In the introduction to North Korea Undercover, author John Sweeney describes the country as “Kafka written in an alphabet no one can read.” Sweeney came to this conclusion after sneaking into the country under the guise of a university professor interested in taking the grand tour. This book, a result of that visit, has the wit of a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy entry and the sober reporting of a BBC journalist, which Sweeney was at the time of his visit. Should you plan to follow his example and slip across North Korea’s borders, here are 10 things you need to know.
1. You’re going to a very bad place.
Trying to understand North Korea, writes Sweeney, is like “figuring out a detective story where you stumble across a corpse in the library, a smoking gun beside it, and the corpse gets up and says that’s no gun and it isn’t smoking and this isn’t a library.” The reality-deprived pronouncements from its state media come across as cartoonish, but the regime is as tyrannical as any to ever hold power. The North Korean government is cavalier in its attitude toward global thermonuclear war. Its gulags, according to defectors, are like tiny outposts of hell. While the Kim family lives in a permanent state of lavish decadence, one-quarter of North Korean children are starving and malnourished. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans starved to death in the 1990s. (Some of the regime’s evils and oddities can be found at mental_floss here, here, here, here, and here.)
2. International tensions keep North Korea alive.
Why hasn’t Kim Jong-un (or his late father) been forced to stand before the International Criminal Court? Why hasn’t some general in the North Korean army inflicted the tyrant with a fatal dose of cranial lead poisoning? Simply put, the Kim family still holds power because the international community allows it to do so. Moscow likes North Korea just as it is: benign to Russia and a frustration to the west. If North Korea falls, South Korea inherits an expensive and destabilizing human rights disaster. Korean reunification would mean that China has to then share a border with a staunch American ally. (South Korea presently hosts a heavily armed and fortified U.S. military presence in its borders.) Japan, meanwhile, would have to compete against a rejuvenated Korea. The United States would have to scramble madly to account for North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities—a process it previously went through when the Soviet Union fell, in Iraq (though unsuccessfully, obviously), and covertly in Pakistan.
3. If you’re a journalist, you’re going to need a cover.
When Christopher Hitchens infiltrated North Korea, he could not do so as a journalist. He took the guise of a university lecturer. John Sweeney used the same disguise. The two men did not list “writer” on the occupation block of the visa application because North Korea generally does not permit visits from journalists (for obvious reasons). The exception is the Associated Press, which has a Pyongyang bureau. As Sweeney writes, however, the AP “has been accused of running ‘chirpy, upbeat stories rather than real news.’” Either way, once you get into the country, don’t expect to start snapping photographs with abandon. You will visit places only under tightly controlled conditions, and the minders assigned to you will carefully monitor what you can and cannot photograph. As Sweeney explains, there is also a bit of extortion at work: The North Korean government subtly makes it known that one’s assigned minder will pay the price for a foreign visitor who later writes harshly of Dear Leader.
4. While there, you can tweet, post selfies, and other such Internet horrors.
If there is any hope, it is that the information age is breaking the pneumatic seal of the Kim regime. Inside North Korea, those along the border can pick up cell phone signals from South Korea. A student traveling with Sweeney posted an update to Twitter from within North Korea’s borders. “If we could do that,” writes Sweeney, “so could a North Korean with a smuggled Chinese-manufactured phone.” Meanwhile, those living in the northernmost areas in North Korea get signals from China. The sneakernet is also working against the regime, with smugglers bringing thumb drives into North Korea. Kim Jong-Un and his lackeys can broadcast whatever propaganda they like, but such lies are obliterated by photos and video evidence of a better life pretty much everywhere else in the world.
5. There is a North Korean nightlife.
Though they live under the boot heel of a totalitarian regime, the North Korean people aren’t simply drones waiting to die. North Korea Undercover contains several anecdotes that reveal that the people's spirit is not broken. “People are happy, joking, witty, and full of fun,” Sweeney writes. One night he and his fellow travelers visited a karaoke bar “no less dire than any other karaoke bar in the world.” He sang the theme to Titanic. The ship sank April 15, 1912, which happens also to be the birthday of Kim Il-Sung. (“Twin disasters that day, some say.”)
6. For foreigners, North Korea isn’t a particularly dangerous place to visit.
Though life can be nightmarish for North Korean peasants, for foreign visitors it isn’t so bad. According to one Beijing-based travel agent who operates North Korean tours, “We have run thousands of tours over 20 years and we have never had anyone detained, questioned, molested, ejected, or arrested.” Sweeney, who has reported from a dozen dictatorships, including Czechoslovakia, Gaddafi-era Libya, Saddam-era Iraq, Syria, Zimbabwe, Cuba, and Milosevic-era Serbia, writes that North Korea “was the tyranny in which I felt the least sense of personal threat. You can get mugged in Cuba.”
7. While there, be sure to check out the “zombie tour.”
North Korea is in possession of a seemingly endless number of concrete buildings, all in drab gray. Frequently painted on the concrete are slogans in large red letters, with such motivational messages as “The Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, will always be with us.” This is useful for a country beset with power outages, as concrete signs never flicker. (This is described in Under the Same Sky as well, previously featured here.) Also not flickering, apparently, is the luminous rule of Kim Il-Sung. Because the long-dead elder Kim is the constitutional, eternal ruler of North Korea, the country is notable for being the world’s only necrocracy. All the same, his corpse can be viewed at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the mausoleum he shares with Kim Jong-Il. As Sweeney’s North Korean minder explained of the mausoleum, “The Korean people believe that our President Kim Il Sung is always with us, so when we go to the Mausoleum we don’t think we are going to a mausoleum, we are going to meet him.” Sweeney calls this the “zombie tour.”
8. Ever feel lonely, or like the government doesn’t listen to you? In North Korea, that’s not a problem.
It occurred to Sweeney that his room might be bugged, and in North Korea Undercover he recounts an anecdote from Michael Breen, biographer of Kim Jong-Il. Two Danish engineers were working on a project in North Korea, and one night in their hotel room, began complaining about how bored they were, one of them wishing he had brought a deck of cards: “The next day at work, their minder presented them with a pack of cards. The creepy bit is that they had been talking in Danish.”
9. If you’re lucky, you will receive “on-the-spot guidance.”
North Korean tyrants have a penchant for what is called “on-the-spot guidance,” which is broadcast on North Korean television, and even depicted by large, bronze statues. On-the-spot guidance involves Kim Il-Sung and his heirs stopping ordinary people and dispensing advice on how better to live their lives. Like most propaganda from the North Korean government, the storylines of OTSG follow simplistic patterns with the Leader always cast as a god-hero. As noted by Bryan Myers, a famed scholar of the North Korean regime, “Both problem and solution are thus described in terms a child can grasp. Indeed, the Leader’s published remarks are always trite: ‘Rainbow trout is a good fish, tasty and nutritious.’”
10. You do not want to go “for a stay in the mountains.”
The Korean People’s Army Unit 10215 acts as the secret police of the North Korean government. (In Korean, they are called Bowibu.) They are “the power in the land,” writes Sweeney, employing 50,000 people who “spy on everyone worth spying on: the palace’s most loyal retainers, officials in the government and the Party, generals in the army, the dynasty’s trickier relatives, the police, ordinary people, and of course, foreigners.” Those unfortunate enough to cross the regime—or to be related to someone who’s crossed the regime—are likely to go away “for a stay in the mountains,” which is slang in North Korea for the gulag.