North Korean life is a combination of poverty, presentation, propaganda, and intense militarism. As such, weird stories about what the country does to make it look like an actual country - as opposed to a corrupt dictatorship - are everywhere. Every time North Korea does something bizarre, it reminds the world how fragile the country is - held together by a cult of personality, and shared delusions.
Strange and crazy North Korean stories involve everything from Chinese "fans" hired to cheer for their World Cup team, to the lengths they go to to prove that they are the superior Korea, and incredibly graphic murals and propaganda children are exposed to. Ironically, Americans are also shown this same material, and can admire the unfinished luxury hotel in the country's capital, surf English-language homepage of the nation, and go to museums full of atrocities committed by Americans.Here are some of the strangest things about North Korea - facts that go beyond the poverty and backwards nature of the people, to show how surreal a place it really is.
They Once Nearly Went to War Over a Tree Stump
The "Axe Murder Incident" of 1976 started as a simple operation and nearly turned into a shooting war. UN Checkpoint 3 had been the site of numerous North Korean attempts to kidnap US troops. But the view of it was partially blocked by a tree, so US troop went out to cut it down. They were ambushed by North Korean troops, who claimed the tree had been personally planted by Kim Il Sung. They attacked the lightly armed US troops with axes, killing two.The US responded by mobilizing massive force to remove the tree, sending hundreds of soldiers armed with machine guns and rocket launchers, moving tanks and attack helicopters into attack positions, and putting every American soldier in South Korea on alert. The tree was cut down without incident, but two North Korean observation posts were vandalized and the stump was left as a reminder of UN power.
They Hired Actors to Cheer for Their World Cup TeamPhoto: Comedy Ireland
North Korea has draconian restrictions on who can leave the country - yet they had thousands of fans on hand in South Africa to watch the team play, including in a hard-fought loss to Brazil. Did the Kim family relax their travel restrictions? Nope, they sent thousands of paid Chinese actors instead.ESPN commentator Martin Tyler summed up his bafflement perfectly on the broadcast of the Brazil/North Korea match, saying, "We are told that the supporters of North Korea aren't North Koreans - they're handpicked actors from China who have been sent here to act out the part of North Korean fans. I haven't found one I can speak to, who can speak back to me to tell me whether that's the case - I doubt he'd tell me the truth if that is the case."
They Kidnapped a South Korean Director to Make a North Korean GodzillaPhoto: Korean Film Studio
Shin Sang-ok was a major name in the South Korean film industry, directing dozens of films. He was lured to Hong Kong in 1976 and kidnapped by North Korean agents. Over the next five years he was held in relative comfort while being brainwashed. In 1983, he was finally brought to meet Kim-Jong Il - and learned his ex-wife had been kidnapped as well.The couple was remarried, and Shin went on to direct the "socialist Godzilla" monster movie Pulgasari. Shin and Choi escaped North Korean control in 1986, and he emigrated to Hollywood soon after. Shin is one of countless South Koreans and Japanese kidnapped by the Kim family over the past few decades.
Tourists Have Minders - And Tourist Minders Have MindersPhoto: Johan Nylander
If you do go to North Korea as a tourist, be prepared to have two state-appointed minders shadow you the entire time. They'll tell you who you can talk to, where you can go, what to do and - more importantly - what to never, ever do.
Why two minders? So the minders can watch each other, naturally. The DMZ works the same way, where one border guard actually faces inward - to watch the other border guards.