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10 Things to Know When Sneaking into North Korea

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In the introduction to North Korea Undercover, author John Sweeney describes the country as “Kafka written in an alphabet no one can read.” Sweeney came to this conclusion after sneaking into the country under the guise of a university professor interested in taking the grand tour. This book, a result of that visit, has the wit of a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy entry and the sober reporting of a BBC journalist, which Sweeney was at the time of his visit. Should you plan to follow his example and slip across North Korea’s borders, here are 10 things you need to know.

1. You’re going to a very bad place.

Trying to understand North Korea, writes Sweeney, is like “figuring out a detective story where you stumble across a corpse in the library, a smoking gun beside it, and the corpse gets up and says that’s no gun and it isn’t smoking and this isn’t a library.” The reality-deprived pronouncements from its state media come across as cartoonish, but the regime is as tyrannical as any to ever hold power. The North Korean government is cavalier in its attitude toward global thermonuclear war. Its gulags, according to defectors, are like tiny outposts of hell. While the Kim family lives in a permanent state of lavish decadence, one-quarter of North Korean children are starving and malnourished. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans starved to death in the 1990s. (Some of the regime’s evils and oddities can be found at mental_floss here, here, here, here, and here.)

2. International tensions keep North Korea alive.

Why hasn’t Kim Jong-un (or his late father) been forced to stand before the International Criminal Court? Why hasn’t some general in the North Korean army inflicted the tyrant with a fatal dose of cranial lead poisoning? Simply put, the Kim family still holds power because the international community allows it to do so. Moscow likes North Korea just as it is: benign to Russia and a frustration to the west. If North Korea falls, South Korea inherits an expensive and destabilizing human rights disaster. Korean reunification would mean that China has to then share a border with a staunch American ally. (South Korea presently hosts a heavily armed and fortified U.S. military presence in its borders.) Japan, meanwhile, would have to compete against a rejuvenated Korea. The United States would have to scramble madly to account for North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities—a process it previously went through when the Soviet Union fell, in Iraq (though unsuccessfully, obviously), and covertly in Pakistan.

3. If you’re a journalist, you’re going to need a cover.

When Christopher Hitchens infiltrated North Korea, he could not do so as a journalist. He took the guise of a university lecturer. John Sweeney used the same disguise. The two men did not list “writer” on the occupation block of the visa application because North Korea generally does not permit visits from journalists (for obvious reasons). The exception is the Associated Press, which has a Pyongyang bureau. As Sweeney writes, however, the AP “has been accused of running ‘chirpy, upbeat stories rather than real news.’” Either way, once you get into the country, don’t expect to start snapping photographs with abandon. You will visit places only under tightly controlled conditions, and the minders assigned to you will carefully monitor what you can and cannot photograph. As Sweeney explains, there is also a bit of extortion at work: The North Korean government subtly makes it known that one’s assigned minder will pay the price for a foreign visitor who later writes harshly of Dear Leader.

4. While there, you can tweet, post selfies, and other such Internet horrors.

If there is any hope, it is that the information age is breaking the pneumatic seal of the Kim regime. Inside North Korea, those along the border can pick up cell phone signals from South Korea. A student traveling with Sweeney posted an update to Twitter from within North Korea’s borders. “If we could do that,” writes Sweeney, “so could a North Korean with a smuggled Chinese-manufactured phone.” Meanwhile, those living in the northernmost areas in North Korea get signals from China. The sneakernet is also working against the regime, with smugglers bringing thumb drives into North Korea. Kim Jong-Un and his lackeys can broadcast whatever propaganda they like, but such lies are obliterated by photos and video evidence of a better life pretty much everywhere else in the world.

5. There is a North Korean nightlife.

Though they live under the boot heel of a totalitarian regime, the North Korean people aren’t simply drones waiting to die. North Korea Undercover contains several anecdotes that reveal that the people's spirit is not broken. “People are happy, joking, witty, and full of fun,” Sweeney writes. One night he and his fellow travelers visited a karaoke bar “no less dire than any other karaoke bar in the world.” He sang the theme to Titanic. The ship sank April 15, 1912, which happens also to be the birthday of Kim Il-Sung. (“Twin disasters that day, some say.”)

