Author Michael Malice joined SiriusXM host Alex Marlow on Tuesday’s Breitbart News Daily to talk about the experiences in North Korea that informed his book Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il.
Malice said a journey to North Korea quickly dispels the conventional wisdom that everyone around the world secretly longs to live as Americans do.
“When you’re in North Korea, when you land there, it’s almost impossible to describe what it feels like to be in a country where you have no knowledge of the outside world,” he said. “They take your phone at the airport, there’s no Internet, and any news is going to be local news. It’s not that they would know to even envy us at all. It’s like living inside a mist. The idea that they would envy America, it’s just not the case.”
“In fact, there’s a very famous book by Barbara Demick called Nothing to Envy, and one of the messages that the North Korean government tells its people is that ‘the world envies us’ – that we’re so great, we’re the greatest country in the world, and everyone wants to be like us. They believe it, or they did for a long while because they had no evidence to the contrary,” he said.
Malice said the North Korean government’s control of information has “not collapsed, but enormously lessened” in recent years, despite their best efforts to the contrary.
“Many more people are refugees. When you had that famine in the Nineties, people guarding the borders, therefore, became bribeable. You could bribe these guards, cross the river to China, make some business in China come back, the guard gets his cut – and when you come back, you see what China is like. You get information,” he explained.
“It costs nothing to tell someone that you know something about the outside world,” he noted. “You have these refugees that are calling home in certain areas of North Korea, you have these black market cell phone dealers. You can call back to your family.”
“They’re growing very aware, to a large extent now, that the rest of the world is wealthier than they are, and the rest of the world has things like electricity, so the North Korean government has changed their propaganda from ‘We are rich and prosperous’ to ‘We are maintaining Korea and racial purity,’” said Malice.
“This is very under-reported in the West: North Korea is the most homogenous, but also the most racist, country in the world. They are obsessed with maintaining Korean racial purity,” he added.
Malice said foreign visitors are assigned at least two official “guides,” because “North Korea is a surveillance society.”
“Everyone is being watched by everybody else, all the time,” he said.
“We had two guides. I made it a point to get as close to my guide on a personal level as I could,” he related. “When I write books with people, co-author books with people, my job is to kind of get inside their head and learn how they think. I’m like, ‘I’m going to use those techniques on my guide and kind of break her down, even though she’s going to have suspicions about me coming from the outside world – which were actually warranted in this case, because you know I was there kind of undercover to write my book. You get to know these people, and the humanity is pervasive and profound. How could it be otherwise? The communist idea that we could all become robots is an absurdity.”
Malice remembered telling his guide that “talking to her reminded me of what my mom had been through in Russia, and she just stared at me and she said, ‘Oh, then your mother must have hated Russia.’”
“That was her little cue,” he explained. “The question I always grapple with, and I think a lot of people grapple with: is it better for someone who is a North Korean to know they’re in a giant prison, or would it be better for them to be blissfully unaware and think things are nice? So especially the powerful people, they know, and that makes it I think in a sense a bit more tragic.”
Malice said he used to recommend visiting North Korea because it is “absolutely fascinating and impossible to describe,” but no longer does so because of rising tensions and the death of American tourist Otto Warmbier.
“It was legal. Anyone could go. All you had to do was find one of the tour companies that go there. You have to fly to Beijing. There’s one flight in and out of North Korea every day. Some people also had the option of taking the train from China and basically seeing the countryside,” he said.
“The idea that it’s a ‘tour,’ it comes off as more ominous than it is,” he continued. “Anyone can go to, like, say, London and have a tour for a few days, and be shown around London by a tour company. That’s not particularly ominous.”
“The idea also that people have in the West that’s wrong is they think, ‘Oh, they take you to all these beautiful places and it’s all fake.’ You cannot hide the decay and corruption when you’re in North Korea,” he pointed out. “Every carpet has a stain, every one. Every wall has a crack. Everywhere I went – everywhere, including the airplane – there was a fly, which is some kind of Biblical symbol of evil. Wherever you look, you see something amiss.”
Malice talked about the state ideology of North Korea, which founder Kim Il-sung – grandfather of the current dictator Kim Jong-un – named “Juche.” He explained that Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il actually changed the name to “Songun,” which means “military first.”
“Their official state ideology means the military comes first, and but for the military, we wouldn’t have a government or a society,” he said, noting this ideology is “perfectly in line” with North Korea’s scramble to obtain nuclear missile technology.
Malice recalled an adventure chronicled in his book, where he sought the services of a North Korean tailor.
