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What Should I Know About North Korea?

North Korea is largely off-limits to foreigners.
The government of North Korea uses military might to maintain control.
Using unrealistic imagery in their propaganda is a distraction tactic frequently employed by the North Korean government.
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  • Written By: A Kaminsky
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 June 2014
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“Man is the master of everything and decides everything.” These words by former North Korea president Kim Il-Sung embody the nation of North Korea, or the People's Democratic Republic of North Korea. North Korea is a nation largely shrouded in mystery. Few foreigners ever see beyond its borders and even then, usually only see what the government wants them to see.

North Korea came into being after World War II, when it was a hotly disputed Japanese territory. Finally, the Soviets and the Americans agreed to divide the country in half, with each half taking on the characteristics of the occupying forces. This disparity has proved an uncomfortable, largely unworkable compromise.

The North Korean forces, bolstered by China, overran the border at the 38th parallel on 25 June 1950 in an attempt to convert the entire country over to a Communist society. The U.S. joined South Korea in the fight and the resulting Korean Conflict lasted until 27 July 1953. Hostilities officially ended, and the two countries backed off, 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.

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After the Korean War, the world began hearing about the Eternal President, Kim Il-Sung. His Stalinist dictatorship brooked no opposition, no dispute, no individual thought. Foreigners were rarely allowed inside North Korea and its completely state-controlled society. While the economy in North Korea flourished for some time, floods in the 1990s led to a severe famine. As with many totalitarian regimes, the North Korean government has an official “military first” policy and this policy of aiding the military before the people was devastating. One estimate says nearly 2 million people died during the worst of the famine, and that the country has not yet recovered.

Another problem with North Korea is its current leader, Kim Jong-Il. The son of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Ilis the titular leader. A veritable cult of personality grew up around Sung and the North Korean calendar even begins its year with the year of his birth. He is regarded by many as near divine. The position of Eternal President was retired after Sung’s death, and now Kim Jong-Il is the Chairman of the National Defense Commission, and successor to the leadership. He prefers to be addressed as “the Dear Leader” by his people, and rumors have circulated for years about his possible mental instability.

This instability raises worries 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 world’s most sensitive issues in 2007. Diplomatic means and talks have been used extensively to diffuse 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 some 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 being one of the world’s worst human rights offenders.

Although North Korea is trying to spark tourism, most of its tourists are Chinese or South Korean. Western travelers are subject to search and detainment for minor infractions, so these are advised to use extreme caution while in the country.

Americans wishing to travel to North Korea must have a two-entry Chinese visa, since trips from South Korea across the DMZ are infrequent. These citizens must also have a valid U.S. passport and must hire security personnel to escort them while they are in the country. The U.S. State Department advises travelers that any communication they have with anyone will probably be monitored. The State Department also cautions tourists to have several copies of their passports and all travel documents available for immediate inspection. The U.S. does not maintain any diplomatic relations with North Korea, but limited consular help may be obtained from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, the capital city. The State Department has much more information about traveling to North Korea on its website at: http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_988.html

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