Life in Range of North Korean Artillery

North Korea is effectively the biggest mafia in the world. Though described by the Western media as the last Stalinist dictatorship on earth, the reality of what goes on inside North Korea is much more complex. 

The latest North Korean constitution omits all references to the word "communism." Instead, Juche, the philosophy developed around Kim Il-Sung, and Songun, the philosophy developed aroung Kim Jong-Il, are the official state ideology. Kim Il-Sung, the country's founder, passed away in 1994, but he is eternally recognized as the president of NK. It's a serious faux pas for a North Korean to utter the name of their leader without also mentioning their leader's title. A gulag may await anyone who simply says "Kim Il-Sung" instead of "President Kim Il-Sung."

His recently deceased son, Kim Jong-Il, must also be treated with rigid deference: dear leader, or general secretary. There are no higher offices in North Korea, meaning that Kim Jong-Un, the grandson and anointed supreme leader, must give himself the lower position of first secretary.

The level of obedience and loyalty that must be displayed to the leader surpasses that of most fictional exaggerations of any mafia don. When a North Korean ship caught fire in November 2009, the sailors who were most rewarded for bravery were the ones who sacrificed themselves upon portraits of the dear leader, lest it be ruined by fire. Life has an irrational value in North Korea. 

It was after the fall of the Soviet Union and the death of Kim Il-Sung that North Korea sank into poverty. Kim Jong-il, his son, was a hermit, who spoke publicly only once, in 1992, uttering merely a few words: "Glory to the heroic soldiers of the Korean People's Army!" Kim Jong-Il didn't have the charisma to be a statesman like his father, but he was a far more cunning survivor. To sustain the regime at any cost, Kim Jong-il established Office 39. Office 39 is tasked with providing black money for the regime. 

The Secret Service describes North Korea as the biggest counterfeiter of US currency on earth. Likewise, NK is a manufacturer of meth -- with use rampant in the country -- not to also mention that the country is an exporter of banned weapons to other renegade regimes. 

Though seemingly a failed state, the power of NK comes mostly from its proximity to Seoul. South Korea's capital has 25 million people and is one of the world's most important mega-cities. Along the border, less than 50 kilometers away, North Korea maintains over 5,000 pieces of artillery, with strategic targets already pinpointed for destruction. NK could within a matter of two hours level nearly all of the important seats of government, media, education, technology, and transportation in Seoul. 

The very existence of NK is much owed to blackmail, to the fear that their national infrastructure is so barren that leveling their country would mean nothing to them. The latest North Korean rocket -- that put a satellite in orbit -- ran on red fuming nitric acid, a fuel used in scud-missiles by the Soviet Union. And indeed, after witnessing the fall of Saddam Hussein's arsenal at the hands of the US, NK knows that all of its Soviet-era equipment (tanks, ships, aircraft, etc.) is obsolete.

The North's only hope for preventing an attempt to destabilize their country is the fear of asymmetrical warfare: 70,000 special forces, chemical and biological weapons, infiltration tunnels, and the good fortune of their mortal enemy, the South, having built all its eggs near their basket.

The funniest thing for me, however, is that while in South Korea, I was not at all afraid. Most South Koreans rarely even think or talk about the North. When Kim Jong-Il started bombing Yeongpyeong Island, my students remained largely unfazed. One rising college freshman told me, "you're going to die anyway, so why worry?" to large class approval. 

I learned from my student that people in the US were more afraid of the North than the very people who would receive the first blow. That day, CNN and other news channels in the US made it seem as if the apocalypse had just begun, with the Four Horseman having made their first appearance in Korea. In the South, however, my life continued largely unaffected, and I began further shifting away from the American culture of fear.