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Episode
27

North Korea - The Hermit Kingdom

First published on
February 18, 2020
History
-
20
minutes
North Korea
Russia
China
Weird history

The media might portray it as just a failed state run by a mad dictator, but today we'll find out that it might be just a little bit more complicated than things seem.

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Transcript

[00:00:05] Hello hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] I'm Alastair Budge. 

[00:00:14] Today, we are going to be talking about North Korea, one of the most isolated and strangest places in the world. 

[00:00:23] Before we get right into it, I just want to remind those of you listening to this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iVoox, or wherever you get your podcasts that you can get a copy of the transcript and key vocabulary over on the website, which is Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:00:43] We've also launched a really cool new feature so that the transcript animates as you listen, so instead of scrolling down the page or reading the PDF, it's as if there were subtitles for the podcast. 

[00:00:59] I think it's pretty cool, everyone who has used it says, whoa, that's quite neat, and it does make it a lot, lot easier to follow every single word.

[00:01:10] So check that out. It's over at leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:01:16] Right then North Korea. 

[00:01:19] Today we are going to ask ourselves, how did it get to this? 

[00:01:24] One country slap bang in the middle of the economic powerhouses of China, Japan, and South Korea, that has ended up being pretty much the most isolated place in the world to outsiders and a complete pariah state. 

[00:01:45] So much so that in English it's known as the hermit kingdom, so a hermit is normally someone who cuts themselves off from society, usually for religious reasons.

[00:02:00] The reasons that North Korea is cut off from the rest of the world aren't religious, of course, and there isn't one single reason. 

[00:02:11] Especially given everything that has been going on in the past few years with Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, it's easy for people to characterise the situation into being a sort of mad dictator with nuclear powers, sort of like a Austin Powers situation. 

[00:02:32] But the situation is a lot more complicated than that.

[00:02:37] And the story of North Korea is a really interesting one to try and understand some of the power dynamics that have been going on between the East and the West in the past hundred years or so. 

[00:02:52] Today we are going to be asking ourselves, how did it get to this? 

[00:02:58] Why does North Korea really continue to develop nuclear weapons and what might the future hold for North Korea?

[00:03:08] We'll also end with four very strange facts about North Korea that I'd be willing to bet you didn't know.

[00:03:18] As always, it's worth just recapping a little bit of history to understand how we got to this situation.

[00:03:26] For the purposes of today's podcast, we'll start at the beginning of the 20th century, just over a hundred years ago when the entire Korean peninsula was occupied and then annexed by the Japanese. 

[00:03:42] It was kept as a Japanese colony for the next 35 years until Japan was defeated in the Second World War.

[00:03:53] When Japan finally surrendered, the Northern part of the Korean peninsula was occupied by the Russians, and the Southern part was occupied by the Americans.

[00:04:06] Neither wanted to give up territory and influence in this very strategic point of East Asia, and so the peninsula was divided into two countries, the North being the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the South being the American-aligned Republic of Korea. 

[00:04:30] As leader of the North, the Soviets installed a man called Kim Il-sung who had previously been a communist guerilla

[00:04:41] So it was actually only in 1948 that North Korea was formed - previously there never was North and South Korea, this is actually a pretty recent construct

[00:04:57] However, even though the peninsula had been split into two parts, both the North and the South claimed that they had jurisdiction over the entire peninsula, and so in 1950, just two years after the formation of North Korea, the North, with the backing of the Soviets, attacked the South, which kicked off the Korean war.

[00:05:27] The United States, of course sensing that if the South was defeated, they would lose an important stronghold in East Asia, they supported the South and the end result was this very nasty messy war that cost the lives of two and a half million people, most of them actually civilians. 

[00:05:52] In 1953, after three years of a pretty pointless war an armistice was signed, and note that it was only an armistice, a temporary peace, the war is still technically ongoing. 

[00:06:11] Since then, however, South Korea has developed into a thriving country with high living standards, some world-class companies, and a big cultural impact on the world. 

[00:06:26] North Korea, as you will know, is almost a polar opposite. 

[00:06:32] You could be forgiven for thinking that it was immediately downhill for North Korea.

[00:06:38] However, until the 1980s or so, North Korea was actually more advanced than its Southern neighbor. 

[00:06:48] It invested heavily in industries like mining and steel production, and it built up a sizeable military. 

[00:06:58] It was able to do this mainly through support from the Soviet Union. However, as the Soviet Union began to unwind, the money and support stopped flowing to North Korea and things went backward pretty quickly. 

[00:07:16] With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, North Korea soon realised that it was pretty short of friends.

[00:07:25] Communist governments were falling, they were being toppled, all across the world, and without allies, North Korea would be in a pretty precarious position if its Southern neighbour decided to attack it. 

[00:07:42] So North Korea made efforts to cozy up even more to China, it tried to befriend China even more.

[00:07:50] After the collapse of the USSR, China was most certainly the world's dominant communist power. 

