This isn’t exactly the kind of content we like to publish at The Prepared — too many prepper websites fill the space with constant doom porn designed to scare you. The fascist plague zombies are coming at any minute… run!
But I’m guessing I’m the only prepper with a website who’s not only been inside North Korea, but seen first-hand how their government and rebellious underground are working.
I have a background working with various governments and designing the forces of reform and change in different cultures. I think that helps me put what I saw there into context, and a few of you have been asking me how to comprehend the recent North Korean war escalation.
The punchline: Yes, North Korea is a real threat.
It’s not something you should freak out about right now. Don’t initiate your bug out plans or stay glued to 24-hour news.
But do take it seriously and at least follow our emergency preparedness checklist — there is a meaningful chance of something awful happening.
A few hundred Americans are allowed into North Korea each year. I was one of the last non-prisoner Americans in the country before things got markedly worse and the borders were closed. Now the US State Department forbids any citizen from visiting, except for a few special humanitarian purposes.
I even shared the same tour guide as Otto Warmbier, the American student who recently died from captivity in DPRK (the formal name of North Korea) after he got drunk and stole a banner from a break room in the foreigner’s hotel — a hotel which is literally on an island in the river through Pyongyang so they can keep the ‘imperialist dogs’ contained.
There are real security concerns for myself and the people I interacted with in-country, so please forgive the lack of some details and blurred faces.
There is SO MUCH that goes into a conversation about what’s unique and important with North Korea that it’s frustratingly impossible to even scratch the surface in one blog post.
There are two main questions I get from most people: why would I risk going, and how crazy was it?
There’s so much propaganda in this world that it’s hard to evaluate risks rationally. For example, I don’t really worry about Iran, contrary to what we hear from the media and politicians. I’ve seen that, for the most part, the Iranian people and culture are really lovely. They just happen to have an extreme nutjob faction — just like we do in the US.
We hear so much about North Korea, so I took the opportunity to see if reality matched the propaganda.
It did. North Korea is, in no hyperbolic terms, a deceptively complex shit show.
To understand the threat, you must understand how things work in the DPRK and what their motivations and options are.
The Kims are worshipped as a God-King hybrid
Almost every element of North Korea is designed to prop up the Kim family and their elite inner circle. Twenty two million people live in squalor so that a few hundred people can be fat and worshipped.
There is almost no advertising or imagery in the country — every room, building entrance, and subway car has the two portraits of their Revered Supreme Generalissimos, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Like these two large pictures outside the Palace of the Sun, their holy version of the White House and Vatican combined into one:
Street corners have monuments depicting scenes such as a Kim rescuing a child from a fire, a Kim showing workers how to forge steel, a Kim riding a tiger in medieval armor (seriously), and so on.
The Kims are the Chief Everything Officer. Kim Il-sung is said to have personally invented electricity, medicine, and modern military tactics and single handedly defeated the Japanese in WWII. Whichever Kim is in power is the top scientist, doctor, astronomer, musician, dancer, athlete, landscape architect, and so on and so on.
One of the silliest examples I saw was in medicine. Kim decided that a breast milk pump could cure breast cancer. So if you’re elite enough to get fancy medical treatment, they hook you up to the breast milk pump to suck out the tumor. When you’re not cured, they tell you it’s because you’re a bad party member.
Kim Jong-un has a standing order that any media picture of him shows him as a leader. (He also forbids any pictures showing his belly, since he’s one of the only fat people in the country.)
Which usually looks like him pointing at something with the Generals around him furiously scribbling notes, as if they’re Moses transcribing the Ten Commandments. There’s even a website dedicated to pictures of Kim pointing at things.
For example, Kim Jong-il decided that the annual riverbank flooding along the coastline was bad. So he designed a dam and ordered it built. The United Nations sent scientists into North Korea to warn him that annual flooding was good for farming. But to accept that advice would be to call their god dumb, so they ignored it.
In the end, it was part of the cause of the 1990s famine that killed an estimated 2 million people. But to this day, they maintain that Kim knew what he was doing, and the Americans were the real cause. We even watched a video explaining that after seeing this mural:
Kim keeps total control through lies, fear, and facades
The regime recognizes that total power is black and white and there’s a thin line separating control and resistance. So they will do everything they can to keep that grip on the country.
