Michael Malice joins us to give a primer on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. What’s North Korea like? Do the people there really believe the popular legends we’ve heard about the Kim family?
Which is Kim Jong-un: a spoiled heir to a political dynasty, a paranoid lunatic with a big gun and 25 million hostages, or a coldly rational devious mastermind? Perhaps some combination of all three?
Show Notes and Further Reading
For more insight on how North Koreans and the Kim family see the world, we highly recommend Malice’s book, Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il (2014).
Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell: I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Michael Malice, author, columnist, and media personality. He is the author of many books, including Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il.
Welcome to Free Thoughts, Michael.
Michael Malice: And Cato Institute alum.
Trevor Burrus: And, yes, intern from-
Michael Malice: Days of yore!
Trevor Burrus: Days of yore.
Dear Reader is a very unique book, to say the least. [00:00:30] To give listeners a flavor, I chose this passage. This is in Kim Jong Il’s voice. “By the end of upper middle school, I ended up taking honors in every subject, every school term and year, and I won first prize in every study contest. In one typical foreign language study contest, I used so many political, economic, and cultural terms that even the teacher had to consult a dictionary while marking my paper.” That gives you a general flavor of how it’s written. The first question is, why did you decide [00:01:00] to write this book in this way?
Michael Malice: Well, I think that passage you read are actually two passages verbatim I copied and pasted. Why I wanted to write Dear Reader in the first person … It’s in Kim Jong Il’s voice … is for a couple reasons. First of all, Kim Jong Il was born during World War II and he died in 2011, so as he tells his story, he is inevitably telling the entire history of North Korea. I wanted this to be a book so that when people read it and by the time they’re done, [00:01:30] they know everything they need to know to understand North Korea and the North Korean situation. He, in a sense, is like their Forrest Gump. Wherever anything happens there, he somehow has insinuated himself in their history.
I think it was important to put it in the first person because so much of our analysis of North Korea is based on, let’s say, Hitler or Stalin or Saddam Hussein or trying to look at him from an American’s perspective. North Korea has to be looked at on North Korean terms, as they would certainly have [00:02:00] it, in order to understand this country. So many people in the press say, “Oh, they’re crazy.” Well, crazy is just a confession that you don’t understand someone else’s thinking. These people are very logical, very coherent … When you go there, as I did, and you read their literature, you see exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing … and very evil. That’s my big takeaway, and that’s the reason I wrote in that sense.
Aaron Powell: You mentioned when Trevor read the passage that that passage was copy pasted, so where did that passage originally appear?
Michael Malice: When I was putting together [00:02:30] the materials for Dear Reader, I read 60 … six, zero … books, and many of them were books I got from North Korea, North Korean books when I was there. When I read through all of them, and anything that had a particularly unusual syntax or an extreme claim, as you just read, it would’ve been in one of those many books. The titles are all very similar, Kim Jong Il: The Great Man, Volumes 1-3; Kim Jong Il: The Teacher of Journalists; Kim Jong Il: Leader of Youth Movement; on and on and on, [00:03:00] as you can imagine.
Trevor Burrus: Did you get those in English?
Michael Malice: Oh yes. The North Korean conceit is that everyone on earth is obsessed with North Korea, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, and the Juche idea, so their books are translated into English, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, German, French, and maybe a few others.
Trevor Burrus: That’s pretty crazy. Now, when you read these books, the way I’m thinking about it is the only analogy I can make … That’s one of the things reading this [00:03:30] book makes you do is it kind of makes you think about propaganda … and the only analogy I can make is George Washington and the cherry tree and throwing the silver dollar over the Potomac and all these stories that we grew up with in children’s books. Is that a good analogy, would you say?
Michael Malice: That’s a great analogy. Another example is Kim Jong Il has three children … at least, three … Kim Jong Un being the youngest of the three sons, and many in North Korea never even thought of him as being married [00:04:00] or having kids. The way to think about that is, well, we have Uncle Sam, and Uncle Sam must have nieces or nephews, yet no one stops to think who those nieces or nephews are and who his siblings are, right? You don’t think of Uncle Sam as a real person. Obviously, Kim Jong Il is real, but him and the other leaders occupy this bizarre space between reality and kind of supernaturalism for the North Korean people, and especially because discussion of the leaders is so sacrosanct, it’s not something that people even stop to think about.
Trevor Burrus: If [00:04:30] someone told you that they found your book very funny, how would you react to that?
Michael Malice: Well, that was the point. All the books about North Korea are either too dark and depressing, understandably, or they were too scholarly and intense. I’m like, “Someone has to popularize this subject. It has to be the kind of book you can read in the beach and/or bathroom so that you can get the poison, but you’re still having the candy coating outside,” because at the end of the day, it’s a very, very … I hate that expression. Sorry. It’s a very important subject. It’s something [00:05:00] that people are extremely interested in, and there’s a sense of helplessness towards the nation and towards the situation.
I wanted to at least make it entertaining, insofar as I could … From the response I’ve gotten, I seemed to have succeeded … in order to get people to be able to get through it without wanting to throw themselves out a window. I mean, there’s this book called Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, where the stories she tells … I read it in one day. You just want to cry. It’s just devastating. People have no understanding of just how dark the North [00:05:30] Korean situation really is.
Aaron Powell: These 60 books that you mentioned reading, are these the kind of books … You said they get translated and sent all over the world, but are they-
Michael Malice: No, not sent. No, no, no, that’s the thing. They are translated … When I said that 60, I’m including all the Western books as well.