[00:07:50] It was, and still is in China's advantage to have an ally in North Korea as it acts as a buffer, a sort of protective wall against the US affiliated South. 

[00:08:06] Without North Korea, and if the entire Korean peninsula was taken over by what's now South Korea, China would in effect have a border with a US-aligned country and it evidently doesn't want to do that.

[00:08:25] Cut off from the world and only supported by China, life turned from bad to worse in North Korea. 

[00:08:35] There were huge famines in the 1990s and millions of people perished

[00:08:42] The original leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and was replaced by his son, Kim Jong-il.

[00:08:51] And it was under Kim Jong-il that North Korea first started enriching uranium in order to create its own nuclear capabilities, despite having promised not to.

[00:09:04] Fast forward a few years and after Kim Jong-il died in 2011 and was replaced by one of his sons, Kim Jong-un, things continued to get weirder and more volatile, more unpredictable, in the hermit kingdom. 

[00:09:23] Kim Jong-un appears to be a pretty ruthless leader, executing members of his own family, including his oldest half brother and his uncle.

[00:09:35] He also appears to be a highly erratic individual, testing nuclear weapons in 2017 despite knowing that his counterpart in the White House was probably equally erratic and impulsive. 

[00:09:52] And I don't know about you, but the idea that Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump both almost literally had their fingers on a big red button, that's not a particularly comforting thought. 

[00:10:08] So that's a quick bit of North Korean history, which helps explain how we have got to the situation we're in now. 

[00:10:18] One of the main questions people have about North Korea now though, is about why it continues to develop nuclear weapons. 

[00:10:29] You can't really talk about North Korea without mentioning the fact that it is a nuclear power controlled by a pretty erratic dictator, so this seems to be one of the first questions that people ask. 

[00:10:45] If they could just be brought back into world society, if they could just be another normal country, if they gave up nuclear weapons, why don't they do it? 

[00:10:57] Well, there are a few reasons here. 

[00:11:01] It's certainly not that they actually want to use them offensively for an attack on the South or Japan or the US or anywhere else.

[00:11:12] Doing so would lead to immediate reprisals, immediate payback, causing huge devastation in the North, and it would make absolutely no sense to do so. 

[00:11:24] It would be a completely suicidal move for the regime. 

[00:11:30] So if it's not for offensive reasons, it must be for defensive reasons, to defend North Korea against a potential attack from the South or from the US. 

[00:11:44] Or rather, we should say that it's for defensive reasons, but more as a deterrent than as a real defense.

[00:11:53] Having nuclear weapons just shows what you're capable of if someone attacks you, so it helps you avoid being attacked in the first place.

[00:12:04] While this is supposedly the reason that any country would have nuclear weapons, it's particularly true for North Korea. 

[00:12:11] So the primary reason, according to most experts, that North Korea has nuclear weapons is this one, to act as a deterrent

[00:12:24] But it's not quite as simple as that, and there are a few more important reasons that it's worth talking about. 

[00:12:32] Firstly, without nuclear weapons, North Korea would have really very little bargaining power when it comes to economic or diplomatic negotiations.

[00:12:45] As we have seen through the start of the negotiations with the US, the North thinks that it can use its nuclear capabilities as a way to extract concessions in a negotiation, as a way to get more than it would otherwise.

[00:13:06] Basically saying, you should give us more favourable treatment, and in return, we will get rid of our nuclear weapons, or at least you need to give us better treatment because we have nuclear weapons. 

[00:13:22] There's also the factor that living standards in North Korea are pretty dismal, pretty terrible, and having nuclear weapons is a great source of national prestige, used to make people more proud of their country despite their pretty terrible day-to-day life. 

[00:13:44] Kim Jong-un, as he doesn't have any of the revolutionary credentials of his grandfather or the political longevity credentials of his father, he has portrayed himself as the keeper of the nuclear weapons, consistently publishing pictures of himself with missiles, inspecting weapons facilities, and the nuclear weapons are also a sort of personal legitimacy for Kim Jong-un. 

[00:14:18] So there are several pretty good reasons that the North has to keep its nuclear weapons and it doesn't seem very likely at all that they will do anything to give them up, no matter how many love letters Kim Jong-un receives from Donald Trump. 

[00:14:39] This being said, relations between the North and the South, between North Korea and South Korea, and North Korea and the rest of the world, they appear to be slightly better than they were at least five years ago.

[00:14:53] Kim Jong-un and the South Korean president Moon Jae-in met in April, 2018 almost two years ago, and that was for the first time in 10 years. 

[00:15:06] And there have been several other gestures such as North Korea sending a team to the winter Olympics in South Korea in 2018, and these slightly surreal conferences between the US and North Korea, between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. 

[00:15:26] But life in North Korea, despite these gestures, is still pretty brutal.

[00:15:35] It's estimated that hundreds of thousands of people are imprisoned in labour camps, there are frequent food shortages and any criticism of the ruling party is met with fierce punishment. 

[00:15:52] It's still possible to visit as a tourist and a few thousand people do travel there every year. 

