North Korea: Deciphering Fact from Fiction

skyline of Pyongyang
This photo, taken on July 24, 2017, shows a North Korean man cycling along a street with the skyline of Pyongyang in the background. ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea is in the news a lot. In August 2017 alone, the rogue state's leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump exchanged a war of words regarding nuclear arms and Kim's threats to fire missiles at the U.S. territory of Guam. Of course, North Korea is notoriously closed-off and rigidly controlled, so it's hard to know when to call Kim's bluffs about launching missiles — or anything else for that matter. That's what Stuff They Don't Want You To Know hosts Matt Frederick and Ben Bowlin attempt to do in this episode of the podcast — break down North Korea: Fact and Fiction.

North Korea, or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), was formed when the U.S. and the former Soviet Union divided Korea between them immediately after World War II. Right away, the competing ideologies of the two superpowers caused tensions to become unbearable, sparking the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953. During that time, more than a million Koreans died, until a cease-fire was finally struck. But peace has never been declared or reunification achieved, leaving the region unstable even now.


This is partly due to the Kim dynasty, the generations of leaders who have held control over North Korea since its beginning. Kim Il Sung brought all the country's resources under state control, forcing citizens to be reliant on the regime for food, housing and information. Controlling the population was his legacy as well, which he achieved with a strong cult of personality and help from brutal prison camps, intergenerational punishments and a rigid class system.

His successor, Kim Jong Il, caused a famine in his country that killed 2 million people, and then spent $7 billion in aid from South Korea on weapons instead of food. Now his son, Kim Jong Un, leads the country, and is bringing some aspects of life in North Korea under ever more hard-line control.

Life in North Korea is harsh and oppressive, and sometimes escaping can be just as bad. The path out is long, dangerous and full of opportunities to be taken advantage of — from human trafficking, in the case of many female refugees, to racking up enormous debts due to smuggling fees and bribes. Though there are subsidies and orientations set up for refugees in South Korea, integrating into a capitalist system still proves difficult for many defectors. And even once those obstacles are overcome, the state still tries to exert control where it can, threatening the defector personally and possibly imprisoning or killing any family members left behind.

Due to its closed-off nature, rumors abound regarding all this information and what life might really be like in the DPRK. Thanks to a sushi chef who served Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un before defecting to Japan, we do know a lot more about how the Kim dynasty conducts itself, albeit through a forgiving eye. We know the North Korean government breaks bad to pay the bills, producing and exporting both meth and opium, although it is officially denied.

Rumors of cannibalism during the famine of the 1990s might be exaggerated, although not discounted, unfortunately. It's hard to believe that North Korea is quite as isolated as it is usually billed — it trades with 164 countries, has 47 operating embassies and sends students to several different countries for education. Even its internet traffic— of the elite class, of course — is not so different from Westerners' habits, indicating an educated higher echelon with knowledge about life in other countries and a realistic grasp on their government's failures. And as we know, the country's ballistic capabilities have grown, and its economy seems fairly stable as compared to past years.

But there's no easy solution to dealing with North Korea. While the nation is small, any conflict with it could still result in massive casualties in armed conflict, nuclear proliferation and enormous humanitarian crises. It's not at all clear that North Korea could win a conflict with the West, but the damage would be done, and the world would be left simply ruling over its ashes. That would put North Korea between a rock and a hard place, too. Listen to the podcast to find out what Matt and Ben have to say about the DPRK and Kim Jong Un.