Aaron Powell: Oh okay.
Michael Malice: When they’re translated, they just sit there in the bookstores gathering dust.
Aaron Powell: Okay. Yeah, but are the people of North Korea reading these books?
Michael Malice: Many of them, yes. It’s funny, because some of [00:06:00] the stories about the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, were that he could make a raft out of leaves and turn wood into bullets, and he can be in two places at once, things like that, and when I was reading the books, I didn’t find those references. I spoke to a North Korean refugee, and she goes, “The stuff that’s too crazy, they know not to put in there.”
Aaron Powell: Then do the North Koreans, when they’re reading passages like the one that Trevor quoted, do they buy it? We hear these stories about the [00:06:30] founders, and there’s a little bit, maybe, of incredulousness. Is there any? Is it just straight credulity on the part of the North Koreans? Do they think he can do all these things for real?
Michael Malice: Well, it’s exactly the parallel here. I mean, how do people look at our leaders and our politicians? Are they great, amazing? I mean, obviously, we have an upper bound because we have a somewhat-free press. In North Korea, they’re not just reading these books; they’re taught them in courses. I mean, when the Great Leader Kim Il Sung walked as [00:07:00] a child from Korea to Manchuria and he fought beasts along the way, they have to memorize every stop he made on this imaginary journey of learning. These are courses for them. It’s not something that they read in their spare time, necessarily, although I’m sure they do. The level of credulity, it corresponds to just like in any other country, the level of credulity.
I’ve met a refugee, and I asked her about this. There’s a famous story, and this is in my book, where Kim Jong Il is in kindergarten and the teacher [00:07:30] says one plus one is two, and he says, “No, that’s wrong.” She’s like, “What do you mean?” and he goes, “If I have one drop of water and I add another drop of water, I have one bigger drop,” therefore communism. This refugee was in class, and she thought to herself, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” but she knew enough to keep her mouth shut because when you get in trouble in North Korea, your whole family is in trouble. From a very early age, you’re taught to keep quiet.
Trevor Burrus: What kind of mindset did you put yourself in when writing this? I found myself changing to this weird mindset where [00:08:00] I was either laughing or starting to very much understand better. Again, you succeed, I think, in your goal. Was it a sort of written version of method acting, when you’re just trying to figure out how he would interpret some of these instances that you didn’t actually have maybe a direct source on?
Michael Malice: Well, that’s the whole thing. I had no question what he thought about everything because Kim Jong Il in North Korea talks about things from gymnastics to magic tricks … That’s mentioned in the book … the Mona Lisa, [00:08:30] art, politics, war. There’s a lot of how he thinks about everything. Yeah, in terms of crafting his voice, it was excruciatingly hard because I had to make him coherent in Western terms, I had to make him someone you could empathize with … not sympathize with, someone who you can relate to … and at the same time, this is someone with millions, literally millions, of bodies at his feet, who allowed so many people to [00:09:00] starve during the ’90s to maintain his hold on power. There is very much a bit of sympathy for the devil going on here.
Aaron Powell: Certainly, in this country, most of us are at least aware, to some extent, of these kinds of embellishments, we’ll call them, of the North Korean leaders and the way that they present themselves. We also have a pretty decent sense that it’s a dark place, but are there substantial things that we get wrong in our thinking about North Korea or [00:09:30] the way that we approach the country?
Michael Malice: Oh, I mean, I can’t even begin. I mean, this is why the book is 400 pages. Let me give a good example. Ayn Rand spoke before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950s, and she had escaped the Soviet Union in 1926 when things were really, really bad, and, of course, they only got worse. Some congressman just got up and said … well, didn’t get up. He asked her, he goes, “I mean, I don’t understand. Don’t these people go on picnics? Don’t they visit their mother-in-law?”
She goes, “Look, you don’t understand, and it’s [00:10:00] almost impossible to explain it to you. Frankly, it’s a good thing you don’t understand. You can’t imagine what it’s like to live in a country where human life means nothing, less than nothing, and you know it. All day you’re living in terror. At night, you’re waiting for the knock on the door. You’re trying to live a human life in the most inhumane conditions possible.” I mean they’re not living in constant terror in the sense of constantly elevated adrenaline, but there’s always a constant awareness that something bad can happen to you at any time. It’s insidious.
Trevor Burrus: [00:10:30] I had a couple very long conversations with Yeonmi Park, who I imagine-
Michael Malice: Oh yeah.
Trevor Burrus: … you’ve met before? Yes. It’s interesting. She’s a defector from NK, and it’s interesting because the question that you want to ask, which I think in America is the most common one, is something like, “Did the people really believe this?” or “Did you really believe this?” or “How many people are silently holding thoughts that are against them, saying, ‘Oh, that’s just crap?’” kind of thing. [00:11:00] She said that that’s the wrong way of even thinking about the mindset, because when you’re going along with the sort of standards and customs and morals so much, and you ask someone, “Do you really believe that you should obey table manners when you sit at a table?” well, I don’t know, I guess I’m kind of doing it because I’m supposed to, but I do I really believe that? I’m not so sure. She also told me, in a very harrowing sense, that she believed that Kim Jong Il could read her mind, and that’s one reason [00:11:30] why you would not even entertain such kind of thoughts.
