded.
The battle line stabilized by mid-1951 around the 38th parallel, an armistice was signed two years later (July 27, 1953), with the North-South Korean border back where it began at the cost of 37,000 American dead, hundreds of thousands of KPA and ROK dead, 1-2 million North/South Korean civilians, and a million Chinese.
All for nothing and all because of Kim Il-Sung’s murderous megalomania.
Now for the story that all North Koreans are taught from birth:
There is a mountain in a very remote region of North Korea called Paekdu-san or Mount Paekdu (we had to charter a plane to get there – see the map above). It is sacred to Koreans, venerated as the birthplace of their ancestors. It’s a dormant volcano that contains a beautiful crater lake, Lake Chon:
You are constantly confronted with enormous paintings of Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il (Kim Jong-un’s father) on the crater rim:
The Cult of Kim myth is that Kim became an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter in the mountains and forests near Paekdu at age 14, became their leader at 20, and that he and his heroic forces defeated the Japanese in World War II – with no help from the Soviet Red Army, and with nary a mention of any battles fought by the U.S. in the Pacific nor of Hiroshima & Nagasaki.
Kim Il-Sung won World War II. Every North Korean has been taught this since birth.
Further, it was South Korea who started the Korean War (or Fatherland Liberation War as the Norks call it) and invaded the North, not the other way around. Again, it was Kim directing guerrilla forces throughout the South that forced the U.S. to sue for peace. There is never a mention of the Chinese PLA (People’s Liberation Army) save for the briefest mention of “Chinese volunteers” who helped just a teeny bit.
Adding to the myth are these hilariously heroic paintings of Kim’s wife, Kim Jong-suk, fighting the Japanese alongside him in the Paekdu mountains:
Like Kim’s, her family moved to Manchuria in the early 20s where she met him in the late 30s. She moved with him to Khabarovsk, where, in the nearby village of Vyatskoye, she gave birth to Kim Jong-Il on February 16, 1941.
So even more hilarious than the painting above is this one:
The Nork myth is that Jong-Il was born in a “secret camp” log cabin in the Paekdu mountains, the headquarters of Kim Il-Sung’s and Kim Jong-suk’s heroic revolutionary struggle that defeated the Japanese Army and won World War II.
Here is the log cabin, with the lady KPA guide earnestly explaining the myth to visitors:
The North Koreans buy this 100%. They buy every slogan emblazoned on rooftops and highway arches all over the country, such as Let Us Share the Thinking of Dear Leader Comrade Kim Jong-Il! and Long Live Kim Jong-Il, Sun of the 21st Century!
To us, Kim Jong-Il is a fruitcake, a short little fat wacko we make jokes about. Here’s the famous clip from Team America – World Police (2004) of him singing, “I’m so ronery, so sadry and ronery arone.”
While Kim the father is revered as Great Leader, Kim the son is revered (albeit not as much as the father) as Dear Leader. Here is the sacred secret birthplace of Jong-Il portrayed in the Nork extravaganza called the Mass Games:
The backdrop to the dancers in front – the cabin, snowy trees, mountain, etc. – is not a curtain. It’s a card stunt, created by some 20,000 in the stands holding coordinated cards like at a college football game on hyper-steroids. The Mass Games are breathtakingly spectacular and left all in our group speechless with awe:
They are also breathtakingly militaristic. Try to imagine the reaction if kids at a U.S. college did a card stunt heroically portraying a gun:
North Korea is the most militarized society on earth. With a population of some 20 million, 10% (meaning a far higher percentage of adults) are in the military. Soldiers are everywhere. Pictures, paintings, statues, billboards of soldiers brandishing guns, rifles, and bayonets are everywhere. Even the calendar pinups are soldiers:
Aren’t they cute?
But they’re not cute. They are robotic murderers who will kill anyone they are ordered to. Which is why the border crossing at Panmunjom is the tensest in the world. The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) is two kilometers wide on either side. The actual border is in the middle of the DMZ – here is the schematic:
North Korea is on the left, the South on the right. The border makes a right turn at the river, then goes through the group of negotiation huts in the middle, politically dividing the huts in half. Here is the center blue negotiation hut from the Nork side:
The people standing on the steps behind are in South Korea. The Nork soldiers on either side of the blue hut are standing right on the edge of their side of the border. You can’t believe how tense the atmosphere is.
Let’s go where it’s not – to Wonson, the main port city on North Korea’s east coast. It is 8:00 am and rush hour is completely quiet, with everyone silently walking or riding their ancient bicycles to work without a motorized vehicle in sight or sound.
Drive out in the countryside past miles and miles of rice and corn fields, visit a collective farm. Everything is done by hand, from planting to harvesting. There is no mechanized agriculture whatever. There is almost no mechanization of any kind anywhere, save for a few trucks carrying supplies and military trucks carrying soldiers around.
North Korea is a pre-industrial society. An environmental dream. Twenty million people scattered over North Korea are too few to pollute it – even in Pyongyang, which has only two million – so the environment is pristine.
And if there get to be too many people, they are wiped out by government-induced famines. Uncooperative people are shipped off to prison camps where they can be worked and beaten to death as they deserve for being disloyal to the State. Everyone else is compliant, obedient, respectful, and does what they are told by their parent-rulers like good little boys and girls should.
Even better, they are passionately patriotic and loyal to their rulers who get to live in total power and luxury while the adoring commoners get to eat corn and rice in the dark and meat once every other month or so.
North Korean education as absolute total indoctrination ensures this. These two lovably happy kindergartners will grow up to love Big Brother as they are relentlessly taught:
I am hoping the future of these kids is brighter than that. I am hoping that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, together with the leaders of South Korea and China, Moon Jae-in and Xi Jingping, can bring about that better future. These two kids deserve it – as does the entire world.
Jack Wheeler is the founder of Wheeler Expeditions
This article was published in the Escape Artist Weekly Newsletter on May 28, 2018. If you would like to subscribe to the newsletter, please click here.
©2019 Jack Wheeler – republished with permission