“In the hotel where you stay – there’s a hotel that was nicknamed ‘the Alcatraz of fun’ because the hotel is on an island, and you’re not allowed to leave voluntarily,” he began. “Shane Smith from Vice stayed at that hotel. Otto Warmbier stayed at that hotel. I think Shane and I stayed in the same room, actually.”
“In the lobby behind the elevators on that first floor, there is a sweatshop. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the people live in the hotel,” he continued.
“We were taking photos, and one of the people on the tour from Belgium, he had one of those old accordion cameras. I said, “Oh, you’re such a hipster.’ My guide says, ‘What does that mean?’ Now I have to sit here and try to explain the term ‘hipster’ to a North Korean. Fortunately, my friend had had a definition from years ago, which is a hipster is someone who likes things that are old-fashioned, simply because they’re old-fashioned. I explained it to her, and she’s like, ‘Okay, got it,’” Malice said.
“I go to the sweatshop with my guide, and they’re showing me different kinds of suits you can get made. There are these Western-style suits. I wanted that Mao suit, the People’s Suit from back in the day with the upturned collar. I say to the guy, ‘No, no, no, I want the suit like the Great Leader Kim Il-sung wore back in the Forties.’ And my guide goes, ‘Oh, hipster!’” he remembered with a chuckle.
“They measured me, and I had my custom suit. When I put it on, my guide looked at me, and she goes, ‘Oooh, you look good.’ So of course by wearing the People’s Suit it’s going to be attractive to her, looking like the Great Leader Kim Il-sung. It’s one of my most treasured possessions. And by the way, every time I’ve tried to wear it on Fox for no reason, just to be on a panel or something like that, I got a firm ‘no,’” he concluded.
Malice said there is “nothing about North Korea that isn’t weird because when you’re traveling, everything has been chosen, and it’s there for a reason.”
“You’re trying to find what’s analogous to your personal experience about it. Sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes you have no idea. We would go to some place when we were driving, and off the balcony there were these corn husks in the sunlight being dried. I don’t know what they were there for. I have no understanding,” he said.
“There was no prevention because everything was planned. It’s not like we were saying ‘hey, where are the concentration camps?’ They show you around. Some of the stuff is a lot more boring than others. Being good socialists, they took us to like the water bottling factory and to the maternity hospital, which they’re very proud of. At the same time, we were also the first Westerners to be able to ride in their amusement parks. So there were pluses and minuses,” said Malice.
He said there was nothing equivalent to a supermarket tourists can visit to see a slice of daily North Korean life, but he did get an opportunity to ride the public trains.
“There was a big rumor for a long time that some of these train strip stations don’t actually exist, but it turns out they’ve opened all of them now to the West,” he noted.
“We rode the train. Being a New Yorker, it was a very familiar experience to me. We had this bus that just drove around all of North Korea. You could see in Pyongyang they had these old, old buses. I think they had been imported from Hungary in the Fifties. They’d be packed to the brim with people, I guess going to work or going to wherever they were going to. It was fun – not fun in like ‘ha, ha,’ but it was interesting to watch them in these buses, and make eye contact, and have a little bit of communication with the people,” he recalled.
Malice said it was uncommon to encounter other groups of tourists while visiting North Korea, but described a “very funny interaction at the DMZ with some Russian tour groups.”
“I was born in the Soviet Union, and Russian was my first language,” he explained. “I heard a group of Russians talking to their tour guide in Russian, and I approached them. Very humorously, the Russian guy said to me, ‘Oh, you terrible American! You apologize to this North Korean lady and promise you’ll never do again what you did to her country!’”
He parenthetically noted there is a museum in North Korea dedicated to the Korean War.
“I said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, this will never happen again,’” he continued, remembering the North Korean guide’s amusingly straight-faced acceptance of his “obviously farcically humorous” apology.
“Even that Russian-speaking guy who spoke no English knew that it was complete B.S. that the Americans are her enemy. It was like the charade was exposed, even though she knew me for three seconds, it was such a telling interaction,” he said.
Marlow noted that the killing of Otto Warmbier naturally raised suspicions about the safety of touring North Korea, even with the assistance of long-established tour companies.
“I don’t know that it’s that different from being part of a group in any other country, particularly,” Malice replied. “These groups aren’t from the government. They are run by Westerners in partnership with the government. They actually have a bit of sway over how these tours are run.”
“The people who run the company told me that when they have the guides who are too propagandistic, and who are too ‘rah, rah, rah, North Korea!’ they’re like, ‘Eh, we don’t want to work with them.’ We want to work with the guides who are – they wouldn’t use these terms, of course – the guides who are more laid back, who are more cosmopolitan, who understand what’s up and know how to communicate,” he elaborated.
He recalled asking his North Korean tour guide to share some jokes, confident that humor would illustrate their shared humanity.