Michael Malice: Well, this is also kind of the whole Freudian idea that religion is something that is our conscience kind of manifested via culture. Since North Koreans are always, by law, spying on one another and reporting on one another, it’s a lot easier psychologically to believe that someone can read your mind, because then you can maintain the façade with a straight face. If anything, I would think that’s a trick her brain very healthily did on her. Yeonmi lived in Pyongyang, which [00:12:00] is the capital city, which is by far, I would say, the most cynical, most informed about the outside world. I talked to my guide at length. Whereas, when you live in the countryside, you have no electricity; you have no real information except word of mouth, so it’s going to be a very different dynamic there.
Trevor Burrus: Talk about going to North Korea, just the land there, their minders all the time.
Michael Malice: You’ve never been? It’s the new Milan.
Trevor Burrus: Right under Cancun. [00:12:30] It’s my next. I actually feel bad, because I would like to go, but I also feel bad that it’s some sort of despicable poverty tourism … not even poverty tourism … despair tourism to see something that is absolutely inhuman, and take pictures of it makes me feel kind of dirty. If I was doing something like writing a book, maybe, but just to be like, “Oh, I really want to see this,” it seems kind of dirty.
Michael Malice: It will screw up your head for the rest of your life. It did it to me. My friend [00:13:00] went after I went, at my suggestion, and I thought, “Maybe I could go back.” Then I was looking at his photos, and I’m like, “I could never do this again.” I can’t tell you how much it messes with your mind, for the very specific reason that every single person I met or saw there is still there. It’s been five years. You think about, whoever’s listening, what you’ve been doing for the five years, and they’re all still there and they’re all still trapped. That is something that I can’t [00:13:30] just feel psychologically comfortable with. It’s really disturbing. That’s one thing.
It’s not a poverty tour, because they’re trying to show you what’s nice. The people are friendly and fun. It’s hard to explain this, but you can have normal conversations with them. Here’s an example. If you visited someone in a prison, yeah, maybe the first week they’re going to be all messed up, but if you visit someone who’s been in prison for a long time, you can easily imagine having a fun, [00:14:00] normal conversation with them, right? It’s kind of like that, but then you realize this person is in prison, this person’s family is in prison, and they will always be in prison. That’s really the subtext that makes it so nefarious, and especially seeing the children there. It’s just awful.
Trevor Burrus: Did they set up like it’s a small world, almost, on rails kind of tour for you?
Michael Malice: They can’t. See, that’s the other myth. When you go to North Korea, every wall has a crack, every floor has a stain. Everywhere [00:14:30] I went, even on the plane, there was a fly, which is a biblical symbol of evil. If you have an elevator bank with four buttons, one is going to be mismatched. At night, Pyongyang, the capital city, half of it doesn’t have electricity. You go to their central park, and there’s this big fountain. The water is not running, and it’s covered in mildew. You can’t escape the air of decay and decadence.
They took us to [00:15:00] a fake school, and you know it’s fake because when you go to any school there’s lots of noise, and the only noise were the people directly in front of us. You see the kids, and they put on a little show for you. Until the day I die, when people ask me what’s the worst thing about North Korea that I saw, is these are the kids of the elite. Some of the boys are dressed up in little military uniforms. The girls are in little dresses. They’re adorable. Those chest colds, I can hear them coughing in my mind’s ear right now. These are the best of the best, [00:15:30] and they can’t get medicine. Imagine what it’s like living in the countryside. The only reason they can’t get medicine is because the government won’t let them. It’s absolutely horrific.
Aaron Powell: How authentic were the people that you met? You said it was easy to talk to them, but did you get much of a sense of their authentic views on this stuff, or were they really self managed, self controlled, pitching the regime’s propaganda?
Michael Malice: No one at any time pitched the regime’s propaganda, even the guides, other [00:16:00] than when we went to the DMZ. What I did, being an obnoxious New Yorker, is I got in every single person’s face and waved at them because I knew that reaction would be immediate and emotional and sincere. No one is that quick of an improv actor, certainly not when you have hundreds of people that you’re interacting with, and their reactions were exactly what you’d think. The teenage girls giggled. The grandmas doted over their grandkids when I told them the grandkids were cute. The teenage boys in their track suit roll their eyes and [00:16:30] look the other way. The reaction was absolutely what you’d expect. I mean, if you visited America, how often … Well, maybe it would be different in New York because people won’t shut up about the president, but in most parts of the country, when you’re touring the country, no one’s going to be running their mouth about politics and about war.
Trevor Burrus: That’s a good point. In terms of the North Korean worldview, which, again, is one of the many informative things about the book, right now we’ve been talking about them a lot, of course, because of [00:17:00] Trump and all that stuff, but for most of the time, I don’t think Americans spend very much time thinking about North Korea.
Michael Malice: Right.
Trevor Burrus: It seems that North Korea spends a lot of time thinking about America, or at least it’s number one enemy, the American imperialist. I mean, Japan would be up there, but I think Japan is-
Michael Malice: Yeah, we’re number two.
Trevor Burrus: Japan is probably seen as a puppet government of-
Michael Malice: No, Japan is number one.
Trevor Burrus: … the United States. But are they a puppet of the United States to them, do you-
Michael Malice: No.
Trevor Burrus: No? Okay.
Michael Malice: They’re the original villains.
Trevor Burrus: Okay. Well, yeah, because they occupied them for so long.
Michael Malice: Correct.
Trevor Burrus: This has been [00:17:30] going on for a very long time. I did not know about the General Sherman incident from 1866.
