The Wonderful Contradictions of North Korea

by Gabriel Mizrahi on November 30, 2012

North Korea is a place of deep contradictions.

It confirms our worst fears with its nuclear belligerence, only to reveal its romantic folkloric past.

It confirms a taste for criminal delights — then seduces us with its unexpected charms.

Functioning cities are just a short bus ride from unimaginable prison camps. Those prison camps are only miles from the beautiful sights of Korean mythology, which tell of magical birthplaces and undead leaders who still rule.

These paradoxes make North Korea what it is. Here we present the wonderful contradictions of North Korea.


Pyongyang appears relatively prosperous, well-maintained and happy.

The Ryugyong Hotel, completed with an investment from Egypt’s Orascom, is set to finally open its doors next year, 25 years after it began construction. Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III


But Pyongyang is in many respects a Potemkin Village.

Pyongyang’s Communist-style apartments house 2 million carefully selected citizens — elites, loyalists, the wealthy — and enjoys the lion’s share of the country’s resources. Photograph by Eric Testroete

Fun fact: North Korea does in fact maintain an actual Potemkin Village: Kijŏng-dong, located in the DPRK’s half of the Demilitarized Zone. According to intelligence, Kijŏng-dong was built in the 1950s to encourage South Koreans to defect to the North, and is now home to a small number of people whose sole job is to keep the place up.

Want to know what it’s like to land in Pyongyang? Read about the first day of the journey »

North Korea is extremely poor.

GDP per person amounts to $1,300 in North Korea, with a profound gap in wealth and status across the country. Images far more disturbing than this point to a pained and hungry population. Photograph by Eric Testroete

But the country is sitting on one of the world’s greatest caches of natural resources.

North Korea is sitting on $4-6 trillion in natural resources. The only problem: It doesn’t quite know how to extract them. Here, propaganda posters mark the entrance to the Pyongsan Fluorite Mine. Photograph courtesy of

North Korea is open for business. Here are 5 awesome ways to make money from North Korea »

The de-militarized zone, a 160 mile-wide stretch of land separating North from South Korea, has largely maintained peace since the 1953 armistice.

A North Korean government guide explains the division of the Korean peninsula, glossing over the details of the tree-trimming incident, in which two American soldiers doing some light gardening at the DMZ were introduced to a Korean axe. Photograph by Andrew Lombardi

But the de-militarized zone is hardly de-militarized. There are nearly 1 million soldiers poised and leaning forward on either side.

Soldiers from the North and South stare at one another from each side of the DMZ. Here, two North Korean guards keep a vigilant watch. Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III

North Koreans despise Americans. That is what they are taught in school, that is what state newspapers preach, and that’s what we’re told in the West.

One expert reports that students in the DPRK learn verb tenses in grammar class by writing out the phrases: “I kill Americans” / “I killed Americans” / “I will kill Americans.” Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III

But North Koreans are actually fascinated by Westerners. And we found that most of them — especially the young ones — absolutely love Americans.

North Korean teens can’t stop mugging for our cameras at Kim Il Sung’s 100th Birthday in Pyongyang this year. Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III

North Korea was founded by Kim Il Sung and ruled by Kim Jong Il — demigods who are as quintessentially Korean as you can get.

The Great Leader Kim Il Sung (left) and the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il (right) smile down on a celebration at Kim Il Sung’s birthday bash in Pyongyang this year. Photos that do not accurately or fully capture the Great Leader or the Dear Leader are considered a grave insult. Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III

Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and now lies in state — perfectly preserved — at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace.

The Great Leader’s preserved body lies in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, where visitors file in through a low-lit labyrinth and bow on each side of the glass case.


But Kim Il Sung — despite being dead for almost 20 years — is still “Eternal President” of North Korea.

The ageless face of the Great Leader gazes upon locals in a Pyongyang square next to his son, the late Kim Jong Il. Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III

We were there for Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday bash. Read the American in North Korea’s account of the crazy centennial »

But Kim Il Sung grew up in Manchuria, and Kim Jong Il’s birthplace (now closed off to visitors) was invented at Mount Paekdu. Both died of natural causes.

Kim Il Sung (far left) in the USSR in 1943. Photograph courtesy of Globaltravels

Kim Il Sung gives a speech with his Communist sugardaddy looking on behind him. Photograph courtesy of The Marxist-Leninist

Kim Jong Un is ushering in a new era for North Korea.

Pyongyang citizens in the metro read about their new leader in the wake of his father Kim Jong Il’s death. Kim Jong Un’s legacy promises to include experiments in economic reform. Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III

But Kim Jong Un’s first year as dictator has been a general continuation of his father’s policies — and in many cases, even more brutal and focused on keeping the regime alive.

Kim Jong Un largely continues his father’s policies, in some cases more severely — and with the help of creative PR campaigns, such as highly publicized reverse defections.

Kim Jong Un largely continues his father’s policies, in some cases more severely — and with the help of creative PR campaigns, such as highly publicized reverse defections.

