North Korean nuclear program propaganda via Flickr

Back to Basics: North Korea

Giving you some background on one of the most secretive countries on earth.

The Basics

Government: Totalitarian dictatorship

Ruler: Kim Jong Un, 32 years old

Living in North Korea

The people of North Korea live under a repressive totalitarian dictatorship led by the “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong Un. North Korea has surprisingly ratified four big international human rights treaties, and the country also has a constitution with some rights protections for its citizens. Why is that surprising? Well, because the repressive government of North Korea keeps basic rights and freedoms out of reach from its citizens. The reality is that freedom of expression and opinion, political opposition, independent media, free trade, religious freedom and pretty much all of the fundamental forms of freedom and human rights that we sometimes take for granted are not available to North Koreans.

Any attempt to assert basic human rights by North Koreans can be met with arrest, detention (in a prison camp) and even torture. North Korean refugees who have escaped the country have reported that the NK government routinely tortures citizens and throws people in prison camps where they live under horrific living conditions and are often starved.

Most of North Koreans live in poverty and in really rural settings.

Kim Jon Un, North Korea’s “Supreme Leader”

Kim Jong Un

While you may know him from the The Interview as a harsh dictator who loves Katy Perry, Kim Jong-Un is in fact a real person who has ruled North Korea as its Supreme Commander since 2011 when his father Kim Jong-Il died.

North Korea has been governed by the Kim family since North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), was founded in 1948. Power has been kept in the same family, passed from Kim-Il Sung, to his son Kim Jong-Il, and now on to Kim Jong-Un. The Kim family line has so much power because North Koreans are taught that the Supreme Leader not just holds absolute power but is literally a god.

This stems from Kim Il-Sung, whose cult-like personality made him worshipped by North Koreans and is the reason behind the existence of nearly 500 statues of him which still bring North Koreans to tears. His birthday is also a national holiday. Kim Jong-Un has continued the militaristic rule of North Korea, and has made headlines for his nuclear program as well as the intense isolation of the North Korean people who live under his rule and have little to no connection to the outside world.

Kim Jong Un and his father Kim Jong Il

Access to the Internet

All media and news in North Korea is state-controlled and North Koreans can be arrested or sent to a prison camp if they are found with things like flash drives, DVDs and unauthorized Chinese cell phones.

To own a computer in North Korea you need permission from local government authorities and all personal computers have to be registered with the police.

If you went to North Korea and asked people about the internet most of them would have no idea what you were talking about. The country does have the internet though, it’s just only restricted for the powerful and wealthy few and is extremely censored. It also looks like something out of the 90’s… we’re talkin’ old-school dial-up.

There is a really really small group of North Koreans who have access to the real internet, aka the uncensored internet, but those lucky few are only about a few thousand people and most of them are top government officials.

North Korean Propaganda

North Korean propaganda showing a powerful North Korean defeating an American soldier.

North Korean propaganda has gotten surprisingly sophisticated over the years and now includes a stream of YouTube videos that talk about how amazing Kim Jong Un is and how horrible American “imperialist dogs” are. The government claims to its citizens that North Korea has hundreds of millions of supporters abroad.

Examples of North Korean propaganda:

  • The birth of Kim Jong Il (Kim Jong Un’s father) was prophesized by a swallow (yeah, the bird…) who predicted that a double rainbow and a glowing new star would appear in the heavens to herald the birth of Kim Jong Un who would be born in North Korea’s Baekdu Mountain (he was actually born in Russia)
  • According to the North Korean government Kim Jong Il wrote 1,500 books and six operas “better than any in the history of music” during college. (wonder how Giuseppe Verdi would feel about that statement…)
  • Kim Jong Il was also apparently an incredible golfer, hitting 11 holes in one (Tiger Woods has hit 18 in his lifetime) and shooting a 38-under par, which for those of you who don’t know much about golf is an INSANE score.


Since taking over as leader in 2011, Kim Jong Un has imposed his power in the most brutal way by executing any officials who oppose him. At least 70 officials have been executed in the last four years. The most recent victim was Kim Jong Un’s defense chief Hyon Yong Chol who was apparently executed because he fell asleep during an event attended by Kim.

Executions have become more brutal under Kim Jong Un. Normally North Korea executes traitors, spies and officials deemed disloyal to the regime by firing squad. Chol, however, is rumored to have been executed by being shot with an anti-aircraft gun — an extremely powerful machine gun that when directed at the human body at close range would completely obliterate that person. Satellite imagery and analysis actually might have caught this on camera.


North Korea has built up a cyber-army of a few thousand highly trained hackers. They know that in a real battle against South Korea or the U.S., they would lose, so their strategy is to build up their cyberwar divisions and attack the U.S. and South Korea over the web.

Nuclear Program

North Korea has developed a nuclear weapon, but they can’t shoot it at anyone yet because they haven’t developed a missile to carry it. The country conducted successful nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and in 2013. North Korea is believed to possess enough weapons-grade plutonium (the material used to make nuclear bombs) to make at least six bombs.

Many countries including the U.S., Russia, China, Japan and South Korea have tried to negotiate with North Korea and persuade the country to stop trying to create a nuclear weapon that could be aimed and fired at another country.

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