Other communist dictatorships fell because the people inside knew what life was like on the outside. Friends of mine who were teenagers in East Berlin during the 1980s could hear rap music and see people wearing blue jeans across the wall. That type of osmosis envy lead to change in almost every 20th century example.
The Kim regime isn’t dumb. They see what happens to systems like the USSR and Maoist China and to people like Gaddafi and Hussein. North Korea has survived by keeping a much tighter lid on that osmosis than their failed peers. That’s why it’s called the Hermit Kingdom.
The best analogy for being in North Korea is the Matrix movies. Our brains normalize what we are exposed to — even other westerners in my tour group started to normalize to the environment after a few days.
North Koreans have extremely little information about the outside world. Whatever they do get is spoon fed by the government. With no outside sources to call their bluff, the propaganda gets really outlandish.
The regime tells their people that they’ve already been to space, that they win the Olympics and World Cup every year, that the outside world has such extreme famine that white people eat sewer rats to survive, and so on.
When I was in-country, about 150 families were publicly executed because they had been caught with pirated Hollywood movies and South Korean soap operas.
In recent years the government has started building their own version of the internet and teaching computer skills to the public. They’ve also started rolling out a cell phone network, but all of the hardware is tapped and all of the info comes straight from the central gov.
They took us to the main library to explain that their people actually had all kinds of information freedom. But notice the people with the white collars standing behind whomever is at the computer? Those are government handlers, physically monitoring what people are searching for in the library’s book index.
North Koreans believe half of their country is occupied by a foreign monster
One of the things we had to practice during training in Beijing before our trip was to never call it North Korea.
Calling it North Korea implies there are two Koreas. In their eyes, there is only one. The southern half is a Vichy-occupied territory that has been drugged and forced to submit to the imperialist invader’s will.
If you ask a North Korean what they care about most, the top answer might be “reunification”. The leaders likely don’t even care about it, but they use it as a rallying cry for the people.
The next picture is just one of many monuments built around that ideal. It shows the two halves of Korea coming together. You can’t tell in this picture, but the bronze imagery of people on the side depicting the northern half shows citizens with guns and food, while the people from the southern half look hungry with their hands open.
How would you feel if, especially when combined with everything else in this post, you thought that a few American states were occupied by Russians? You’d probably want to fight.
North Koreans are taught from birth that Americans are trying to murder them
If you think media and political fear mongering is bad in the West, North Korea would shock you.
Every single day, citizens are told by their trusted God-Kings that they are on the brink of destruction and that America is actively trying to steal their treasure and murder their children.
If you had deeply held trust in your leaders (or you were in a situation where you had to fake it to survive), you would be really scared by the constant barrage of propaganda. Even though it’s almost all lies, you have no way of finding out different information and you’d be executed if you tried.
It’s become such a part of their psyche that anytime something goes structurally wrong, they blame it on the Americans.
For example, there is very little infrastructure in North Korea. Even in the capital of Pyongyang, there’s not much electricity to go around. Most electricity is sent to government buildings and the public monuments and murals depicting the Kims.
We had sudden blackouts at least half a dozen times during my stay. In the moments after things went dark, a government handler would say to everyone, “Sorry, the Americans stole our electricity again.”
They took us to the USS Pueblo, an American Navy ship that was captured in the 60s that is now part of their Victorious War Museum. The sailors they captured were forced to play evil monsters in North Korean propaganda movies and news clips for decades.
The cultural fear of Americans is so deep, I wasn’t allowed to use certain bathrooms. On a long road trip through the country, we stopped for a bathroom break at hotel. The public toilet was in an area that was normally only for women. The main government handler announced to the bus, “everyone get off and use the toilet, except for John.”
I was later told that, being the only American, I wasn’t allowed to enter the women’s area of the hotel because they were afraid I would rape someone.
Conditioned and ready for war
The culture and identity of North Korea is built around the idea of fighting to protect the Kims and their ideals. It is deeply ingrained, going back to the 1930s-40s when North Korea was occupied by the Japanese. The first Kim leader, Kim Il-sung (grandfather to the current Kim), got his start as a revolutionary against the Japanese.