Michael Malice: Which is true.
Trevor Burrus: Yes. What happened in that situation?
Michael Malice: Everything that they said, I went and looked at Western sources to be like, all right, what are they talking about? Again, I wanted to have everything in this book and kind of have a coherent narrative. Their claim is that … What’s funny is, when you’re reading these books, they’ll be written in like a newspaper voice, like a [00:18:00] journalist kind of tone. It’ll be matter-of-face and informative, but since, by law, they have to use slurs to refer to Americans or Japanese, it’ll say like, “In 1945, the Yank devils …” blah blah blah blah blah. You’re like, “Wait a minute.” Or “the Jap bastards.” They just use that over and over. It’s very weird the first time I encountered this.
According to them, the U.S. imperialists, who are us, we had been waiting for a very long time to conquer Korea, which is one [00:18:30] divisible nation, and use that as our beachhead to conquer all of Asia. They give several reasons why this is Korea; it has to be Korea. They talk about how in the 1860s … this is true … we send USS General Sherman to Korea, and in Pyongyang, they killed everyone on board and sank it to the bottom of the Taedong River. Their whole point is we’ve been waiting since the 1860s. We tried again during the Korean War, which we started, according to them, [00:19:00] and we’ve just been biding our time ever since to come back and finish the job that we started in the Korean War.
Aaron Powell: Can you tell us kind of generally this government and its governing philosophy? Like the Juche. What is that, and how does that play into all this?
Michael Malice: The Juche idea, which is the governing philosophy of North Korea … and it’s always called the Juche idea, not the Juche philosophy. I don’t know why they’re so … One translator mentioned that they always told them, say Juche idea, not Juche philosophy, and he never got a clear [00:19:30] answer as to why, although recently I did see a reference to Juche philosophy on one of their websites. The Juche idea, in one sentence, means man is the master of everything and controls everything. In practice, what it means is what the Kim family likes is good and what they don’t like is bad. Their whole ideas is that everything has to be from Koreans for Koreans. Korea was the first government on earth. Korea was the first language spoken on earth. It is the only racially pure country on earth. This is their [00:20:00] kind of worldview.
Trevor Burrus: There’s a part where you talk about that they discover that humans originated in Korea.
Michael Malice: Correct. Basically, there was this Tangun, who was this mythical king of Korea back thousands of years B.C., and they found his bones exactly where Kim Jong Il said they would be, which proves that Korea was the first country, and also proves that Pyongyang was the eternal capital, not Seoul. [00:20:30] Finding his bones would be the equivalent of us saying we found Hercules’s bones. This is what that figure represents. He was never really regarded to have been a … King Arthur is maybe a better example. Maybe there was someone who this myth was based on, but the idea that this is exactly who it is does not cut ice.
Aaron Powell: Does the regime believe all of this? Did Kim Jong Il believe this stuff about himself? Do they-
Michael Malice: No.
Aaron Powell: Okay.
Michael Malice: No, not at all.
Trevor Burrus: I guess that’s encouraging. [00:21:00] How deceived are the upper echelons versus the lower?
Michael Malice: The reason Kim Jong Il took over as opposed to his uncle … This was a big power struggle behind the scenes … is he made up this whole mythology about his father, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. They kind of competed with each other to see who could glorify Kim Il Sung more. Kim Jong Il did a better job of it. His uncle became ambassador, I believe, to Poland, and effectively got deported from the country, so that’s two birds with one stone. This [00:21:30] was Kim Jon Il’s doing.
Trevor Burrus: Now, what about the view of the Korean War? You mentioned that they think we started it, but you talk about some things that … I read a book about the Korean War 10 years ago, and I was sitting here going, “Wait, that doesn’t sound right.” I mean, of course, I knew that you were putting it in the voice of Kim Jong Il, but the Sinchon Massacre, for example. I had heard some things about that. Yeah, first of all, we started it … Correct? … in their view, and then we did a bunch of horrible things.
Michael Malice: There is a book in North [00:22:00] Korea called The U.S. Imperialists Started the Korean War. I wonder what the premise of this book is, right? That is their claim, that we started it. For refugees who learn the truth, it’s been described as akin to us finding out that FDR bombed the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. This is so essential to their worldview, it’s just mind-boggling to them to think otherwise. Yeah, there’s a story of the Sinchon Massacre, which is in the book, where basically the U.S. imperialist [00:22:30] soldiers locked up a bunch of women and children and burned them alive, and you can go see where they were burned alive. There’s things scrawled on the wall that they display to this day. Obviously, it’s very contemporary, the scrawlings. However, it is indisputably true that when you had Russia and China and North Korea in the north, and you had the U.S., the UN, and South Korea in the south, and Korea was stuck in the middle, it was absolutely devastating to the entire country. This very much plays into their history [00:23:00] and to their current consciousness.
Trevor Burrus: The way you describe it in the book … “As the U.S. imperialists were forced to abandon Sinchon, they committed one final atrocity. The troops gathered all the mothers of the village with their children. ‘It is too happy for the families to be together,’ Lieutenant Harrison proclaimed. ‘Tear the kids off at once and lock them in separately. Let the mothers die in their anxiety about their children, and let the children die while crying for their mothers. Ha ha ha ha ha.’”
Michael Malice: That is a quote.