[00:15:59] However, it's very tightly controlled and after the death, or should I say murder of a US tourist in 2017 after he was arrested for stealing a poster from a hotel and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, I imagine many people are understandably thinking twice about North Korea as their next holiday destination. 

[00:16:29] So the question we asked ourselves at the start of the podcast was North Korea, how did it get to this? 

[00:16:37] And I guess the response is, well, it's actually quite complicated.

[00:16:42] And I guess the response is, well, North Korea is, to a certain degree, a victim of the post world war two power struggle between East and West as both battled for influence in East Asia, whether it's lack of allies and lack of economic growth, North Korea felt itself backed into a corner and started developing nuclear weapons and has now found itself in a sort of impossible position of being a rogue nuclear state.

[00:16:42] It doesn't really know what to do. The rest of the world doesn't really know what to do and nobody is really sure what will happen. 

[00:16:42] But I think it's fascinating to understand more about it, and as always, things aren't as simple as they may be portrayed to be by the media. 

[00:16:54] Before we call it a day for today though, I want to just finish with some strange and sort of lighthearted facts about North Korea.

[00:17:04] Firstly, it's that it isn't just freedom of speech that is curtailed, that is limited. 

[00:17:12] The style of your haircuts also have to match a particular style, each of which is state approved. 

[00:17:21] There are only 28 hairstyles approved by Kim Jong-un. 

[00:17:25] Men can choose between 10 hairstyles and women can decide between 18 various styles.

[00:17:35] I don't know about you, but part of me thinks that this isn't actually a terrible idea. 

[00:17:41] Going to the hairdresser and just saying, "please can I have a number eight" would remove a lot of confusion. 

[00:17:49] Second interesting bit of trivia about North Korea - while free speech is certainly not allowed, marijuana is allowed.

[00:18:01] I couldn't find out exactly why that is, but it is true, there is nothing illegal about smoking marijuana in North Korea, and apparently 30% of North Koreans regularly use drugs. Who would have known? 

[00:18:15] Thirdly, and here is another fact provided by the North Korean press, but I will let you make up your own mind as to whether you believe it.

[00:18:27] Kim Jong-il, the son of the country's first leader, has performed amazing feats, amazing acts, according to state controlled media. 

[00:18:38] These include him scoring a perfect 300 the first time he went bowling and the first time he played golf, he sank 11 holes in one.

[00:18:52] What a phenomenally talented man. 

[00:18:55] And finally, our final weird fact about North Korea is that the calendar isn't quite the same as the one that you or I probably use. 

[00:19:05] In North Korea the calendar starts on the 15th of April, 1912 which was Kim Il-sung's date of birth. 

[00:19:15] So while now it's the year 2020 for most of the world, in North Korea it's the year 107 and later on it'll be 108. 

[00:19:26] Okay then, I hope that this has been an enlightening little dip into North Korea, the hermit kingdom. 

[00:19:34] It's a hugely complicated situation, but pretty fascinating to think about how it has got to this.

[00:19:42] As always, I'd love to know what you thought of the podcast.

[00:19:46] You can hit us up at hi@leonardoenglish.com, or on Facebook or Instagram. 

[00:19:52] And final point, do check out the new animating transcripts on the website. 

[00:19:58] It means you can listen to the audio with the words flashing up on the screen in front of you, and it is a really cool way to listen while also not missing out on one single word. 

[00:20:10] That's over at leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:20:13] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:20:18] I'm Alastair Budge and I will catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]



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[00:00:05] Hello hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] I'm Alastair Budge. 

[00:00:14] Today, we are going to be talking about North Korea, one of the most isolated and strangest places in the world. 

[00:00:23] Before we get right into it, I just want to remind those of you listening to this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iVoox, or wherever you get your podcasts that you can get a copy of the transcript and key vocabulary over on the website, which is Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:00:43] We've also launched a really cool new feature so that the transcript animates as you listen, so instead of scrolling down the page or reading the PDF, it's as if there were subtitles for the podcast. 

[00:00:59] I think it's pretty cool, everyone who has used it says, whoa, that's quite neat, and it does make it a lot, lot easier to follow every single word.

[00:01:10] So check that out. It's over at leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:01:16] Right then North Korea. 

[00:01:19] Today we are going to ask ourselves, how did it get to this? 

[00:01:24] One country slap bang in the middle of the economic powerhouses of China, Japan, and South Korea, that has ended up being pretty much the most isolated place in the world to outsiders and a complete pariah state. 

[00:01:45] So much so that in English it's known as the hermit kingdom, so a hermit is normally someone who cuts themselves off from society, usually for religious reasons.

[00:02:00] The reasons that North Korea is cut off from the rest of the world aren't religious, of course, and there isn't one single reason. 

[00:02:11] Especially given everything that has been going on in the past few years with Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, it's easy for people to characterise the situation into being a sort of mad dictator with nuclear powers, sort of like a Austin Powers situation. 

