Be Happy, Feel Beautiful
After North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il died on Saturday from what the country’s media reported as a massive heart attack, a wave of tearful mourning filled the North Korean streets on Monday.
The country, known primarily for its reclusiveness and repressive leadership, reacted with open sorrow to the death of one of the world’s most notorious dictators, who had a taste for foreign luxury goods and a tendency to spend massive amounts of money on them while his country languished under poverty and famine.
Within the tightly guarded borders of the Hermit Kingdom, as North Korea is often called, the Kim family has for decades cultivated a cult of personality. For North Koreans, ordinary life includes weekly indoctrination sessions, which served to convince citizens that Kim Jong-Il had supernatural powers and was born on a legendary Korean mountain, substituting for the story of his actual birth in the former Soviet Union.
To shed some light on this bizarre and oppressive country, here are five of the most interesting facts about North Korea and Kim Jong-Il.
1. Although the regime’s ideology is based on Juche, or self-reliance, North Korea has accepted over $1.2 billion in aid from the United States alone since 1995.
A decline in agriculture, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, combined with disastrous economic policies, plunged North Korea into a series of famines, which persist today. The government launched a food conservation campaign, with the slogan “Let’s eat only two meals a day.” However, since 2009, the U.S. has for the most part ceased providing aid to North Korea, but the Obama Administration has expressed its willingness to continue aid on the condition that North Korea begins to move toward dismantling its nuclear program.
2. Is your country’s film industry lagging behind? For Kim, the solution was to kidnap a South Korean director and his actress ex-wife and force them to make movies. In 1978, the regime kidnapped Shin Sang-ok in Hong Kong, took him to North Korean capital Pyongyang, and held him for eight years. During his captivity, Shin directed seven films, including Godzilla-ripoff “Pulsagari.” In 1986, the pair escaped to Vienna and were able to return home.
3. As ordinary citizens starved, Kim indulged in Western luxury imports. Kim enjoyed cases of wine from Bordeaux, and counted himself among Hennessey cognac’s biggest customers: his yearly budget for cognac was reported to be $800,000. Despite U.N.-imposed sanctions against importing luxury goods into North Korea, the country spent $10 million on items including products from Gucci, Armani and Rolex, beer, cigarettes and Big Macs flown in from China.
4. North Korea dug secret invasion tunnels beneath the demilitarized zone separating it from South Korea. In 1974, the South Korean military found steam rising from the ground, which led to the discovery of a shallow tunnel 18 inches below surface. Upon further inspection, the tunnel was found to be of recent construction with reinforced concrete slabs, electric power, weapons storage, sleeping areas, and even a railway with carts. The tunnel was estimated large enough for hiding an infantry regiment.
More tunnels were uncovered in 1975, 1978 and 1990. North Korea claimed that the tunnels were abandoned coal mines. They went so far as to paint the granite black to create an impression of coal.
5. Kim’s onetime chef, pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto, revealed that after falling off a horse in 1992, Kim ordered five or six of his staff members to be injected with the same painkiller that he was on. His reasoning? If he were to get addicted to the medicine, he didn’t want to be the only one.