6. For foreigners, North Korea isn’t a particularly dangerous place to visit.

Though life can be nightmarish for North Korean peasants, for foreign visitors it isn’t so bad. According to one Beijing-based travel agent who operates North Korean tours, “We have run thousands of tours over 20 years and we have never had anyone detained, questioned, molested, ejected, or arrested.” Sweeney, who has reported from a dozen dictatorships, including Czechoslovakia, Gaddafi-era Libya, Saddam-era Iraq, Syria, Zimbabwe, Cuba, and Milosevic-era Serbia, writes that North Korea “was the tyranny in which I felt the least sense of personal threat. You can get mugged in Cuba.”

7. While there, be sure to check out the “zombie tour.”

North Korea is in possession of a seemingly endless number of concrete buildings, all in drab gray. Frequently painted on the concrete are slogans in large red letters, with such motivational messages as “The Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, will always be with us.” This is useful for a country beset with power outages, as concrete signs never flicker. (This is described in Under the Same Sky as well, previously featured here.) Also not flickering, apparently, is the luminous rule of Kim Il-Sung. Because the long-dead elder Kim is the constitutional, eternal ruler of North Korea, the country is notable for being the world’s only necrocracy. All the same, his corpse can be viewed at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the mausoleum he shares with Kim Jong-Il. As Sweeney’s North Korean minder explained of the mausoleum, “The Korean people believe that our President Kim Il Sung is always with us, so when we go to the Mausoleum we don’t think we are going to a mausoleum, we are going to meet him.” Sweeney calls this the “zombie tour.”

8. Ever feel lonely, or like the government doesn’t listen to you? In North Korea, that’s not a problem.

It occurred to Sweeney that his room might be bugged, and in North Korea Undercover he recounts an anecdote from Michael Breen, biographer of Kim Jong-Il. Two Danish engineers were working on a project in North Korea, and one night in their hotel room, began complaining about how bored they were, one of them wishing he had brought a deck of cards: “The next day at work, their minder presented them with a pack of cards. The creepy bit is that they had been talking in Danish.”

9. If you’re lucky, you will receive “on-the-spot guidance.”

North Korean tyrants have a penchant for what is called “on-the-spot guidance,” which is broadcast on North Korean television, and even depicted by large, bronze statues. On-the-spot guidance involves Kim Il-Sung and his heirs stopping ordinary people and dispensing advice on how better to live their lives. Like most propaganda from the North Korean government, the storylines of OTSG follow simplistic patterns with the Leader always cast as a god-hero. As noted by Bryan Myers, a famed scholar of the North Korean regime, “Both problem and solution are thus described in terms a child can grasp. Indeed, the Leader’s published remarks are always trite: ‘Rainbow trout is a good fish, tasty and nutritious.’”

10. You do not want to go “for a stay in the mountains.”

The Korean People’s Army Unit 10215 acts as the secret police of the North Korean government. (In Korean, they are called Bowibu.) They are “the power in the land,” writes Sweeney, employing 50,000 people who “spy on everyone worth spying on: the palace’s most loyal retainers, officials in the government and the Party, generals in the army, the dynasty’s trickier relatives, the police, ordinary people, and of course, foreigners.” Those unfortunate enough to cross the regime—or to be related to someone who’s crossed the regime—are likely to go away “for a stay in the mountains,” which is slang in North Korea for the gulag.

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5 Things You Might Not Know About Henry Kissinger
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Keystone/Getty Images

You probably know Henry Kissinger as a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. Let’s take a look at five things you might not know about the German-born political scientist and diplomat.

1. MAO ZEDONG TRIED TO GIVE HIM "10 MILLION" WOMEN.

In 1973, Henry Kissinger was engaged in a discussion of trade with Mao Zedong when the chairman abruptly changed the subject by saying, “We [China] don't have much. What we have in excess is women. So if you want them we can give a few of those to you, some tens of thousands.”

Kissinger sidestepped this bizarre offer and changed the subject, but Mao later returned to the subject by jokingly asking, “Do you want our Chinese women? We can give you 10 million.”

This time Kissinger diplomatically replied, “It is such a novel proposition. We will have to study it.”

Other Chinese officials in the room pointed out that Mao’s attitudes toward women would cause quite a stir if the press got their hands on these quotes, so Mao apologized to his female interpreter and talked Kissinger into having the comments removed from the records of the meeting.

2. NO, HE'S NOT THE INSPIRATION FOR DR. STRANGELOVE.

Here’s a riddle that’s been bugging film buffs for decades: who was the basis for the title character in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove? For years many observers thought that Kissinger might have inspired Peter Sellers’s memorable performance. Blame it on the accent and the glasses. Even though Kissinger was still a relatively obscure Harvard professor when the film premiered in 1964, the rumor that Kubrick modeled the character on him just wouldn't die.