Since then they have been in a constant state of “we have to fight to defend ourselves against the foreign hordes at our door.” That kind of fundamental cultural DNA is important when trying to understand their actions.
North Korea has one of the largest standing armies in the world. It’s hard to be accurate, but some estimates think it’s the largest standing military in the world. Around 2 million people are currently on active duty. The US government thinks that as soon as Kim calls them to war, another 7.5 million experienced and fanatical troops are on ready-reserve. That’s 30 percent of the country, trained, hungry, and waiting for the call.
We went through frequent military checkpoints and armed soldiers were everywhere. We were constantly told that anything to do with the military and their battle readiness were the most sensitive situations — if we even touched an electronic device in their presence or raised our hands above our hips, we went straight to labor camp.
The exception was standing at the DMZ line between North and South, which is under constant surveillance anyway. We’re looking toward the South side in this picture. You might notice all of the cameras on top of the South / US building, under the curved roof.
Although their military is not technically advanced, think of them like the North Vietnamese or WWII-era Japanese. They are extremely tough (can you live on two bowls of rice per day?), supremely dedicated, sincerely think they will be annihilated, and know their land well.
There were stone age traps everywhere. The closer we got to the DMZ, the more we had to be careful about landmines (all 3 million of them) and deadfall spike pits.
I managed to sneak the next picture — one of the most sensitive I took. In places where there are natural land chokes, like the berms on each side of this road, you’d see massive stone pillars. They have explosives in the base. If the US invades, they blow the explosives to tip over the pillars, creating tank barriers.
Another one of my favorites were pillars with giant 5-foot diameter stones sitting on top. The pillars were spread about 10 feet apart, typically in groups of 10-20. The stones on top were connected by chains. If you pushed one stone off the top, it would domino down the line, creating a makeshift prop-foul that would impede a battle.
Saving face while trapped in a corner
“Face”, as in saving face, is the shorthand name for the concept of reputation and image. It’s well documented that face is an unusually important concept throughout northern Asia, from business to politics to interpersonal relationships.
Think about the picture this post has painted:
- A young, crazy God-King with almost unlimited powers and worship;
- Who keeps control through mass executions, lies, and limited information;
- Who is genetically predisposed to fighting against the enemy at their door;
- With a country of people conditioned to believe America is about to destroy them;
- Who unilaterally controls one of the largest armies in the world;
- Who has painted himself in a corner where the only options are to win or die.
This creates a situation where there are truly no good options. If Kim backs down, he will lose face with his people, and he knows that may be the “Gorbachev moment” for his empire.
There has always been a little wiggle room, especially since they control all of the information. But there’s only so many times that tactic will work.
In August of 2017, when Trump made his “fire and fury” comments that caught Kim off guard, the way Kim backed down from attacking Guam without losing face was by saying, “meh, this isn’t worth it, I’ll just wait and see what that idiot does while he’s stuck at a golf course.”
The number of outs Kim still has in his hand is shrinking, and fast.
Hope: there is an underground, it’s working, and growing
I can’t go into much detail here, but while I was in North Korea — after much hand wringing and trust building — I had the fortune of meeting members of the resistance.
In my time outside, I’ve worked with some of the main human rights groups that send balloons with USB drives and pamphlets over the border. They’re even working on inventing a flat TV antenna that could be smuggled in and fitted against the exterior walls of a house without being visibly detectable. They’re close enough to South Korea that, with this stealth antenna, they can get unrestricted TV access.
I estimated that 75% of people in the country are totally bought into the brainwashing. Another 15% know that something is off, but they try to keep their head down and get by. The remaining 10% are “woke” and languishing in that prison of a country.
The rebels don’t fight — they traffic information. The best way to fight against the Kim regime is to show the people the truth.
One rebel I met loved the movie Gladiator, which he saw via a smuggled USB drive, because it showed a man rising up against the Emperor.
I had the awesome responsibility to share the first non-Korean music a particular rebel had ever heard. What do you choose to represent an entire world of music?!? In the end, the first “free” song he listened to was “Happy” by Pharrell ?
The wheels of change are happening inside the country. If we can avoid all out war for another 10-20 years, I expect DPRK will end up like modern China: still communist and closed, but with many more freedoms than they have today.