How North Korea Works

The Hermit Kingdom
North Korean soldiers march during a mass military parade at Kim Il Sung square to mark the 70th anniversary of its ruling Worker's Party of Korea on Oct. 10, 2015. Liu Xingzhe/VCG via Getty Images

Under Kim Il Sung and his successors, the North Korean regime has gone to great lengths to maintain complete control of North Korean society. Political activity, labor unions and independent news media aren't allowed. Radios and TV are pre-tuned to government-controlled stations, and the regime jams foreign broadcasts in an effort to prevent North Koreans from getting information from the outside world.

It's a place where people live in fear of being arrested arbitrarily and tortured by the regime. Some prisoners are executed in grisly public spectacles that the government uses to keep the population docile. Others are sent to join the 80,000 to 120,000 people in the country's network of forced labor camps. In some cases, three generations of family members are sent to these camps to atone for the "sins" of one person [sources: Human Rights Watch, Phillips].

The North Korean regime rules the lives of its citizens so totally that it even dictates what hairstyles they can wear. Women are permitted to choose one of 14 approved styles. Young men are barred from growing their hair longer than 5 centimeters (a little less than 2 inches), while older males are allowed to grow their hair to 7 centimeters (3 inches) [source: Subramanian].

Because of the regime's paranoia about being attacked, North Korea maintains a huge military for its size, with 1.2 million full-time service members and another 7.7 million reservists for a population of 25 million [source: McCafferty]. By contrast, South Korea has 655,000 soldiers and a population of 50 million.

Every Oct. 10 — the anniversary of the founding of the North Korean communist party —the regime stages an immense parade, in which hundreds of trucks and armored vehicles and tens of thousands of soldiers march through the capital city of Pyongyang in an elaborately choreographed demonstration of the nation's military might. In addition to promoting nationalist fervor, it's a show apparently intended to deter the regime's perceived enemies.