Trevor Burrus: This is something they actually believe. [00:23:30] Yes, I could see that they would not be very friendly to Americans, but would that rub off? I mean, you said everyone was friendly to you.
Michael Malice: Well, here’s the story. When I was at the DMZ, I was obviously at the north side. There’s a museum there, and they claim they won the Korean War and we were so embarrassed by our humiliating defeat at this tiny country, our first defeat ever, that we left behind some of our documents, and those documents are on display. The Americans and the UN had to flee in shame.
[00:24:00] While I was at this little museum, which had no electricity, there was a Russian tour group, and there was a North Korean guide who spoke Russian. I was born in the Soviet Union. Russian was my first language. I chatted them up, and the middle-aged Russian dude goes, very jokingly, “You apologize to this woman for what your country did to her.” I said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” She’s like, “Okay, don’t you ever let it happen again.” It was clear that this was all [00:24:30] a farce and that this is just something you have to smile and nod and ape while you’re doing your job, but that there is absolutely no animosity from her toward me whatsoever. At the same time, you go to the countryside, where people were hardest hit by the famine, and when they’re told you don’t have food because the Americans are sanctioning us and putting on an embargo, and people are starving entire villages, yeah, they’re going to have a different opinion about Mr. America.
Aaron Powell: Did you ever feel in danger while you were there?
Michael Malice: It [00:25:00] was safer there than here-
Aaron Powell: The Otto Warmbier situation-
Michael Malice: … because I was a guest of the government and I was bringing them U.S. dollars. Since human life means nothing and money means something, there was no possibility anything would happen to me.
Trevor Burrus: Aaron mentioned the Otto Warmbier situation. Was that surprising to you?
Michael Malice: It was surprising that he’d be that … Well, this was surprising. Before I went, I did a lot of research online about people on their trips, and there was this blog post I read from years ago. I don’t remember what blog, but [00:25:30] there’s a hidden floor in the hotel that you stay at. He stayed at the same hotel as me. He might’ve even stayed in the same room as me because you’re segregated by nationality in the hotel. You go to this secret room … there’s only like one way to do it. He went there and he was trying to steal a poster or what not.
The thing is, if you trespass at the White House, that Secret Service isn’t going to just wag their finger at you. It’s going to be bad. When you are defying the North Korean government, which kills, again, millions of its own citizens in the [00:26:00] ’90s, has hundreds of thousands in concentration camps to this day, that is a very, very silly thing to do. At the same time, they did not … They will look for any excuse to have a hostage, and as soon as things started going back with him, they got him on that plane to the United States as quickly as possible because when you have a hostage, you want the ransom in exchange. You don’t want that dead body on your hands. This Otto Warmbier sparked some very negative consequences for them because China, who wants to be a world leader, cannot and will not defend [00:26:30] having a college kid killed while he’s a tourist.
Trevor Burrus: You believe the thing about the poster.
Michael Malice: I absolutely do.
Trevor Burrus: Because, I guess, the secret room. That’s very interesting.
Michael Malice: Secret floor. Secret floor, yeah.
Trevor Burrus: Secret floor, yeah. There’s another thing that a lot of people don’t know about that, again, most North Koreans, I’m sure, know about, which is the USS Pueblo incident. What happened in that?
Michael Malice: USS Pueblo was a ship that they captured. It’s the only U.S. ship that’s not in our possession. It’s still there on display in Pyongyang. [00:27:00] That’s the other thing. When you hear a lot of these conservatives go on air like, “Oh my God, the things North Korea is saying, they’ve never done before. This is outrageous,” it’s like, “They captured our ship and held the entire crew captive for a year and tortured them.” I mean, these people have been doing very wicked, evil things for a very long time, brazenly, and in that case, they got away with it.
Trevor Burrus: They used a … There’s all these sort of-
Michael Malice: Don’t spoil the story.
Trevor Burrus: Oh okay, I’m sorry.
Michael Malice: The USS Pueblo was so crazy, [00:27:30] but the truth … My favorite thing about this story is this was a year-long process, having these guys captive, and there were mind games played by the Americans and the North Koreans. What ended up happening is so bizarre, and yet it’s all true, that you read it and you think, “Okay, this is just North Koreans making it up,” and they’re not. The entire narrative is bonkers from start to finish.
Trevor Burrus: Well, give us a little bit of a hint. I want people to read the book, but, I mean, the whole thing with some of [00:28:00] the crazy things that Kim Jong Un talked about … You have it in your book where they’re … The weirdest part to me was when someone is talking to Kim Jong Un and he’s saying, “We’re treating them the best. We always treat everyone the best. Of course, we treat Americans just like everyone else, and we’re showing the world, but they smell,” and they keep talking about how much they smell.
Michael Malice: Oh yeah, let me tell this story. A lot of times what they’ll do … This part was not true. This is the one part that wasn’t true. A lot of times what North Korea will do, just like here, they will take past historic events and novelize them, right? [00:28:30] There’s this novel about the Pueblo incident where it’s claimed that the U.S. imperialists who they had captured were insisting on having gay sex with each other and were claiming that because the government wasn’t letting them do it, this was a deprivation of their human rights, and also that they smelled so badly that even power cleaning them wasn’t helping the situation.
Trevor Burrus: Did you visit the Pueblo?
Michael Malice: No, no, that was one of the things I didn’t visit [00:29:00] on my trip.
Aaron Powell: How does Kim Jong Un compare to his father?