Kubrick did what he could to dispel this notion before his death, saying, “I think this is slightly unfair to Kissinger ... It was unintentional. Neither Peter nor I had ever seen Kissinger before the film was shot.” Most observers now think that Dr. Strangelove was actually a distorted version of Herman Kahn, an eccentric nuclear strategist for the RAND Corporation.

3. HE WAS QUITE THE LADIES MAN.

Even in his youth, Kissinger didn’t quite fit the bill of a matinee idol, but he has always been a hit with the ladies. A 1972 poll of Playboy bunnies selected Kissinger as the man with whom Hef’s ladies would most like to go out on a date. He also had a string of celebrity girlfriends in his younger days, including Diane Sawyer, Candice Bergen, Jill St. John, Shirley Maclaine, and Liv Ullman, who called Kissinger, “the most interesting man I have ever met.”

Kissinger’s swinging bachelor days are long gone, though. He was married to Ann Fleischer from 1949 to 1964 then married philanthropist Nancy Maginnes in 1974—a union that at one point seemed so improbable that just a year before they tied the knot, Maginnes had called speculation that she and Kissinger would marry “outrageous.”

4. PROTECTING HIM ISN'T ALWAYS EASY.

In 1985 former Secret Service agent Dennis McCarthy released the memoir Protecting the President—The Inside Story of a Secret Service Agent, in which he described being on Kissinger’s security detail as “a real pain.” McCarthy shared a funny anecdote about a 1977 trip to Acapulco with Kissinger and his wife. There were signs warning of sharks in the water, but Nancy wanted to go for a swim. Kissinger then told his security detail to get in the water to guard for sharks.

Personal protection is one thing, but McCarthy and his fellow agents drew the line at fighting off sharks. Instead, they made the reasonable point that if the Kissingers were afraid of sharks, they shouldn’t go swimming. Agent McCarthy did, however, offer a compromise; he told Kissinger, “If the sharks come up on this beach, my agents will fight them.”

5. THE STATE DEPARTMENT NIXED HIS OFFICIAL PORTRAIT.

Official portraits of government luminaries don’t usually become big news, but in 1978 the painting of Kissinger commissioned by the State Department for its gallery made headlines. Boston artist Gardner Cox had previously painted Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and Dean Rusk, so he got the $12,000 commission to paint Kissinger. The finished product didn’t earn rave reviews, though.

Some viewers at the State Department thought the painting lacked Kissinger’s dynamism and made him look “somewhat a dwarf.” Others felt the portrait was “a rogues' gallery thing." The State Department offered to let Cox fix the painting, but he said he didn’t see anything that need changing. He lost the commission but got $700 for his expenses.

Kissinger took the whole episode in stride, though. When Houston artist J. Anthony Wills painted a replacement, Kissinger declared it to be, “an excellent likeness, swelled head and all,” and called the unveiling "one of my most fulfilling moments. Until they do Mount Rushmore."

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Barack and Michelle Obama's Next Move: Producing Content for Netflix
Mark Wilson, Getty Images
Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Barack Obama's first talk show appearance after leaving office was on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, David Letterman's six-part series on Netflix. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that one of the Obamas' first projects since moving out of the White House will be a storytelling partnership with Netflix.

On Monday, the streaming service announced that they've entered into a multi-year deal with Barack and Michelle Obama, who produce films and series under a company called Higher Ground Productions. So what can we expect from the former president and first lady? According to Netflix, they will be producing a "diverse mix of content," which could take the form of scripted and unscripted series, documentaries, and features.

"One of the simple joys of our time in public service was getting to meet so many fascinating people from all walks of life, and to help them share their experiences with a wider audience," Barack Obama said in a statement. "That's why Michelle and I are so excited to partner with Netflix. We hope to cultivate and curate the talented, inspiring, creative voices who are able to promote greater empathy and understanding between peoples, and help them share their stories with the entire world."

The former first lady added that Netflix was a "natural fit" for the kinds of stories they want to tell. According to The New York Times, Barack Obama said he does not intend to use the platform for political ends.

Last year, the Obamas signed a joint book deal with Penguin Random House worth $65 million. Michelle's memoir, Becoming, will be published on November 13, while details about Barack Obama's memoir are forthcoming.

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