When I started studying north Korea it was the early 1990s, and few were paying attention. Nobody paid attention then, and few pay attention now to the horrors of the totalitarian slave state that it has been for over 60 years. The name - Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) - says much in itself. Governments that use names to deliver messages about how utterly devoted they are to "the people" are naturally quite the opposite.
The adjectives thrown about by the mainstream don't do justice to the place. Stalinist? No, the extent and efficiency of the cultural revolution, the rewritten history and the personal cult far exceed that of Stalin, and it has now gone into two subsequent generations. Dictatorship? That bland term doesn't really highlight the totality of control in the DPRK. Life there is under constant surveillance. Totalitarian? The DPRK should be the dictionary definition of it.
Much of the media coverage of the place focuses on how amusing it is to have a strongman leader, legions of soldiers goosestepping, and now how it is a bit of joke that he threatens to attack the United States. Yet the DPRK isn't that funny for those living there.
Virtually nobody has internet access, access to foreign television broadcasts or even foreign radio broadcasts. Beyond an elite in the tens of thousands, the entire view of the country is based on state propaganda, and what others tell them.
There is exposure to foreign culture, music and movies, although most of that comes from illegal south Korean DVDs, which only a few can play.
However, none of the kitsch and strangeness of the DPRK really shows off what life there is about.
There is no free speech. It is illegal to write anything that is critical of the state, party, military or the Kim family in any way. There is no independent media or press of any kind.
However, this lack of free speech goes much further than writing or media, for it means speech. You wont want to say anything political or even raise doubts about your political correctness, because every week you go to sessions of self and community criticism. There you announce what you did wrong this week and then point out the same of one of your fellow citizens.
Beyond that you're not safe, as every workplace has a political cadre and teenagers and other young people may be affiliated with the various Red Guard movements. They can report you to the various secret police, and you can be taken away, questioned, interrogated and tortured.
You see your life is not private, at all. There is no private home or land ownership. So you don't have the right to not have anyone enter "your" home, or to not be bugged. There is almost no private sphere, although reports in recent years indicate that money can buy acquiescence.
You can't challenge the official media, and cannot freely talk about what you think, you can't even travel freely as all cities and towns have border guards. You need to have an internal passport and permission to travel, so your town or city is your world - literally.
Of course the real horror, besides day to day living in a country where the state constantly lies to you, where you can't leave, you live in a home that isn't legally yours in any meaningful way and can't say what you want, is what happens if you are found guilty of a political crime.
You go to a gulag. A gulag modelled on Stalin's gulags. You work seven days a week, from dawn to dusk, sleeping on hard bunks, unheated, fed water and watery gruel (only surviving on catching insects, mice, rats), as a slave. At best.
At worst, you become target practice for soldiers, or used for medical experiments, or experiments for new weapons. If you're a woman, you may be raped, repeatedly.
However, it isn't just about you. Your parents, your spouse, your grandparents, your siblings and your children, and their children, would also go to the gulag. Children from babies up, children put into their own gulag, where they too face being slaves, being tortured, being abused, starved and existing no better than a Nazi concentration camp.
So just think a little about that.
You see what Kim Jong Un is trying to do is preserve this system.
If he has delusions of power, he will think he can attack the Republic of Korea or US military targets and get away with it.
However, it is far more likely that he is showing off to the military, the same military that tried to overthrow his father, before he purged it. Now he has been purging the military again, but what is key to him retaining power (with the tutelage of his aunt, Kim Kyong Hui) is to convince the senior military leaders that he has their interests at heart.
Their interests are in continuing to suck 30-40% of GDP into the military, into being able to engage in black market trading with the outside world and to be able to buy the luxury goods they want.
However, to maintain a large military you need to maintain a large threat. Keeping that illusion up is in the interests of the DPRK military-industrial complex, and in a totalitarian state, it is in the interests of Kim Jong Un as well. He needs a military that will maintain the gulags, that will sustain the totalitarian state where everyone is everyone else's, and nothing is private.