Michael Malice: Well, when Kim Jong Il took over … I read this in their literature and I thought this is a joke, and it was actually the truth … when Kim Jong Il took over for his father, the Great Leader, in 1994, his campaign slogan was “Do not expect any change from me. I am the same as my father,” perhaps the first honest politician in history. The very premise of Kim Jong Un taking over … He had his hair cut just like the Great Leader had in the [00:29:30] ’40s. The premise is this is continuity, this is going to be the same government that kept you safe from the U.S. imperialists since the ’40s, there’s not going to be in change. However, there is a lot of change, despite what he would like, because the barriers are breaking down. Refugees are talking to people back home. The government can’t provide food for everyone. These are things that are happening despite the regime’s best attempts to the contrary.
Trevor Burrus: Now, I’ve heard before it described, the Juche ideology [00:30:00] and the way-
Michael Malice: The Juche idea.
Trevor Burrus: Sorry, idea, and the way that they … By the way, do you think it might be the case that North Korean intelligence people might listen to this podcast? Do they pay attention?
Michael Malice: Zero possibility.
Trevor Burrus: Zero possibility. Okay.
Michael Malice: Sorry.
Trevor Burrus: I don’t know how much they pay attention to people talking about them.
Michael Malice: They do, but they’re more interested in looking after their own. Yeonmi would be in trouble, but since we’re white, we are basically animals to them.
Trevor Burrus: Okay. [00:30:30] I hear it sometimes described that there’s almost a trinity in North Korea. It is almost a religion, and it’s a theocracy. There’s some idea that Kim Il Sung has been reincarnated or was reincarnated in Kim Jong Il and that there’s some sort of continuance there even to Kim Jong Un. Is that true?
Michael Malice: Well, they do have a trinity because there’s the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, who’s the father, there’s the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, who’s the son, and … You know how [00:31:00] in either the Odyssey or the Iliad, I forget which one, they always use epithets, right? It’s like eagle-eyed Athena, I believe. Kim Jong Il’s mother, Kim Il Sung’s wife, is always referred to as Anti-Japanese Heroine Kim Jong Suk. She’s very beautiful, but she’s always portrayed with a gun in her hand, so it’s kind of this … almost seems like a caricature. That is their official trinity.
Here’s the other thing that people in the West don’t get. They have a constitution, just like the Soviet Union had a constitution, but this is for display purposes only. I mean, these constitutions [00:31:30] guarantee freedom of speech, freedom of religion, all this other nonsense. What actually governs North Korea, they have the 10 commandments of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. The 10th commandment says, and I’m paraphrasing, the revolution shall be continued through the generations until the end, which means, in practice, only a direct descendant of Kim Il Sung can be the leader. Maybe it’s not the same as reincarnation, but it certainly means that someone who is a member of the Mount Paektu bloodline … Mount Paektu is this mountain at the north of Korea [00:32:00] which is kind of like their Mount Zion … only someone who has that Mount Paektu bloodline can be the leader, which is why it was so important for Kim Jong Un to kill his older brother, because that would’ve been a Plan B if someone took him out. Now that there’s no real replacement, that strengthens his position.
Trevor Burrus: In terms of their relationship to South Korea, how do they view South Korea?
Michael Malice: When you go to North Korea … You know how in every school in America you’re going to have a world atlas, right? In North Korea, the atlases are only of Korea, [00:32:30] and Korea is one; Korea is indivisible. When they write North and South Korea, they will always write lowercase N and lowercase S because the south is a region, not a separate country, a region under U.S. occupation. In fact, the South recognizes this, to some extent, too. If you are a North Korean refugee and you step foot on South Korean soil, including the airport or some consulate, you’re automatically a South Korean citizen.
They view the South [00:33:00] very much as their brethren. They’re rivals, but it’s two messages. There was a Korean person on my tour group, and some of the people we met were crying meeting him because of the horrors of national division, which there’s something to that. They don’t explain that the horrors of national division are almost exclusively due to the North not letting people leave ever, but they very much want a unified Korea.
Aaron Powell: Is North Korea sustainable? Are there any cracks in [00:33:30] this? I mean, there could be outside threats, and there are certainly things the Trump administration could do, but as it’s going now, can it keep itself propped up?
Michael Malice: I always forget whether this is Faulkner or Steinbeck, but there’s a quote that goes, “How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.” This is not sustainable. We’re already seeing major cracks, at the very least. If you’re taught in school that the government is going to provide food for you, and the government is not providing food [00:34:00] for you, listen, I can tell you all day long Great Leader Kim Il Sung is the most wonderful human being who ever walked the face of the earth, if I can’t feed my kids, that’s secondary.
If I can’t be warm in the winter, if I can’t have electricity, all this other stuff, at some point, it becomes just simple biology, and at kind of an animal level of subsistence, that’s going to come first before ideology. This is a major deal that now you have kind of the black market being a mechanism. Capitalism, the toxic yellow winds of capitalism, as they call it, has in many ways [00:34:30] taken the place of the government. The government knew this is going to be a major threat to their control, and at the same time now, a bigger threat to their control is mass starvation.
