North Korea is an enigmatic place with a virtually unknown leader, though tales often slip out of the tyrannical domination of the ruling Kim family.
Through snippets of information leaked from the Hermit Kingdom (as North Korea is commonly known), experts have gleaned a picture of the country, its society and its leader, 37-year-old Kim Jong Un.
A new National Geographic documentary, “North Korea: Inside the Mind of a Dictator,” examines the country and the people who live there and delves into the psychology of its young leader.
The series is full of interviews with experts, childhood friends, escaped bodyguards and even former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, who sat down with Kim during his summits with President Donald Trump.
Before you watch, here are some fundamental things to know about the country and its equally closed-off leader, courtesy of North Korea expert B.R Meyers and his book, “The Cleanest Race.”
1. North Korea has its own brand of communism.
Much to the chagrin of other communist countries, North Korea slowly developed its own kind of “socialist utopia,” seen in the symbolism used by its ruling party. Where most communist countries use the hammer and sickle to symbolize the union of the peasantry and the working class, the Korean Workers Party integrates a Korean calligraphy brush, to incorporate Korean intelligentsia.
In traditional Leninism, intelligentsia were considered part of the bourgeoisie, and many found themselves jailed, deported or executed in other communist states. After the fall of the Soviet Union, North Korea purged itself of any link Marxism-Leninism in favor of its own policy, “Juche.”
2. “Juche” is North Korea’s guiding philosophy — and it’s bunk.
In the earliest days of North Korean nationalism, founder Kim Il Sung needed to come up with a guide for his people, similar to Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book.”
North Korea expert B.R. Meyers says Kim’s official ideology, “Juche,” reads like a college term paper, designed to fill a certain amount of space while ensuring no one actually reads it. The result, he says, is thick books with little substance.
In short, the doctrine pushes for North Korea’s total self-reliance and independence from the outside world. Forget that the country was completely dependent on the Soviet Union for the first 50 years of its existence, Meyers says. North Korea isn’t anywhere close to self-reliant.
“Juche” was meant to be worshipped, not read.
3. North Korea makes money like the Mafia because it has to.
When news stories report that North Korea lives under “crippling sanctions,” that’s both true and misleading. It’s true that the country lives under sanctions that block everything from military equipment to coal. It can’t even get foreign currency. To get around that, North Korea reportedly operates an underground crime syndicate.
It allegedly runs black markets in human trafficking; illegal drug production and smuggling; counterfeiting foreign currency and legal drugs; wildlife trafficking; and arms dealing. There’s even a special office designed just to create a slush fund of cash for Kim Jong Un’s personal use.
4. The North Koreans think they’re better than you.
Not in so many words, but that’s what it amounts to. North Korea’s propaganda machine finds its origins in an ideology similar to that of the Japanese before and during World War II. One of the central tenets of that ideology is that Koreans have a moral superiority above that of all other races.
According to Meyers, this innate goodness is the reason they’ve been invaded and mistreated by foreign powers so often over the years. The goodness of the Korean people is exactly why they need a powerful, charismatic leader to protect them. Someone like, say … the Kims.
5. Each Kim had his own personality cult.
In “The Cleanest Race,” Meyers describes the pillars that hold up the legitimacy of each successive North Korean ruler. Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather and founder of the North Korean state, had a cult of personality that relied on protecting the good Korean people from the excesses and evils of outsiders. His strength and military skills kept them safe from being killed by invaders or starving to death.
His son, Kim Jong Il, took over with an entirely different set of issues. He rose to power after the fall of the Soviet Union and amid a growing famine in North Korea. His personality cult centered around his military ability. The famine would undermine his economic abilities, so instead his cult created the idea of a looming threat from outside North Korea — America.
He implemented the infamous “military first” policy that left many North Koreans to fend for themselves, redirecting what few resources the state had to what was then the fourth-largest army in the world and a developing nuclear program.
The famine lasted four years and killed somewhere between 2 million and 3.5 million North Koreans.
6. Kim Jong Un was expected to be a reformer.
After Kim Jong Il’s 2011 death, his son Kim Jong Un took over. Given his extensive experience with the West, many thought he would be more willing to open North Korea up to Western culture and ideas. Others thought he might abandon the country’s nuclear program and turn North Korea into a Chinese-model economy. Others, Like Foreign Policy Magazine’s Victor Cha, weren’t so certain.
Instead, Kim Jong Un developed a nuclear missile capable of reaching the United States. He also consolidated his power by executing rivals. Kim even told Trump about how he executed his own uncle and displayed the body. It’s now believed that Kim Jong Un is empowering his sister Kim Yo Jong to do the dirty work, while he works on becoming more of a world leader.
Learn more about the life and regime of Kim Jong Un by watching “North Korea: Inside the Mind of a Dictator” on Monday, Feb. 15, on the National Geographic Channel.