[00:02:32] But the situation is a lot more complicated than that.

[00:02:37] And the story of North Korea is a really interesting one to try and understand some of the power dynamics that have been going on between the East and the West in the past hundred years or so. 

[00:02:52] Today we are going to be asking ourselves, how did it get to this? 

[00:02:58] Why does North Korea really continue to develop nuclear weapons and what might the future hold for North Korea?

[00:03:08] We'll also end with four very strange facts about North Korea that I'd be willing to bet you didn't know.

[00:03:18] As always, it's worth just recapping a little bit of history to understand how we got to this situation.

[00:03:26] For the purposes of today's podcast, we'll start at the beginning of the 20th century, just over a hundred years ago when the entire Korean peninsula was occupied and then annexed by the Japanese. 

[00:03:42] It was kept as a Japanese colony for the next 35 years until Japan was defeated in the Second World War.

[00:03:53] When Japan finally surrendered, the Northern part of the Korean peninsula was occupied by the Russians, and the Southern part was occupied by the Americans.

[00:04:06] Neither wanted to give up territory and influence in this very strategic point of East Asia, and so the peninsula was divided into two countries, the North being the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the South being the American-aligned Republic of Korea. 

[00:04:30] As leader of the North, the Soviets installed a man called Kim Il-sung who had previously been a communist guerilla

[00:04:41] So it was actually only in 1948 that North Korea was formed - previously there never was North and South Korea, this is actually a pretty recent construct

[00:04:57] However, even though the peninsula had been split into two parts, both the North and the South claimed that they had jurisdiction over the entire peninsula, and so in 1950, just two years after the formation of North Korea, the North, with the backing of the Soviets, attacked the South, which kicked off the Korean war.

[00:05:27] The United States, of course sensing that if the South was defeated, they would lose an important stronghold in East Asia, they supported the South and the end result was this very nasty messy war that cost the lives of two and a half million people, most of them actually civilians. 

[00:05:52] In 1953, after three years of a pretty pointless war an armistice was signed, and note that it was only an armistice, a temporary peace, the war is still technically ongoing. 

[00:06:11] Since then, however, South Korea has developed into a thriving country with high living standards, some world-class companies, and a big cultural impact on the world. 

[00:06:26] North Korea, as you will know, is almost a polar opposite. 

[00:06:32] You could be forgiven for thinking that it was immediately downhill for North Korea.

[00:06:38] However, until the 1980s or so, North Korea was actually more advanced than its Southern neighbor. 

[00:06:48] It invested heavily in industries like mining and steel production, and it built up a sizeable military. 

[00:06:58] It was able to do this mainly through support from the Soviet Union. However, as the Soviet Union began to unwind, the money and support stopped flowing to North Korea and things went backward pretty quickly. 

[00:07:16] With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, North Korea soon realised that it was pretty short of friends.

[00:07:25] Communist governments were falling, they were being toppled, all across the world, and without allies, North Korea would be in a pretty precarious position if its Southern neighbour decided to attack it. 

[00:07:42] So North Korea made efforts to cozy up even more to China, it tried to befriend China even more.

[00:07:50] After the collapse of the USSR, China was most certainly the world's dominant communist power. 

[00:07:50] It was, and still is in China's advantage to have an ally in North Korea as it acts as a buffer, a sort of protective wall against the US affiliated South. 

[00:08:06] Without North Korea, and if the entire Korean peninsula was taken over by what's now South Korea, China would in effect have a border with a US-aligned country and it evidently doesn't want to do that.

[00:08:25] Cut off from the world and only supported by China, life turned from bad to worse in North Korea. 

[00:08:35] There were huge famines in the 1990s and millions of people perished

[00:08:42] The original leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and was replaced by his son, Kim Jong-il.

[00:08:51] And it was under Kim Jong-il that North Korea first started enriching uranium in order to create its own nuclear capabilities, despite having promised not to.

[00:09:04] Fast forward a few years and after Kim Jong-il died in 2011 and was replaced by one of his sons, Kim Jong-un, things continued to get weirder and more volatile, more unpredictable, in the hermit kingdom. 

[00:09:23] Kim Jong-un appears to be a pretty ruthless leader, executing members of his own family, including his oldest half brother and his uncle.

[00:09:35] He also appears to be a highly erratic individual, testing nuclear weapons in 2017 despite knowing that his counterpart in the White House was probably equally erratic and impulsive. 

[00:09:52] And I don't know about you, but the idea that Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump both almost literally had their fingers on a big red button, that's not a particularly comforting thought. 

[00:10:08] So that's a quick bit of North Korean history, which helps explain how we have got to the situation we're in now. 

[00:10:18] One of the main questions people have about North Korea now though, is about why it continues to develop nuclear weapons. 

[00:10:29] You can't really talk about North Korea without mentioning the fact that it is a nuclear power controlled by a pretty erratic dictator, so this seems to be one of the first questions that people ask. 