Trevor Burrus: I know it’s hard to get information out of North Korea, but we’re seeing a lot more books recently, more defectors. It seems like there’s more defectors. Do we have any ability to assess whether or not the black market, for example, is getting bigger? That would seem to be-
Michael Malice: Oh, it’s getting much, [00:35:00] much bigger. In fact, it’s kind of like what happens in these towns is the cop will fine you, but effectively that’s a bribe. It’s kind of like the mafia here. Let’s suppose you had a mafia-run neighborhood and you have to pay that mafia don protection money. He will keep your neighborhood safe, and your business won’t be burnt down. It’ll be allowed to continue. That’s what’s happening on a local level, and that’s a very, very healthy thing, because the more you have cynicism by the population toward the government, that’s a very necessary first step for this façade [00:35:30] to collapse.
Trevor Burrus: Now, in terms of our current relations … I even mean before Trump, going back to 9/11 … you write as Kim Jong Il, “It’s difficult for me to convey how much Bush’s Axis of Evil speech poisoned relations between the DPRK and the United States. It was apparent to commentators around the world that this Axis of Evil was a kill list, nothing more, nothing less. We three were the nations that President Bush and his team of fascists were seeking to [00:36:00] invade.” Is it the case that 9/11 and the Axis of Evil created a sort of irreparable rift? If there ever was a togetherness, was that the beginning of a rift that continues to this day?
Michael Malice: Well, remember, immediately before the Bush presidency, Madeleine Albright came to North Korea, raised the glass, and this was going to be kind of a first step toward normalizing diplomatic relations, right? Then President Bush comes in and the neocons, and he was very clear that, understandably, to some extent, [00:36:30] that something had to change, and this regime was not something that could be allowed to exist on the face of the earth. His policy and ideology was extremely different from Clinton. Neither of them, obviously, have worked, because the North Korean government is still there and is oppressive as ever. Of course, this was a huge amount of souring between the Americans and North Koreans. However, towards the end of his presidency, President Bush removed them from the state sponsor of terrorism list, so they got something out of that as well.
Aaron Powell: Can you give us some insight [00:37:00] into what’s going on now? I mean, kind of the psychology of the Northern leadership with the constant tests-
Michael Malice: Oh yeah-
Aaron Powell: … the missile launches, what they’re up to.
Michael Malice: Look at it. I’m a country the size of Pennsylvania with 25 million people, and I have against me the U.S. imperialists, who are barking mad every single day; I have China starting to back away a little bit; I have the UN unanimously united against me. That makes me look pretty awesome, huh? This is their whole worldview, that, look, we’re a tiny little country [00:37:30] and everyone is trying to break us, and we’re standing up to them. Kim Jong Un is on TV laughing. Every day, he’s laughing. It makes perfect sense from their perspective that they get to defy the rest of the world. What a great demonstration to them of their strength.
Aaron Powell: Do you think that they recognize the potential risks in this, like at some point there’s some line that they might cross that would then bring the hammer down on them?
Michael Malice: They’ve been preparing for that line since birth. I don’t know what that line is. However, they do know, correctly, [00:38:00] once they do have deliverable nukes, that line gets … Then who knows what happens. Kim Jong Il, when he took over for the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, he modified it into what he called the Songun idea, which means military first, which means that the military is the basis for a prosperous country. Their whole worldview is based on the idea that it is only through militarization that we are able to survive and will be able to continue to survive, and [00:38:30] it’s true. If they didn’t have a strong military, this would not have been going on for this long.
Trevor Burrus: Right before we started recording, actually, I got an alert on my phone that Trump announced more sanctions and the UN announced more sanctions against North Korea. This seems to be the only weapon we have in our arsenal, or the ones we’re currently using-
Michael Malice: Well, we actually have actual weapons in our arsenal.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, but the ones that we’re currently using.
Michael Malice: Right.
Trevor Burrus: Are sanctions [00:39:00] useful? Are they a good idea? Do they do anything?
Michael Malice: Actually, what the more interesting thing I’ve seen happen in the last, I think, 48 hours was all these Chinese banks are saying they’re not going to do business with North Korea. That is a little bit of the squeeze. However, Kim Jong Un has enormous amount of gasoline in store. He’s been plotting this since April, anticipating sanctions. When they had their little press release about this latest bomb, they said it was all made with homegrown ingredients, [00:39:30] and very few people picked up on what that meant, because they thought, “Oh, this is typical Juche posturing.”
No, what that means is even if you completely hermetically seal us up from the rest of the world, we’re still going to be able to continue with this weapons program. What it comes down to is … I’m not a hostage negotiator. You guys aren’t either. If you have a guy with a gun and 25 million hostages, what is it going to take for him to give up his gun? I mean, it’s going to take a lot, and especially in a no-trust scenario.
Trevor Burrus: [00:40:00] Well, in some of those situations, we used to give some dictators resorts on a Pacific island somewhere just to try and get them to leave, but I don’t think that there’s any way that any of the Kim family would want to leave.
Michael Malice: Not only wouldn’t they, when they kidnapped that American reporter, Ling, ex-President Clinton got on a plane and sat down in Pyongyang with Podesta and kissed Kim Jong Il’s ring there. They boast about it. They go, “Why do we need to leave? I can make everyone come here.” The [00:40:30] Japanese prime minister went there. All sorts of other dignitaries go to North Korea. It’s absolutely great for them. The South Korean president, as well.
Aaron Powell: Then are you worried about the current situation?
Michael Malice: I mean, I’m not worried in terms of war per se. I’m worried in the sense that you have 25 million slaves who are living under depraved conditions and have been for decades. I mean, that’s where my priority is.
Aaron Powell: I mean, you said that their cracks are starting to appear. Do you think that [00:41:00] a, I guess, slave revolt is in the cards?
