I once asked a friend based in Seoul, South Korea who used to write for a prestigious news magazine what that magazine wanted to hear from the Korea beat. “Let’s see… North Korea, North Korea, and more North Korea,” he replied. “Oh, and did I mention North Korea?” Since the creation of two Koreas after the Second World War, North Korea, the far less populated and infinitely more secretive sibling of the land of all-you-can-eat barbecue and “Gangnam Style,” has inspired deep and fearful fascination in its observers. This has held truer and truer as time goes on; South and North Korea looked surprisingly similar in the twenty years or so right after they put the Korean War on pause, but now they’ve diverged so far that one can scarcely believe that so little time, and even less distance, separates the two.
The world’s interest in North Korea has run especially strong in the 21st century, during the reigns of the late (and cinephilic) Kim Jong-Il and now his son, the even higher-profile (and seemingly unappreciative of the upcoming North Korea-themed James Franco-Seth Rogen comedy The Interview) Kim Jong-Un. Vice catered straight to it when they produced the documentary The Vice Guide to North Korea at the top, which provides a wisecracking first-person perspective on what you get when you sign up for a tour of the place. (Shooting pool with a lonely tea-shop girl ranks not lowest among the attractions.) If you sign up for one yourself, you’ll probably go with Koryo Tours, the firm with whose aid city-brander JT Singh and videographer Rob Whitworth put together “Enter Pyongyang,” the time-bending composite flight through the North Korean capital just above.
Pyongang shows up on illumination maps as the sole point of light in an otherwise dark country. So what goes on in the rest of it? According to One Free Korea, “the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea estimates that North Korea holds as many as 120,000 people in its system of concentration and detention camps, and that 400,000 people have died in these camps from torture, starvation, disease, and execution.” On that page, they’ve assembled Google Earth satellite images documenting the probable locations and elements of these camps. For more on these least-known parts of this least-known nation, see also Vice‘s 40-minute program on North Korean Labor Camps below:
If all this doesn’t satiate your curiosity about North Korea — and what amount of information ever could? — have a look at National Geographic’s Inside North Korea, a slow-motion film of an intensely choreographed North Korean military parade, and of course, our guide to the five best North Korean movies, all free to watch online.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.