[00:10:45] If they could just be brought back into world society, if they could just be another normal country, if they gave up nuclear weapons, why don't they do it? 

[00:10:57] Well, there are a few reasons here. 

[00:11:01] It's certainly not that they actually want to use them offensively for an attack on the South or Japan or the US or anywhere else.

[00:11:12] Doing so would lead to immediate reprisals, immediate payback, causing huge devastation in the North, and it would make absolutely no sense to do so. 

[00:11:24] It would be a completely suicidal move for the regime. 

[00:11:30] So if it's not for offensive reasons, it must be for defensive reasons, to defend North Korea against a potential attack from the South or from the US. 

[00:11:44] Or rather, we should say that it's for defensive reasons, but more as a deterrent than as a real defense.

[00:11:53] Having nuclear weapons just shows what you're capable of if someone attacks you, so it helps you avoid being attacked in the first place.

[00:12:04] While this is supposedly the reason that any country would have nuclear weapons, it's particularly true for North Korea. 

[00:12:11] So the primary reason, according to most experts, that North Korea has nuclear weapons is this one, to act as a deterrent

[00:12:24] But it's not quite as simple as that, and there are a few more important reasons that it's worth talking about. 

[00:12:32] Firstly, without nuclear weapons, North Korea would have really very little bargaining power when it comes to economic or diplomatic negotiations.

[00:12:45] As we have seen through the start of the negotiations with the US, the North thinks that it can use its nuclear capabilities as a way to extract concessions in a negotiation, as a way to get more than it would otherwise.

[00:13:06] Basically saying, you should give us more favourable treatment, and in return, we will get rid of our nuclear weapons, or at least you need to give us better treatment because we have nuclear weapons. 

[00:13:22] There's also the factor that living standards in North Korea are pretty dismal, pretty terrible, and having nuclear weapons is a great source of national prestige, used to make people more proud of their country despite their pretty terrible day-to-day life. 

[00:13:44] Kim Jong-un, as he doesn't have any of the revolutionary credentials of his grandfather or the political longevity credentials of his father, he has portrayed himself as the keeper of the nuclear weapons, consistently publishing pictures of himself with missiles, inspecting weapons facilities, and the nuclear weapons are also a sort of personal legitimacy for Kim Jong-un. 

[00:14:18] So there are several pretty good reasons that the North has to keep its nuclear weapons and it doesn't seem very likely at all that they will do anything to give them up, no matter how many love letters Kim Jong-un receives from Donald Trump. 

[00:14:39] This being said, relations between the North and the South, between North Korea and South Korea, and North Korea and the rest of the world, they appear to be slightly better than they were at least five years ago.

[00:14:53] Kim Jong-un and the South Korean president Moon Jae-in met in April, 2018 almost two years ago, and that was for the first time in 10 years. 

[00:15:06] And there have been several other gestures such as North Korea sending a team to the winter Olympics in South Korea in 2018, and these slightly surreal conferences between the US and North Korea, between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. 

[00:15:26] But life in North Korea, despite these gestures, is still pretty brutal.

[00:15:35] It's estimated that hundreds of thousands of people are imprisoned in labour camps, there are frequent food shortages and any criticism of the ruling party is met with fierce punishment. 

[00:15:52] It's still possible to visit as a tourist and a few thousand people do travel there every year. 

[00:15:59] However, it's very tightly controlled and after the death, or should I say murder of a US tourist in 2017 after he was arrested for stealing a poster from a hotel and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, I imagine many people are understandably thinking twice about North Korea as their next holiday destination. 

[00:16:29] So the question we asked ourselves at the start of the podcast was North Korea, how did it get to this? 

[00:16:37] And I guess the response is, well, it's actually quite complicated.

[00:16:42] And I guess the response is, well, North Korea is, to a certain degree, a victim of the post world war two power struggle between East and West as both battled for influence in East Asia, whether it's lack of allies and lack of economic growth, North Korea felt itself backed into a corner and started developing nuclear weapons and has now found itself in a sort of impossible position of being a rogue nuclear state.

[00:16:42] It doesn't really know what to do. The rest of the world doesn't really know what to do and nobody is really sure what will happen. 

[00:16:42] But I think it's fascinating to understand more about it, and as always, things aren't as simple as they may be portrayed to be by the media. 

[00:16:54] Before we call it a day for today though, I want to just finish with some strange and sort of lighthearted facts about North Korea.

[00:17:04] Firstly, it's that it isn't just freedom of speech that is curtailed, that is limited. 

[00:17:12] The style of your haircuts also have to match a particular style, each of which is state approved. 

[00:17:21] There are only 28 hairstyles approved by Kim Jong-un. 

[00:17:25] Men can choose between 10 hairstyles and women can decide between 18 various styles.

[00:17:35] I don't know about you, but part of me thinks that this isn't actually a terrible idea. 

[00:17:41] Going to the hairdresser and just saying, "please can I have a number eight" would remove a lot of confusion. 