Michael Malice: It’s impossible. A slave revolt is impossible because North Korea has once a week what they call sessions on your organizational life, or something to that effect. What that means is everyone in North Korea is slotted into a group, whether your school, your neighborhood. It would be the Cato Institute. Once a week, you all have to get together and get up and say, “This is what I saw Trevor doing wrong,” and Trevor has to get up and say, “This is what I did wrong this week.”
Everyone is always spying on each other at all times, [00:41:30] by law, and reporting on each other to everyone else, by law. The idea that a bunch of people can get together and conspire, certainly not on a level to overthrow the government. Pyongyang, the architecture, it’s like concentric circles. You’re not even allowed to go into central Pyongyang unless you’re very high up in the government. The idea that you could have some kind of Versailles situation or something is very, very implausible.
Trevor Burrus: Do you think there’s very little … It sounds, from putting all this together, that in terms of them striking first, I mean, they want [00:42:00] to have Korea … I don’t think they have imperialist ambitions. They don’t want to take over. I mean, maybe Japan.
Michael Malice: Well, the South. They want to take over the South.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, if they got all of Korea, if they just had the entire peninsula. That would be bad, of course, but in terms of them attacking first, it doesn’t seem like something that they would do. They’d just want to have enough strength to not be attacked, it seems.
Michael Malice: According to them, and they say this explicitly … This is in their words, in their books. They [00:42:30] are very open about their stuff. They go, “We cannot win a war with the United States. It is like ants and an elephant, where the ants can’t kill the elephant, but they can move it along the direction that the ants want.” They know, and not only do they know …. This isn’t some theory. They can look at the Korean War and look what that happened to North and South Korea and how bad that was for them, and now we have even more weaponry. We would have even more backup.
They know exactly what this would mean. It would be completely devastating for them. In fact, many [00:43:00] of the members of the administration have said this publicly. They know perfectly well what would happen to them if we got engaged in war. It would be crazy for them to strike first. For everyone who says they’re crazy, if they’re so crazy, how have they outlasted everybody else except for Cuba?
Aaron Powell: Then are we just stuck? Is there anything that we can do, any hope we can have for alleviating the suffering of these 25 million slaves?
Michael Malice: I have no idea. Anyone who says they have an answer is lying, in my opinion. All I knew how [00:43:30] to do is write a book, tell the story, explain what’s going on, and leave it to better and smarter minds to figure out a way out, because, I mean, these people are very smart and they’ve dug their heels in for 60 years, and they’ve been digging them further and further ever since. Almost literally, North Korea has the most subterranean infrastructure of any country on earth. The metro in Pyongyang is the deepest in the world because it also doubles as a bomb shelter. These people have been anticipating an invasion for a very long time. [00:44:00] The children are taught this as well. They’re taught to spy for … They’re taught to look out for U.S. imperialist spies under their desks and things like that. They’ve been training the people very well.
Trevor Burrus: Unfortunately, it also seems to be the case that … Someone had written a piece a while back that the best way to fix North Korea would be to drop a bunch of iPhones over the entire country, just so people could interact with the rest of the world. That seems a little bit optimistic and not understanding how total the [00:44:30] control is. Also, they don’t have power.
Michael Malice: You have your weekly Cato meeting, and, Trevor, you saw David Boaz get an iPhone from the American imperialists. You’re going to report on him, and if you don’t report, you’re in trouble. Then David and his family are taken to the camps, if not executed. It’s as simple as that.
Trevor Burrus: If this ever collapses in some way … It really is surreal. Your book, which I highly recommend … I’ve read a lot of these depressing books, as you mentioned. I’ve read Yeonmi’s book. I’ve read Nothing [00:45:00] to Envy. Those are depressing, but they didn’t seem to make you get it in the way that your book does. The other sad thing is is that if this ever goes away, this thing that we’ve never seen anything like in the history of the world, I would say-
Michael Malice: Correct.
Trevor Burrus: … I don’t know after that … Let’s just say their government went away. The people of North Korea are not very much equipped to just merge with South Korea and live their lives as normal. They have been fundamentally altered in a very profound [00:45:30] way.
Michael Malice: I mean, but the fact is … You just spoke about Yeonmi. You could have a conversation with her many times, and it was a perfectly normal conversation. Yes, there would be a transition period, but it would hardly be … I mean, all they need to do is to be able to work, provide food for their families, and have a passport, information to the outside world. That’s all that’s really necessary. They don’t have to have some kind of New York-style subway system or Facebook accounts immediately.
It would be expensive and difficult [00:46:00] in the short term, but remember, South Korea at one point recently had the highest GDP per capita of all of Asia. These are smart, entrepreneurial, hardworking people. You have to be in the North because the ones who are loyal to the regime were the first ones to die during the famine as they kept waiting for the food that the government promised would come. Especially now that they’re all becoming hustlers, in effect, through the black market, they’d be able to navigate a liberalized country pretty quick.
Trevor Burrus: What should people realize when they hear commentators talking about North Korea, what they’re [00:46:30] often getting wrong?
Michael Malice: The thing that they get wrong the most, in my opinion, is I saw one article that says we should rain hellfire on North Korea. If you are someone who is advocating blithely killing 25 million people who are slaves and who are hostages, you need to rethink your priorities. Just because someone calls you a name does not give you the right legally or morally to go in and kill everyone that they know.
Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. [00:47:00] To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.