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Inside North KoreaIn a world where online communication and globalization have broken down international barriers, North Korea stands alone as unusually isolated. The 24 million or so residents of the country live under a familial dictatorship that frequently threatens attacks against South Korea and its ally, the United States.
Amid this brinksmanship, North Korea remains remarkably shut off from the rest of the world. Read on for what's known about the hermit country.
Isolation nationSlide 2 of 15
The Korean peninsula has long been a battlefield for the world powers nearby. Japan controlled Korea (then one nation), until the end of World War II; after Japan's surrender, the United States and Soviet Union sliced the country along the 38th parallel, with the United States administering the south and the Soviet Union controlling the north.
This division became permanent after the United Nations failed to negotiate a reunification in 1948. The first president of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, declared a policy of "self-reliance," essentially shutting the nation off diplomatically and economically from the rest of the world.
It's a philosophy called iuche, or self-mastery. The idea is that the North Korean people must rely on themselves only. This philosophy, according to Kim Il Sung, required North Korea to maintain political and economic independence (even in the face of famine in the 1990s) and to create a strong national defense system.Slide 3 of 15
Mythical leadersSlide 4 of 15
North Korea's ruling dynasty has always cast itself as somewhat supernatural. Founder Kim Il Sung was known as Korea's "sun," and claimed control of the weather. Along with his son Kim Jong Il's birthday, Kim Il Sung's birthday is a national holiday. After his death, Sung was embalmed and still lies in state in Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Il's mythology is no less extensive. His birth was hailed as "heaven sent" by propagandists, and state media has often touted impossible feats: He scored a perfect 300 the first time he tried bowling, and shot five holes-in-one the first time he played golf. Upon his death in 2011, the skies about the sacred mountain Paektu in North Korea allegedly glowed red. [Supernatural Powers? Tales of 10 Historical Predictions]
Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il's son and successor has yet to have quite so many tall tales told about him, but the news media have described the new leader as "born of heaven" upon his ascension to head of state. In December 2012, North Korean state media declared the discovery of a lair supposedly belonging to a unicorn ridden by Tongmyong, the ancient mythical founder of Korea. The story wasn't an indication that North Koreans believe in literal unicorns, experts said, but a way to shore up Kim Jong Un's rule and North Korea's cred as the "real" Korea.Slide 5 of 15
National prisonSlide 6 of 15
All the fanciful and funny myths about North Korea's dictators cover up a disturbing truth, however: Some 154,000 North Koreans live in prison camps, according to South Korean government estimates. (Other international bodies put the number at closer to 200,000). There are six camps, surrounded by electrified barbed wire. Two camps allow for some "rehabilitation" and release of prisoners, according to "Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West" (Viking, 2012). The rest are prisons for life.
"Escape from Camp 14" tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person known to have escaped from one of these camps and to have made it to the outside world. Shin was born in the camp; his father was imprisoned because his brother had abandoned North Korea for South Korea decades earlier.
Torture, malnutrition, slave labor and public execution are ways of life in the camps, which are known from satellite imagery. An Amnesty International report in 2011 estimated that 40 percent of camp prisoners die of malnutrition.Slide 7 of 15
Daily life in North KoreaSlide 8 of 15