Three Strikingly Different Views of North Korea, the Most Secretive Country in the World

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 Koreaa 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read Dic­ta­tor Kim Jong-il’s Writ­ings on Cin­e­ma, Art & Opera: Cour­tesy of North Korea’s Free E‑Library

Orches­tral Manoeu­vres in North Korea Prove Yet Again That Music is Uni­ver­sal

A Slo-Mo Look Inside North Korea

The Five Best North Kore­an Movies: Watch Them Free 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.

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