“We have this vision that everyone in North Korea is grim and depressed all the time,” Malice noted. “Coming from the Soviet Union as I do, one of the things people in the West need to realize is that when you’re in these dark situations, I imagine in literal prison as well, people have a sense of humor as a mechanism of coping with the reality.”
“One of the jokes my guide told me is: Son goes to his mother and says, ‘I don’t want to go to school today, and I can give you two good reasons: All the kids hate me, and all the teachers hate me.’ And the mother goes, ‘Son, you have to go to school today and I’ll give you two good reasons: You’re the principal, and you’re forty years old,’” he said.
“The other thing is that because of the hatred, the absolute hatred, that the North Koreans have for the Japanese people – I mean, it’s much worse than the contempt they have for Americans – so if you take any offensive joke you know and replace the punch line with Japanese, they will be on the floor in stitches,” he added.
Malice said his tour took him through the North Korean countryside and the demilitarized zone, past adults at work and children at play. He found that he himself was often the most exotic attraction on display.
“It’s such a homogenous country that for them to see Westerners, Caucasian people, their eyes pop open,” he said. “I made a point to wave at everyone and see their reaction.” He imagined children running off to school and reporting their encounter with him the way they might have talked about meeting an extraterrestrial.
“The people there, except for the young men in their track suits, are extremely friendly,” he testified. “Obviously, if you’ve never seen people who look like this before, it’s going to be extremely interesting. We were outside in Pyongyang, and there was a group of, I’d say, kindergarten-aged kids. They were all having a lesson with their teacher. They couldn’t help but turn their heads around and kind of peek at you. They wanted to see.”
Malice dismissed the notion of Pyongyang as a “fake” city, filled with soulless, humorless, robots, as “absurdly false.”
When Marlow asked what Malice thought was missing from Western press coverage of North Korea during the nuclear missile standoff, he recalled commentator Ben Stein recently arguing that if North Korea is “threatening the lives of millions of Americans,” then we should “go and give them everything we have” in battle. Malice responded to this line of thinking by encouraging listeners to think of North Korea’s civilian population as “25 million slaves.”
“Is that not one possible reason that we should pull out finger off the trigger?” he asked. “I mean, this is a nation full of hostages. When North Korea takes someone to prison, they take three generations of your family, and you don’t know who got you sent there. These are not some kind of covert jihadis. These are all hostages, and the one thing that people in the press don’t talk about is, what would be the cost of killing so many of these people?”
“I can understand even the argument that the cost is worth it,” he added. “But at the very least acknowledge that this is what’s going to happen.”
“They have concentration camps. You can see them on Google Earth. There’s a hundred to two hundred thousand people in these camps, and they are told explicitly and constantly if the U.S. imperialists – that’s how we are referred to – invade, we’re going to kill you all and burn these camps down. I don’t hear anyone expressing any concern over this, and that’s mind-boggling to me,” Malice declared.
When Marlow asked if he had seen the concentration camps for himself, Malice replied that North Korea’s “diabolical” and “pure evil” government insists it doesn’t have any… because it refuses to use the term “concentration camp” to describe them.
Malice said he would be happy to advise the White House on North Korea if asked. Meanwhile, he encouraged all parties to “take a deep breath.”
“The fact that you have so many pundits urging the president to war immediately – during the campaign it was, ‘Donald Trump is going to provoke a nuclear war,’ and now it’s like, ‘Oh, he made a red line, he’d better see it through!’ No, no, no. Rex Tillerson has been great on this issue, and some of the other generals in the White House have been great. They have all openly acknowledged, unlike during the Iraq War, this would be a disaster guaranteed if we went military,” he said.
“They’re recognizing the cost. They’re recognizing we have to do this with China’s help. We can put pressure on China because they’re the ones that are going to have to deal with 25 million refugees who don’t speak Chinese,” he pointed out.
Malice anticipated a slow process ahead but saw hopeful signs of progress.
“Despite this military amping up, the fact that the international community is coming together and realizing okay, this is a problem, and this is a problem where war is an absolute last resort, this is a good path to go on,” he said.
In addition to the horrendous North Korean civilian casualties that would result from a full-scale conflict, Malice noted that Seoul lies within range of North Korea’s conventional weapons.
“Even if they didn’t have nukes, the idea of a city of skyscrapers being hit by missiles – I mean, people are familiar with the movie ‘Independence Day,’ this would be happening in real life. The visuals of that would be mind-boggling and horrific,” he warned.
Malice concluded by expressing gratitude for the attention his work has received.
“The press is starting to come around to my perspective that this isn’t a carnival, that this is actually a horror show and the worst place on Earth,” he said.
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Listen to the full audio of the interview above.