How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love North Korea


Oops, those naughty North Koreans have been into the fire-crackers again. As reported far and wide, the defiant state’s latest rocket test on April 13 was a resounding failure. Just like the one before that, and the one before that,,, and the one before that. So confident they were this time though, they invited foreign press for the launch. And then this happened

I honestly do admire their persistence. There is no doubt North Korea dreams of nuclear capability to rival the bigger kids in the playground. They’ve twice tested nuclear weapons (well, the nuclear equivalent to a party-popper) and the latest rocket launch is believed not to have been a weather satellite like they said, but an intercontinental ballistic missile. Now, that would be terrifying if the country wasn’t so laughably inept and endearingly weird. But it really is. It’s a comedic depiction of Sovietdom – grandiose, humourless and completely hopeless. Their ambition in the face of repeated failure is actually a little bit touching. Of course, if the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea were to one day walked the walk of their blustery talk, then I would legitimately live in fear, because nuclear weapons and ICMs really aren’t really all that funny. Interesting, yes – lolworthy, no. Allow me to indulge as a pretend history teacher for a minute…

The modern renaissance of the early atomic age in those unsettled decades between World Wars One and Two is unquestionably one of the most fascinating periods in modern history. It’s also perhaps one of the scariest. It demonstrated on a huge scale what happens when men with guns and money step in to force a new realm of science to its very edge, whether anyone was ready or not. The young field of nuclear physics excited both the giddy scientists keen to explore this bold scientific frontier, and the war-sensing global leaders who caught wind of the theoretical potential for destruction. Everyone became infatuated with splitting the tiny atom, and the chaotic urgency of the time almost led to the end of all things. For real.

Between the pioneering German V-2 ballistic rockets, and the Manhattan Project (basically the biggest science group assignment ever in history); the resultant rockets, atomic bombs and nuclear deterrents blasted humanity sideways to an edgy new course. The fate of the world was literally in great minds of men and women clad in white lab coats. Immortal names of physics lore: Albert Einstein, Leo Slizard, Ernest Lawrence, Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, Andrei Sakharov, Yakov Frenkel, Yoshio Nishina… and thousands more. The dizzying excitement of technical advancement and the intoxicating rate of new discovery obscured the scary truth that each successful experiment hoisted the stakes higher and nearer to doom. Einstein realised this, as did many others whose work was in some way etched in the blueprints of the Atomic Bomb. But nothing could stop the multi-billion dollar nuclear juggernaut. In less than a decade – Leo Slizard’s rangy hypothesis of nuclear chain reaction led to the brutal decimation of two Japanese cities; the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians; and the grim but definitive end of war. Heavy.

Though the absolute devastation of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts in 1945 was viewed on all sides as a force too overwhelming to be treated naively, the work continued to produce bigger yields. The multi-stage, immensely powerful thermonuclear (H) bomb arrived in 1952 – only seven years after ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ wreaked havoc in Japan. While Little Boy wiped out Hiroshima with an estimated 13 – 18 Kiloton yield, ‘Ivy Mike’ – the United States’ first H-Bomb tested in 1952, packed between 10-12 Megatons – that’s around 450 times more powerful. Walking through Hiroshima today, the effects of a dozen-plus Kilotons are still apparent. It’s a reborn city, but there remains the twisted metal and flayed landscape as reminders of the horror, as well as the chilling artifacts and stories from what little remained. Had the war dragged on a few years and entered the H-Bomb era , not only is it possible that Hiroshima would have been completely wiped from the face of the planet – but the entire south of Japan would be a giant radioactive crater.

Thanks to the Cold War, John F Kennedy, AK-47s, Stanley Kubrik, beatnik circles, James Bond and Bob Dylan’s harmonica – the world’s obsession with nuclear weapons lingered on and on. We may no longer fear the bony Soviet finger trembling above the big red ‘Turn Everything to Nyet’ button – but the spectre of nuclear war is never far. Especially if some of us have recently read Tom Clancy’s Sum of All Fears for the first time. I’ll never trust a man named Gunther again. Today we live in a second nuclear age. It’s like the first, but less of a two-man battle for the belt and more of a scrappy Royal Rumble. More and more competitors keep running down the causeway and climbing into the ring, and then there are wannabes boasting about laying the atomic smack down – once they figure out how to squeeze into their spandex.

This brings me neatly back to the proud spandex-loving nation of North Korea (never underestimate the segue power of spandex). Obviously I don’t agree with the martial regime, and the isolation and the contempt of its own people et cetera – but I find the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea seductively enigmatic. The fact that three of four words in the country’s official title are completely misleading gives some indication to why I am fascinated by the place.

As horrible as nukes are, North Korea’s desperate plea a little radioactive street cred is strangely endearing. Cute, even, if I’m going to be especially patronising. But more than that –North Korea is an eccentric, living museum of a time now past. The Cold War at its height of brinksmanship, patriotism and conspiracy was the only time, ever that politics was gripping. It spawned the golden age of espionage and secrecy, and for decades the world became a giant chessboard of political ideology. Every single person alive was a spy, and everyone else was a double-agent spy. It was a time when it was actually possible for you to dive under a wave at your local beach and bang your head on a lurking Soviet sub. That is as cool as it gets.

North Korea (who have lots and lots of submarines) keeps the Cold War spirit alive by shrouding itself in paranoia, lies and secrecy; a nation pinned beneath a cult of personality now in its third generation. For six decades, the three Kims (il-Sung, Jong-il and now Jong-un – whose haircut is pure Cold War-chic) have ticked all the right boxes for evil communism: keeping an iron grip over a divided nation where millions starve and suffer, with outlandish communist propaganda, overt military fetish and extreme suspicion. Under Jong-Il, North Korea earned a place in George W Bush’s exclusive ‘Axis of Evil’ and ‘Outposts of Tyranny’ – and even the lesser-known ‘General Vicinity of Nuisance-Making’. State authorities claimed Jong-il had shot 11 holes-in-one the first time he picked up a golf club, that he could control the weather with his mind and that he had started walking at three-weeks-old and talking at eight weeks. Years and years of this craziness culminated in his monumental funeral ceremony last year, where the biggest talking point was the giant human spotted in attendance.

It’s exactly this reputation of zaniness and mystery that I find irresistible. That who-are-you-fooling propaganda, and way-overcooked nationalism. I hope to travel there in the near future – and the fact that if I wish to I must relinquish freedom and all Western spy equipment (aka digital camera) for two weeks only heightens my desire. The thought that a phonecall home from Pyongyang will be monitored by a guy literally on another receiver is strangely appealing. It’d be a lesson on history no audiobook, or walking tour or museum could ever dream of giving you.  The official travel website, a high school project made on Dreamweaver 10 years ago, meanwhile is brilliant, and if I ever had the chance to get anywhere near the De-Militarised Zone I’d take it, without hesitation. Well, except the hesitation you get when there are lots of bullets and landmines around. North Korea would be by no means a relaxing, or liberating holiday. But my word, would it be an experience.

So the world will keep its eye on North Korea and the regime will continue its strength and glory rhetoric, and continue to make pretend rockets. I’ll continue to put together plans to one day travel there, before the relic of Soviet-styled communism finally collapses and the country awakens to a modern world. That could be any number of years away, but in the meantime I’ll keep myself entertained with the steady stream of revelations on the ever-unpredictable North Korea newswire. Also, this:

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One Comment on “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love North Korea”

  1. Dong says:

    I needed to thank you for this good read!! I definitely enjoyed every bit
    of it. I have you saved as a favorite to look at new things you post…


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