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Who Are the North Koreans?
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Some Historical Perspective

Charles K. Armstrong, associate professor of history and director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University, summarizes the history and events that have shaped North Korea's "long tradition of isolation, seclusion, and defensiveness" and describes the cult of personality that grew up around its founder, Kim Il Sung.

The Baffling 'Hermit Kingdom'

In excerpts from their interviews with FRONTLINE, Jimmy Carter, Stephen Bosworth, William Perry, Thomas Hubbard, Ashton Carter, Donald Gregg, and Madeleine Albright offer some thoughts on North Korea's belligerent rhetoric and unpredictable behavior.

Kim Duk-Hong Interview with A North Korean Defector

Kim Duk Hong is one of the highest ranking officials to defect from North Korea. He escaped from the DPRK in 1997, first to Beijing and then to Seoul, along with Hwang Jang Yop, the architect of the North Korean regime's ideology known as "Juche" ("self reliance"). Kim was Hwang's assistant for many years. He is officially barred by the South Korean government from talking to the press. However, FRONTLINE obtained this exclusive interview at an undisclosed location in South Korea. Kim is vehement in his criticism of Kim Jong Il: "He kills our people, arrests people who are against his administration. He kidnaps people from South Korea, or other democratic countries. He is doing all sorts of bad things, like the devil. Do not trust him, never, ever."

Slideshow: North Korea 1996

Photographs by art historian and Korean scholar Frank Hoffmann, who visited North Korea in 1996. (copyright Frank Hoffmann, 1996)

In the Land of the Dear Leader

Asia scholar Orville Schell wrote this article for the July 1996 issue of Harper's magazine following a trip to Pyongyang. "To say that the DPRK is a singular and unpredictable country would be to put it mildly," he observes. In this engaging account, Schell writes of experiences ranging from visiting extravagant monuments dedicated to the "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung to bowling at Pyongyang Golden Alley with his "faithful handlers" Comrades Li and Paik, and tries to offer some insight into the "almost ineffable otherness" of North Korea.

related readings and links
New York Review of Books: "A Visit to North Korea"

In a moving account of her first visit to North Korea, Suki Kim, a young author who was born in South Korea and now lives in New York, writes of her impressions of life in North Korea -- from the surreal and everpresent images of Kim Jong Il to her remarkable meetings with some of the country's beloved "revolutionaries." (New York Review of Books, Feb. 13, 2003)

The New Yorker: "Following the Great Leader"

Following the 1994 death of Kim Il Sung, Ian Buruma wrote this article for The New Yorker in which he traces the mythology surrounding the "Great Leader" and his son "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il. "Now that the Great Leader is dead, his son's succession rests on the assumption of divine right," Buruma writes. "How can a dynastic succession be thus justified in a society supposedly based on scientific socialism? The question points up one of the contradictions that make North Korea such a peculiar place: Marxism-Leninism has been grafted onto a charismatic, nativist cult." (The New Yorker, Sept. 19, 1994)

The Connection: North Korea (audio)

In profiling what it calls a "pariah nation," NPR's The Connection asks its guests to relate what they know about life in North Korea. Tony Namkung, a senior scholar at the Atlantic Council of the United States, says that he has never sensed that North Koreans live in fear under Kim Jong Il. He says that "North Korea society is definitely a closed society in the sense that it looks inward and it strives to keep foreigners out, but it's not nearly as abnormal as most people think." (The Connection, April 2, 2001)

Life After Tyranny: "Happy Birthday, North Korea"

Featured on NPR's Talk of the Nation and profiled in several newspapers, Simon Bone's "Life After Tyranny" is an online project documenting what he calls "places in transition from authoritarian rule." In September 1998, Bone visited North Korea. "It came as a bit of a surprise to me that my first beer in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea would be a Schlitz, brewed by American imperialist aggressors in Milwaukee," writes Bone in the first of his three-part series on North Korea. "'Would it be possible to have some Korean beer?' I asked the guide. 'I don't think so, because the wheat is being used for the food shortage.'"

Korea Times: The Dawn of Modern Korea

An ongoing series of articles about Korean history and life in both the North and South. The latest article, from April 2003, is about what's known as the 1960 April Revolution -- when Syngman Rhee, the South's former pro-democracy advocate turned dictator, was finally ousted after violent protests. Reporter Andrei Lankov writes, among other things, about U.S. involvement in the revolution, which he says is one of the few events in modern political history on which both North and South Koreans agree.

CanKor: "Impressions of a Week in North Korea"

"In recent times there have been many harsh words said about the Democratic People's Republic of Korea by newspaper columnists who follow Washington's line in international affairs," writes Stephen Endicott, a scholar at Canada's York University who spent a week in North Korea as part of a documentary film crew. "Their words, it seems to me, are largely based on ignorance or prejudice. Even from a very short visit there I think it can be safely said that North Korea is a country more sinned against than sinning." (CanKor, December 2002)

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: "Letter From Pyongyang"

Written anonymously, this article from the July/August 2002 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists paints a picture of everyday life inside North Korea, from descriptions of its well-dressed inhabitants to the ubiquitous effects of drought. "Children are said to be kings in North Korea," the author writes. "What is odd about the children, though, is the way they look -- or more often do not look -- at an outsider. Either a foreigner is subjected to a hate-filled stare, or he is invisible. Many younger children believe their lessons -- that all Westerners are imperialists who want to crush Korea." (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2002)

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: "The Wind Farm in the Cabbage Patch"

This May/June 1999 article describes life inside North Korea from the perspective of a team of American energy researchers who went to North Korea to help set up wind generators. (The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, May/June 1999)

Time Asia: "Northern Exposure"

A critique of the North Korean government's proposed economic reforms, told partly in first-hand accounts from disillusioned North Koreans. One, a starving teenager, went to China in search of food for his family; another, a young woman, abandoned North Korea due to the rising food prices and now lives in a safe house in China. "North Korea watchers say rebellion -- whether it is a mass revolt or a surgical strike from inside the Party or military -- can only occur if people are prepared to die for it," writes reporter Donald MacIntyre. "They say it is impossible to predict when or if North Koreans will achieve the mix of desperation and bravery necessary for combustion." (Time Asia, Nov. 4, 2002)

AsiaWeek: "Report From Another World"

Tokyo-based reporter Antonio Pagnotta visited North Korea without authorization or escort in order to determine the realities of life within. "It was impossible to tell what the educated officials thought," Pagnotta wrote. "But as for the soldiers, you could see it [in] the way they checked for dust on the frames of Kim's ubiquitous portraits and the rapt attention they gave to his image on TV. From that belief, they found the strength to overcome every difficulty. And so North Korea survives." (AsiaWeek, Feb. 2, 2001)



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