NORTH KOREA HAS BEEN, even at its best, a perplexing and often intimidating place. Ruled since its establishment in September 1948 with an iron fist by the Kim family, the communist world’s only family dynasty (or hereditary monarchy), the absurdly-titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (it’s never been a republic, and in 2011, it had the lowest Democratic Index in the world) has beguiled, appalled and alarmed observers.
The country is guided by the Juche Idea (juche is Korean for the Marxist term ‘subject’), a political thesis conceived by its first leader and founding father, Kim Il-sung—it means an untranslatable mix of ‘spirit of self-reliance’ and ‘mainstream’ and ‘independent outlook’.
But North Korean life has since the early 1990s been plagued by food and goods shortages. Its economy has been tanking since the 1960s, aided and abetted by inefficient central planning and an allergy to modernisation. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, deprived of traditional trade outlets and export markets and unable to purchase cheap goods from neighbouring communist countries, the Kim family’s ruling style became hyperparanoid and truculent, and the government xenophobically autarkic.