Kim Jong-Un’s recent more than month-long disappearing act has inspired many speculations. The most credible hypothesis is that the world’s youngest head of state’s love for cheese and alcohol has resulted in a pair of fractured ankles, supported by recent pictures of Kim with a cane.

Let Kim Eat (Cheese) Cake. Courtesy of Daily Mirror, 17 September 2014
Let Kim Eat (Cheese) Cake. Courtesy of Daily Mirror, 17 September 2014

Such bizarreness may seem reminiscent of Team America: World Police, and builds on the surrealism of the ‘basketball diplomacy’ pursued by Dennis Rodman recently. However, this odd plotline should not obscure the expansive poverty and repression suffered by most of North Korea’s twenty-five million people.

North Korea, founded in 1948 by Kim Il-Sung (Kim Jong-Un’s grandfather, titled Eternal Leader of North Korea), is well-known as one of few remaining communist states and is renowned for its totalitarian practices of government. Such practices, mostly brutal purges, have increased under Kim Jong-Un in an effort to distance himself from his relatively liberal (in terms of co-operation with the South and on nuclear issues) father, Kim Jong-Il. Victims of Kim Jong-Un’s insecurity have included his uncle and most of his father’s hearse bearers.

Kim Il-Sung instituted a nationwide process of collectivisation by which all agricultural land became owned by the state. Characteristically for nationalisation under corrupt governments, hundreds of thousands of refugees suffered widespread starvation and famine; in the 1990s up to three and a half million people are thought to have died. In North Korea one in every three children is stunted and one in every five children is underweight, according to the UN World Food Programme, while chronic malnutrition is as high as forty percent in many rural areas. This reality juxtaposes with the explanation of Kim Jong-Un’s recent disappearance and the fact that he is known to import vast amounts of cheese for his own consumption.

A failed invasion of South Korea by the North in 1950, building on military skirmishes along the border beginning in 1948, resulted in intervention by the United Nations. This conflict saw more than half a million casualties, over one and a half million civilians killed, and a demilitarized zone established as a buffer. The civil war with the South is still formally ongoing, since a peace treaty has not been signed since the armistice of 1953.

Relations remain tense and are regularly tested by military exercises around the disputed border, which divides the Korean Peninsula. The so-called 38th Parallel differs little from that set up between the Soviet and American-occupied zones following the surrender of Japan in 1945, with separate states declared.

Recent times have seen further North Korean aggression and provocation, touching on the levels of the late 1960s-1980s when tunnels were used in assassination attempts on South Korean leaders.  2013 alone saw Kim Jong-Un end the Armistice Agreement, conduct a cyber-attack against the South, sever the hotline between North and South, fuel ballistic missiles, shut down an inter-Korean industrial zone, test a nuclear weapon and launch two ‘satellites’.

The latter two are expressly prohibited by the UN Security Council, and resulted in the termination of US Food Aid. Both ‘satellite’ launches, using the same technology required for intercontinental ballistic missiles, failed to reach orbit, costing almost one and a half billion US dollars. This period of escalation seems to have cost North Korea even more of the support of its only regional ally, China, who have demanded denuclearization in light of North Korean officials’ public threats of ‘nuclear catastrophe’ for a number of countries.

This demonstrates North Korea’s epithet as the world’s ‘most militarized society’, with policies of autarky relegated below displays of military strength. Crisiswatch, a historic online library, estimates that North Korea currently counts almost ten million enrolled in active, reserve, or paramilitary service, equalling around forty percent of the entire population, chiefly a result of North Korea’s policy of universal conscription over the age of seventeen. An arsenal of military hardware including tanks, aircraft, material for several nuclear warheads, chemical weapons, the world’s largest submarine fleet, and the ambition for a space programme now consumes ten billion US dollars each year, approximately a quarter of GDP.

The Kim family have constructed a cult of personality over the past half century of their rule in North Korea. They represent a dynastic dictatorship. The Kim family are deeply committed to the Juche philosophy, where racial superiority and national devotion intersect with militaristic jingoism and fantasies of Korean reunification. They utilise the state’s control of media to ensure propaganda inundates all of its citizens before, during, and after they are conscripted to the world’s largest army.