[00:17:49] Second interesting bit of trivia about North Korea - while free speech is certainly not allowed, marijuana is allowed.

[00:18:01] I couldn't find out exactly why that is, but it is true, there is nothing illegal about smoking marijuana in North Korea, and apparently 30% of North Koreans regularly use drugs. Who would have known? 

[00:18:15] Thirdly, and here is another fact provided by the North Korean press, but I will let you make up your own mind as to whether you believe it.

[00:18:27] Kim Jong-il, the son of the country's first leader, has performed amazing feats, amazing acts, according to state controlled media. 

[00:18:38] These include him scoring a perfect 300 the first time he went bowling and the first time he played golf, he sank 11 holes in one.

[00:18:52] What a phenomenally talented man. 

[00:18:55] And finally, our final weird fact about North Korea is that the calendar isn't quite the same as the one that you or I probably use. 

[00:19:05] In North Korea the calendar starts on the 15th of April, 1912 which was Kim Il-sung's date of birth. 

[00:19:15] So while now it's the year 2020 for most of the world, in North Korea it's the year 107 and later on it'll be 108. 

[00:19:26] Okay then, I hope that this has been an enlightening little dip into North Korea, the hermit kingdom. 

[00:19:34] It's a hugely complicated situation, but pretty fascinating to think about how it has got to this.

[00:19:42] As always, I'd love to know what you thought of the podcast.

[00:19:46] You can hit us up at hi@leonardoenglish.com, or on Facebook or Instagram. 

[00:19:52] And final point, do check out the new animating transcripts on the website. 

[00:19:58] It means you can listen to the audio with the words flashing up on the screen in front of you, and it is a really cool way to listen while also not missing out on one single word. 

[00:20:10] That's over at leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:20:13] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:20:18] I'm Alastair Budge and I will catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]



[00:00:05] Hello hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] I'm Alastair Budge. 

[00:00:14] Today, we are going to be talking about North Korea, one of the most isolated and strangest places in the world. 

[00:00:23] Before we get right into it, I just want to remind those of you listening to this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iVoox, or wherever you get your podcasts that you can get a copy of the transcript and key vocabulary over on the website, which is Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:00:43] We've also launched a really cool new feature so that the transcript animates as you listen, so instead of scrolling down the page or reading the PDF, it's as if there were subtitles for the podcast. 

[00:00:59] I think it's pretty cool, everyone who has used it says, whoa, that's quite neat, and it does make it a lot, lot easier to follow every single word.

[00:01:10] So check that out. It's over at leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:01:16] Right then North Korea. 

[00:01:19] Today we are going to ask ourselves, how did it get to this? 

[00:01:24] One country slap bang in the middle of the economic powerhouses of China, Japan, and South Korea, that has ended up being pretty much the most isolated place in the world to outsiders and a complete pariah state. 

[00:01:45] So much so that in English it's known as the hermit kingdom, so a hermit is normally someone who cuts themselves off from society, usually for religious reasons.

[00:02:00] The reasons that North Korea is cut off from the rest of the world aren't religious, of course, and there isn't one single reason. 

[00:02:11] Especially given everything that has been going on in the past few years with Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, it's easy for people to characterise the situation into being a sort of mad dictator with nuclear powers, sort of like a Austin Powers situation. 

[00:02:32] But the situation is a lot more complicated than that.

[00:02:37] And the story of North Korea is a really interesting one to try and understand some of the power dynamics that have been going on between the East and the West in the past hundred years or so. 

[00:02:52] Today we are going to be asking ourselves, how did it get to this? 

[00:02:58] Why does North Korea really continue to develop nuclear weapons and what might the future hold for North Korea?

[00:03:08] We'll also end with four very strange facts about North Korea that I'd be willing to bet you didn't know.

[00:03:18] As always, it's worth just recapping a little bit of history to understand how we got to this situation.

[00:03:26] For the purposes of today's podcast, we'll start at the beginning of the 20th century, just over a hundred years ago when the entire Korean peninsula was occupied and then annexed by the Japanese. 

[00:03:42] It was kept as a Japanese colony for the next 35 years until Japan was defeated in the Second World War.

[00:03:53] When Japan finally surrendered, the Northern part of the Korean peninsula was occupied by the Russians, and the Southern part was occupied by the Americans.

[00:04:06] Neither wanted to give up territory and influence in this very strategic point of East Asia, and so the peninsula was divided into two countries, the North being the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the South being the American-aligned Republic of Korea. 

[00:04:30] As leader of the North, the Soviets installed a man called Kim Il-sung who had previously been a communist guerilla

[00:04:41] So it was actually only in 1948 that North Korea was formed - previously there never was North and South Korea, this is actually a pretty recent construct

[00:04:57] However, even though the peninsula had been split into two parts, both the North and the South claimed that they had jurisdiction over the entire peninsula, and so in 1950, just two years after the formation of North Korea, the North, with the backing of the Soviets, attacked the South, which kicked off the Korean war.

