Kim Jong Il is dead

Perhaps you’ve been living under a rock, or perhaps you just haven’t been connected to something electronic for the past hour, but Kim Jong Il died today at the age of 69. A couple months ago I started researching North Korea (or the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea / DPRK) and found the whole thing fascinating. Here are some semi-structured collected thoughts on some of the things I found (and conclusions I drew).

  • North Korea is a wildly crazy country, unlike possibly anywhere else on the planet right now. My sense is that the control of information, propaganda, and quasi-abuse of the people living there is, on an ongoing basis, just about as bad as anywhere in the world. Consider that there is essentially no internet connectivity in the country and there are approximately 1 million telephone lines in a nation of about 24 million.  The “no internet” thing seems a little over the top, if not entirely surprising considering the amount of control over information that most people realize the government exercises, but the idea that 19 in 20 people do not own a telephone is just hard to fathom.
  • Vice TV, which is apparently some offshoot of MTV, went there a couple years ago and produced a multipart Guide to North Korea. I feel this is very much worth the time investment to watch. You can’t simply decide “I’d like to go to North Korea” and book a flight on Delta to Pyongyang, but it is possible for Americans to visit (and at least a couple flickr users have). There are a couple sites that describe how this works, but my impression is that the Vice guide has it right: applications are screened heavily, people who are likely to cause trouble are usually rejected (it’s a surprise Vice got in), and the itinerary is highly, highly controlled.
  • Pyongyang, despite its population of >3 million, seems like a ghost town.  By all accounts, if you walk around the city at any time of day, you’ll encounter no one.  People just don’t seem to go from place to place, out for lunch, out to shops or restaurants, walk pets, or socialize.  “Accounts” are sparse, so maybe this isn’t quite like it seems, but if you consider that this is probably a bigger city than Chicago and the capital of a state with nuclear bombs, I find it a little surprising and alarming.
  • People who visit North Korea seem to all wind up on a very tightly controlled and scripted tour of the country. I haven’t researched this too closely in a couple years, but it seemed like a couple organizations would help field your application that would go to the government and it seemed that most of the people who visited brought back artifacts that indicated that most of them had the same tours as one another and the same tour as is documented in the Vice video series. The tour inevitably leads to an incredible performance of “mass games” (emphasizing what can happen when millions of people perform in unison or some kind of Marxist dystopia / Stalinist wet dream) with hundreds of thousands of North Koreans performing for a couple international tourists.  It’s wildly, wildly crazy to think “this didn’t just happen ‘some time’ – one of these performances might be going on right now and there is an entire nation of people raising children whose greatest life memory might be a performance in one of these shows.”
  • Finally – you can’t get much information on North Korea.  For instance, what’s the hotel that every international tourist stays at?  Well, it’s here on this (easily controlled) island in the middle of the river in Pyongyang – but where is that?  Why can’t you find any hits for “Hilton Pyongyang” if you search Google maps?  In part, it’s because North Korea is essentially the only place on the planet where there is no information of this sort in the public domain. Even the Gaza Strip and Monrovia have some street, but as soon as you get to the border between South Korea and the North, it’s like you hit the astral plane and no one knows what’s there.  There is a project, though, at nkeconwatch where you can download a huge Google Earth database of roads, place names, and place markers of sites within North Korea.
This is enough for now.  This is a fascinating place on the planet right now from a social, political, military, and technological perspective. If you’re interested, I hope you’ll find some of these links helpful for further research.

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