If you’ve watched James Franco and Seth Rogen in The Interview, a film about a Maury-esque show finding themselves at the center of a CIA plot to assassinate Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea; you’ll probably remember the rather funny scene when Franco’s character discovers the North Korean “grocery store” is fake–and stocked with fake food. Well, North Korea is just like that–and it’s probably the largest prison in the world.
After nearly seven decades of communism, how has North Korea faired? Spoiler alert: not well at all. Unlike South Korea, which has a modern economy, democratic elections, and freedom of expression, North Korea is poor, brainwashed, malnourished, and isolated.
As Suzanne Scholte of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation wrote:
Measurements of the health of a country provide a stark contrast between the two systems. South Korean men have a life expectancy of 76.67 years, women 83.13, while North Korean men have a life expectancy of 65.96 years and women 73.86 years. The most revealing contrast is the infant mortality rate, the number of infants that have died within a year of their birth. In South Korea this figure is 3.93 per one thousand births, while in North Korea this figure is 24.5 per one thousand births. Years of living under communism have even stunted the growth of the North Korean people, with North Koreans several inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts.
The economic systems also reveal a stark contrast in living standards with the annual per capita income of democratic South Korea $33,200 compared to communist North Korea’s $1,800. News coverage of North Korea tends to center on the threats and provocations of the Kim Jong-un regime and the regime’s development of its nuclear weapons program. But a new focus is emerging on the human rights conditions in North Korea, due to twenty thousand defectors and a landmark 2014 United Nations report that have confirmed what has long been suspected: North Korea is a land of unrelieved repression with no human rights or freedom for its citizens. It is a regime unlike any other in modern times.
By 2014, over 23,000 North Koreans had escaped to live in South Korea and other free nations. Their testimonies have confirmed that Kim Jong-il, the late father of the country’s current ruler, was among the world’s worst violators of human rights. Between failed economic policies, diversion of international food assistance, and a vast network of political prison camps, Kim Jong-il killed millions of Koreans. He was also involved in proliferating weapons of mass destruction; the transfer of nuclear technology to countries like Syria and Iran; international drug trafficking; currency counterfeiting; the abduction of South Korean, Japanese and citizens from at least ten other nations; and having continuously detained prisoners from the Korean War.
There are five main methods the Kim regimes have used to maintain power: brainwashing, isolation, an elaborate classification system known as songbun, controlling access to resources, and fear through an elaborate system of “reeducation centers,” i.e. political prison camps. North Koreans are brainwashed from early childhood to revere and honor Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il as gods. They are fed a steady diet of propaganda to believe that they live in a “paradise” and are far better off than the rest of the world, and that South Korea is occupied by the “yankee imperialist wolves,” i.e. United States.
To control the population, Kim Jong-il established juche or kimjongilism, a national policy of self-reliance to differentiate his brand of Marxism from that of his Soviet sponsors. In North Korea’s first years, its citizens were taught both Marxism and juche. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, juche became the central source of education and “group think” in North Korea. Every citizen is expected to study regularly at the hundreds of thousands of Kim Il Sung Revolutionary Research Centers.
Isolation plays a central role in keeping the population literally “in the dark” about the outside world. All newspapers, books, and magazines are distributed by the government to glorify Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un. North Koreans are forbidden to listen to foreign broadcasting or read foreign newspapers. They cannot travel outside their country without permission, nor can they even travel from one city to another without a permit.
Nevertheless, South Korea has its problems too; it's free speech laws have become a subject of concern given their National Security Law. Regardless, this pales in comparison to the issue plaguing North Korea. It's not a place one should consider traveling to for spring break or a family vacation.
The two sides are still at war with one another; the 1953 armistice still remains in effect, but the official declaration of an end to hostilities has yet to be made. Hence, why the 38th parallel is the most heavily fortified border in the world, with nearly 30,000 American troops stationed there.
In short, North Korea is suffering under communism, while South Korea has boomed economically under the free market. Oh, and it's perfectly fine to plan a family trip to South Korea as well; it's a beautiful country.