[00:05:27] The United States, of course sensing that if the South was defeated, they would lose an important stronghold in East Asia, they supported the South and the end result was this very nasty messy war that cost the lives of two and a half million people, most of them actually civilians. 

[00:05:52] In 1953, after three years of a pretty pointless war an armistice was signed, and note that it was only an armistice, a temporary peace, the war is still technically ongoing. 

[00:06:11] Since then, however, South Korea has developed into a thriving country with high living standards, some world-class companies, and a big cultural impact on the world. 

[00:06:26] North Korea, as you will know, is almost a polar opposite. 

[00:06:32] You could be forgiven for thinking that it was immediately downhill for North Korea.

[00:06:38] However, until the 1980s or so, North Korea was actually more advanced than its Southern neighbor. 

[00:06:48] It invested heavily in industries like mining and steel production, and it built up a sizeable military. 

[00:06:58] It was able to do this mainly through support from the Soviet Union. However, as the Soviet Union began to unwind, the money and support stopped flowing to North Korea and things went backward pretty quickly. 

[00:07:16] With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, North Korea soon realised that it was pretty short of friends.

[00:07:25] Communist governments were falling, they were being toppled, all across the world, and without allies, North Korea would be in a pretty precarious position if its Southern neighbour decided to attack it. 

[00:07:42] So North Korea made efforts to cozy up even more to China, it tried to befriend China even more.

[00:07:50] After the collapse of the USSR, China was most certainly the world's dominant communist power. 

[00:07:50] It was, and still is in China's advantage to have an ally in North Korea as it acts as a buffer, a sort of protective wall against the US affiliated South. 

[00:08:06] Without North Korea, and if the entire Korean peninsula was taken over by what's now South Korea, China would in effect have a border with a US-aligned country and it evidently doesn't want to do that.

[00:08:25] Cut off from the world and only supported by China, life turned from bad to worse in North Korea. 

[00:08:35] There were huge famines in the 1990s and millions of people perished

[00:08:42] The original leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and was replaced by his son, Kim Jong-il.

[00:08:51] And it was under Kim Jong-il that North Korea first started enriching uranium in order to create its own nuclear capabilities, despite having promised not to.

[00:09:04] Fast forward a few years and after Kim Jong-il died in 2011 and was replaced by one of his sons, Kim Jong-un, things continued to get weirder and more volatile, more unpredictable, in the hermit kingdom. 

[00:09:23] Kim Jong-un appears to be a pretty ruthless leader, executing members of his own family, including his oldest half brother and his uncle.

[00:09:35] He also appears to be a highly erratic individual, testing nuclear weapons in 2017 despite knowing that his counterpart in the White House was probably equally erratic and impulsive. 

[00:09:52] And I don't know about you, but the idea that Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump both almost literally had their fingers on a big red button, that's not a particularly comforting thought. 

[00:10:08] So that's a quick bit of North Korean history, which helps explain how we have got to the situation we're in now. 

[00:10:18] One of the main questions people have about North Korea now though, is about why it continues to develop nuclear weapons. 

[00:10:29] You can't really talk about North Korea without mentioning the fact that it is a nuclear power controlled by a pretty erratic dictator, so this seems to be one of the first questions that people ask. 

[00:10:45] If they could just be brought back into world society, if they could just be another normal country, if they gave up nuclear weapons, why don't they do it? 

[00:10:57] Well, there are a few reasons here. 

[00:11:01] It's certainly not that they actually want to use them offensively for an attack on the South or Japan or the US or anywhere else.

[00:11:12] Doing so would lead to immediate reprisals, immediate payback, causing huge devastation in the North, and it would make absolutely no sense to do so. 

[00:11:24] It would be a completely suicidal move for the regime. 

[00:11:30] So if it's not for offensive reasons, it must be for defensive reasons, to defend North Korea against a potential attack from the South or from the US. 

[00:11:44] Or rather, we should say that it's for defensive reasons, but more as a deterrent than as a real defense.

[00:11:53] Having nuclear weapons just shows what you're capable of if someone attacks you, so it helps you avoid being attacked in the first place.

[00:12:04] While this is supposedly the reason that any country would have nuclear weapons, it's particularly true for North Korea. 

[00:12:11] So the primary reason, according to most experts, that North Korea has nuclear weapons is this one, to act as a deterrent

[00:12:24] But it's not quite as simple as that, and there are a few more important reasons that it's worth talking about. 

[00:12:32] Firstly, without nuclear weapons, North Korea would have really very little bargaining power when it comes to economic or diplomatic negotiations.

[00:12:45] As we have seen through the start of the negotiations with the US, the North thinks that it can use its nuclear capabilities as a way to extract concessions in a negotiation, as a way to get more than it would otherwise.

[00:13:06] Basically saying, you should give us more favourable treatment, and in return, we will get rid of our nuclear weapons, or at least you need to give us better treatment because we have nuclear weapons. 

