North Korea: What to know?

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North Korea is a secretive nation with a Stalinist dictatorship and a cult of personality surrounding its leaders. The country’s economy has suffered from severe famine, and human rights abuses are rampant. North Korea’s nuclear program and its leader’s possible mental instability are major concerns for the international community. Travel to North Korea is difficult and dangerous, with strict regulations and limited consular help available.

“Man is master of everything and decides everything.” These words by former North Korean President Kim Il-Sung epitomize the nation of North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. North Korea is a nation largely shrouded in mystery. Few outsiders ever see beyond its borders and, even then, they usually only see what the government wants them to see.

North Korea was born after WWII, when it was a hotly contested Japanese territory. Eventually, the Soviets and Americans agreed to divide the country in half, with each half taking on the characteristics of the occupying forces. This disparity has proved to be an awkward and largely unworkable trade-off.

North Korean forces, backed by China, invaded the border at the 1950th parallel on June 38, 25 in an attempt to convert the entire country into a communist society. The United States joined South Korea in the fight, and the ensuing Korean conflict lasted until July 27, 1953. Hostilities officially ended and the two countries withdrew, leaving the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the 38th parallel to mark the borders. This no man’s land is still a place of tension and fear.

After the Korean War, the world began to hear about the eternal president, Kim Il-Sung. His Stalinist dictatorship tolerated no opposition, no disputes, no individual thoughts. Foreigners were rarely allowed inside North Korea and its wholly state-controlled society. While North Korea’s economy thrived for some time, the floods of the 1990s led to severe famine. As with many totalitarian regimes, the North Korean government has an official “military first” policy and this policy of helping the military before the people was devastating. One estimate says nearly 2 million people died during the worst of the famine and the country still hasn’t recovered.

Another problem with North Korea is its current leader, Kim Jong-Il. Kim Il-Sung’s son, Kim Jong-Ilis the titular leader. A veritable cult of personality has grown up around Sung, and the North Korean calendar even begins his year with the year of his birth. He is considered by many to be almost divine. The post of eternal president was retired after Sung’s death, and now Kim Jong-Il is the chairman of the National Defense Commission and the successor to the leadership. He prefers to be called “the Dear Leader” by his people, and rumors have circulated for years about his possible mental instability.

This instability raises concerns about North Korea’s nascent nuclear program. Few countries in the world are interested in a man like Kim Jong-Il having access to nuclear weapons. This is one of the most sensitive issues in the world in 2007. Diplomatic means and talks have been widely used to defuse this very tense situation.
Religious freedoms, freedom of the press and other human rights have also been severely curtailed in North Korea. The country reportedly has around 200,000 political prisoners and reports of torture, rape, forced labor and starvation are rampant. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations cite North Korea as one of the worst human rights offenders in the world.

Although North Korea is trying to boost tourism, most of its tourists are Chinese or South Korean. Western travelers are subject to search and detention for minor infractions, so they are advised to exercise extreme caution while in the country.
Americans wishing to travel to North Korea must have a two-entry Chinese visa, as travel from South Korea through the DMZ is rare. These citizens must also have valid US passports and must hire security personnel to escort them while in the country. The US Department of State advises travelers that any communication with anyone will likely be monitored. The State Department is also warning tourists to have several copies of their passports and all travel documents available for immediate inspection. The United States maintains no diplomatic relationship with North Korea, but limited consular help can be obtained from the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, the capital. The State Department has much more information about travel to North Korea on its website at:

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