When Ex President Bush vilified North Korea as part of the “Axis of Evil,” many Westerners needed no further convincing. What little we already thought we knew seemed plenty persuasive; North Korea — ruled in principle by a dead man and in practice by a character cartoonish enough for The Simpsons, were it not for his incessant desire to have a nuclear button under his finger — had all the right attributes to qualify as enigmatic and evil.
Add to that the fact that North Korea has the fourth largest standing army in the world, that it is still technically at war with South Korea (a 1953 armistice pact ended outright hostilities, but no formal peace treaty has ever replaced it), and that leader Kim Jong-il’s nuclear ambitions continue unabated, especially now that not a single UN inspector remains in the country.
North Korea’s recent launch of a questionable rocket has once again alarmed much of the world, including their tightest allies in Beijing. Thus as diplomatic relations fall back into radioactive decay, we present 5 things you didn’t know about North Korea.
1- North Korea is one of the world’s largest fresh fruit producers
The first thing you didn’t know about North Korea is that it’s a global leader in producing things that are delicious and nutritious.
Estimates made by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) consistently rank North Korea as the 10th largest producer of fresh fruits like apples, peaches, nectarines, and pears. North Korea also ranks 12th in fresh vegetable production. Yet, this food production wasn’t enough to prevent a famine of biblical proportions in the 1990s, which according to The Wall Street Journal may have cost the lives of two million North Koreans. Apparently all that produce is for export only.
2- North Korea has a 99% literacy rate
A literacy rate is defined by what percentage of the population over the age of 15 can read and write. Despite just 11 years of compulsory education and a recent history of catastrophic famine that would otherwise interrupt a child’s education, the CIA believes that North Korea’s literacy rate is equal to that of the U.S., the UK and dozens of other countries, and far better than over 100 others. Dictatorial leadership masquerading as some form of Marxism does seem to produce high literacy rates, as both the CIA and the United Nations cite Cuba as having the highest or second highest literacy rate in the world.
3- North Korea’s Kim Jong-il shoots 38 under par
Another thing you didn’t know about North Korea is that on the links, leader Kim Jong-il is a golf phenom who shoots an amazing 38 under par. According to reports by the Kim Jong-il-controlled media, the man can pretty much sink a hole in one at will. You wouldn’t expect anything less from a man whose glorious birth atop the country’s highest mountain (he was actually born in the Soviet Union) was allegedly foretold by birds, rainbows and shiny stars, and whose other accomplishments include having composed several operas and musicals.
Seriously, the rigorous cult of personality surrounding North Korea’s Kim Jong-il would be laughable if it weren’t so deadly.
4- North Korea built a film industry through kidnapping
In another life, Kim Jong-il probably worked at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach with Quentin Tarantino, as he’s reputedly a major film nut with an enormous movie collection that’s heavy on James Bond and Rambo. This was a rather common trait for unstable 20th century autocrats (recall the fascination with John Wayne shared by Nikita Khrushchev and Japanese Emperor Hirohito), but Kim Jong-il took it a step further when, unbelievably, in 1978 his agents kidnapped South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok and his wife, actress Choe Eun-hui, and instructed the pair to establish a domestic film industry in North Korea.
Eight years and dozens of films later, the couple managed to escape while on a trip to Vienna.
5- North Korea’s long-time heir apparent is an Eric Clapton fan
The last thing you didn’t know about North Korea is that its former heir apparent (a South Korean news agency, Yonhap, has recently reported that Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un, will succeed him), 27-year-old Kim Jong-chul, likes his rock ‘n’ roll; he’s been seen pumping his fist at an Eric Clapton concert.
Granted, the question of who will lead North Korea after Jong-il is a subject of endless speculation, but the sooner it happens, the better: Kim Il-sung, Jong-chul’s grandfather and the country’s founding father, had his faults but he was a natural leader and a charismatic, brilliant revolutionary. Meanwhile, the selfish, inept leadership of Jong-il has reduced the people of North Korea to an unmatched level of marginality: The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2008 democracy index ranks North Korea’s regime dead last in the world. Put another way: It is statistically the worst place on earth to live if you value the electoral process, political participation or the most basic of civil liberties.