North Koreans are generally kind, modest, humble people.

Two men take a break from a day’s work in Pyongyang. Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III

But they sure know how to party. It’s a huge part of the culture.

We get down with our friends at the North Korean equivalent of a flash mob. Here, photographer Andrew Lombardi fist bumps his dance partner, while our lovely government guide makes a face next to The North Korea Blog’s Jordan Harbinger. Photograph by Andrew Lombardi

There isn’t much civilian technology in North Korea.

A North Korean gives a friend a lift. Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III

But cell phones are everywhere — over 1 million of them across the country.

A citizen stops by the roadside to read a text message. Koryolink, developed by Egypt’s Orascom, powers North Korea’s mobile network. Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III

North Korea considers itself a unique, exceptional nation.

The Tower of the Juche Idea represents the country’s principle of self-reliance. The hammer, the sickle, and the artist’s brush — a North Korean twist on the Communist insignia — represent the three pillars of North Korean society: the worker, the soldier and the artist. Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III

But the regime is obsessed with mimicry and competition.

North Korea constructed a replica in Pyongyang of the Parisian Arc de Triumph to commemorate the resistance to Japan. But this one is a tad higher and slightly wider — reminding us that even when North Korea imitates, it’s always unique. And bigger. Photograph by Andrew Lombardi

Most North Koreans have never played frisbee.

Here I teach an awesome North Korean kid to throw a frisbee for the first time. Behind him, a group of concerned parents — memories of the Korean War stilled etched in their minds, no doubt — look on disapprovingly. They later joined in. Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III

But they’re *amazing* at it.

Another North Korean boy finishes a perfect toss just after learning how to play for the first time. Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III

Certain North Koreans are actually actors playing the part of “happy citizen” for Western visitors.

This happy family — which looked oddly mismatched for a mother-son pair — invited us into their homes on a collective farm. A casual visit felt distinctly like a photo op until we bonded with our hosts as people. Photograph by Andrew Lombardi

But even those “actors” are just real people living out their lives, with little control over their career choices.

Citizens pass each other in Kaesong, where a film shoot kicked off nearby. Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III

At the same time, the country employs true career

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actors to perform in North Korean films.

Two actors perform in old Korean garb at the Pyongyang film studios. These films are almost entirely about the people’s paradise of North Korea, including the country’s film industry — and so in North Korea, there are actors who are playing citizens who are playing actors. Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III

A set of 1960s Korea at the Pyongyang film studios. Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III

The DPRK continues to be a strange and wonderful enigma. Heartbreaking and inspiring, terrifying and charming, bizarre and familiar — it is the last bastion of extreme, unapologetic, definitional contradiction left in the world.

Now you know why we go back every year.

Because as William Blake wrote,

Do what you will this life’s a fiction,

And is made up of contradiction.

Come see the wonderful contradictions of North Korea for yourself »

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tours in North Korea

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

The Sanity Inspector November 30, 2012 at 4:17 am

In other words, it’s the most appalling tyranny on earth, with an overlay of foreigner-friendly eye candy. And to think, Pyongyang used to be called the Jerusalem of Asia…


Jeffrey February 2, 2013 at 10:37 pm

Really like the list here Gabriel. I saw this on another site too I believe. Way to go and hope to see more fantastic posts.


Anna February 12, 2013 at 7:55 pm

Very well informed blog post. You should check out these videos from In the first video, this guy goes into North Korea and takes a staged tour of Pyongyang. He is left unsatisfied after the tour and wants to see what real living conditions are like for the people of North Korea, so he travels (in the second video link) to Siberia and visits a North Korean labor camp. These videos provide an insiders look into the reality of the country, its’ Great Leader and the North Korean people.

Pyongyang tour:

Labor camps:


Gabriel Mizrahi February 16, 2013 at 9:30 pm

Thanks for the comments, Anna. These are indeed interesting. The Vice documentary, like most about North Korea, captured the country in a certain angle — its most obvious one — and ended up contributing to the bizarre myths we hold about the place. It’s not necessarily incorrect (although the editing of the piece did some sensationalizing), but it’s only one side. The second piece about the labor camps tried to get a different view, which I applaud.

Ultimately, these documentaries struggle to convey what is so much harder to accept: that North Korea is a multi-faceted place of many wonderful contradictions. Sad and bizarre? Sometimes. Enchanting and charming? Definitely. I’d love to see documentaries that get to the heart of that dynamic.

Of course, the best way is to see it for yourself. Which we highly recommend!

Thanks for reading!


Anna February 12, 2013 at 8:04 pm

To continue from my previous post, another really great video is by National Geographic. Correspondent Lisa Ling, travels undercover to North Korea with a cataract doctor. This documentary helped me to gain some understanding of the situation of the North Korean people; they treat their Great Leader as if he was a god and truly believe that he is making the best decisions for the country and wants nothing but good for them. It is incredible to me how the Presidents in this country have been able to keep the people (essentially) brainwashed and un-rebellious for so many generations.
Lisa Ling video:


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