[00:13:22] There's also the factor that living standards in North Korea are pretty dismal, pretty terrible, and having nuclear weapons is a great source of national prestige, used to make people more proud of their country despite their pretty terrible day-to-day life. 

[00:13:44] Kim Jong-un, as he doesn't have any of the revolutionary credentials of his grandfather or the political longevity credentials of his father, he has portrayed himself as the keeper of the nuclear weapons, consistently publishing pictures of himself with missiles, inspecting weapons facilities, and the nuclear weapons are also a sort of personal legitimacy for Kim Jong-un. 

[00:14:18] So there are several pretty good reasons that the North has to keep its nuclear weapons and it doesn't seem very likely at all that they will do anything to give them up, no matter how many love letters Kim Jong-un receives from Donald Trump. 

[00:14:39] This being said, relations between the North and the South, between North Korea and South Korea, and North Korea and the rest of the world, they appear to be slightly better than they were at least five years ago.

[00:14:53] Kim Jong-un and the South Korean president Moon Jae-in met in April, 2018 almost two years ago, and that was for the first time in 10 years. 

[00:15:06] And there have been several other gestures such as North Korea sending a team to the winter Olympics in South Korea in 2018, and these slightly surreal conferences between the US and North Korea, between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. 

[00:15:26] But life in North Korea, despite these gestures, is still pretty brutal.

[00:15:35] It's estimated that hundreds of thousands of people are imprisoned in labour camps, there are frequent food shortages and any criticism of the ruling party is met with fierce punishment. 

[00:15:52] It's still possible to visit as a tourist and a few thousand people do travel there every year. 

[00:15:59] However, it's very tightly controlled and after the death, or should I say murder of a US tourist in 2017 after he was arrested for stealing a poster from a hotel and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, I imagine many people are understandably thinking twice about North Korea as their next holiday destination. 

[00:16:29] So the question we asked ourselves at the start of the podcast was North Korea, how did it get to this? 

[00:16:37] And I guess the response is, well, it's actually quite complicated.

[00:16:42] And I guess the response is, well, North Korea is, to a certain degree, a victim of the post world war two power struggle between East and West as both battled for influence in East Asia, whether it's lack of allies and lack of economic growth, North Korea felt itself backed into a corner and started developing nuclear weapons and has now found itself in a sort of impossible position of being a rogue nuclear state.

[00:16:42] It doesn't really know what to do. The rest of the world doesn't really know what to do and nobody is really sure what will happen. 

[00:16:42] But I think it's fascinating to understand more about it, and as always, things aren't as simple as they may be portrayed to be by the media. 

[00:16:54] Before we call it a day for today though, I want to just finish with some strange and sort of lighthearted facts about North Korea.

[00:17:04] Firstly, it's that it isn't just freedom of speech that is curtailed, that is limited. 

[00:17:12] The style of your haircuts also have to match a particular style, each of which is state approved. 

[00:17:21] There are only 28 hairstyles approved by Kim Jong-un. 

[00:17:25] Men can choose between 10 hairstyles and women can decide between 18 various styles.

[00:17:35] I don't know about you, but part of me thinks that this isn't actually a terrible idea. 

[00:17:41] Going to the hairdresser and just saying, "please can I have a number eight" would remove a lot of confusion. 

[00:17:49] Second interesting bit of trivia about North Korea - while free speech is certainly not allowed, marijuana is allowed.

[00:18:01] I couldn't find out exactly why that is, but it is true, there is nothing illegal about smoking marijuana in North Korea, and apparently 30% of North Koreans regularly use drugs. Who would have known? 

[00:18:15] Thirdly, and here is another fact provided by the North Korean press, but I will let you make up your own mind as to whether you believe it.

[00:18:27] Kim Jong-il, the son of the country's first leader, has performed amazing feats, amazing acts, according to state controlled media. 

[00:18:38] These include him scoring a perfect 300 the first time he went bowling and the first time he played golf, he sank 11 holes in one.

[00:18:52] What a phenomenally talented man. 

[00:18:55] And finally, our final weird fact about North Korea is that the calendar isn't quite the same as the one that you or I probably use. 

[00:19:05] In North Korea the calendar starts on the 15th of April, 1912 which was Kim Il-sung's date of birth. 

[00:19:15] So while now it's the year 2020 for most of the world, in North Korea it's the year 107 and later on it'll be 108. 

[00:19:26] Okay then, I hope that this has been an enlightening little dip into North Korea, the hermit kingdom. 

[00:19:34] It's a hugely complicated situation, but pretty fascinating to think about how it has got to this.

[00:19:42] As always, I'd love to know what you thought of the podcast.

[00:19:46] You can hit us up at hi@leonardoenglish.com, or on Facebook or Instagram. 

[00:19:52] And final point, do check out the new animating transcripts on the website. 

[00:19:58] It means you can listen to the audio with the words flashing up on the screen in front of you, and it is a really cool way to listen while also not missing out on one single word. 

[00:20:10] That's over at leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:20:13] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:20:18] I'm Alastair Budge and I will catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]