Brazil fascinated by mysterious North Korea

Brazil fascinated by mysterious North Korea

Brazilians often look for stories about North Korea on the internet. One reason is a mutual entrenched distrust of the US. Researchers have been trying to dig a little deeper to find out more about the phenomenon.

The headlines that usually catch Brazilians' attention are various corruption scandals, acts of urban violence and football results. But at the moment there is one topic of unexpectedly high interest: North Korea.

Since the most communist regime in the world has been causing uproar with its continued nuclear weapons testing, the Brazilians are amongst the people who do the most Google searches for information about North Korea.

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A young leader

Kim Il Sung, the first and "eternal" president of North Korea, took power in 1948 with the support of the Soviet Union. The official calendar in North Korea begins with his birth year, 1912, designating it "Juche 1" after the state's Juche ideology. He was 41 when, as shown here, he signed the 1953 armistice that effectively ended the Korean War.

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Hero worship

In the years and decades after the war, Pyongyang's propaganda machine worked hard to weave a mythical narrative around Kim Il Sung. His childhood and the time he spent fighting Japanese troops in the 1930s were embellished to portray him as an unrivaled military and political genius. At the 1980 party congress, Kim announced he would be succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il.

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Ruling to the end

In 1992, Kim Il Sung started writing and publishing his memoirs, entitled "Reminiscences: With the Century." Describing his childhood, the North Korean leader claims that he first joined an anti-Japanese rally at 6 years old and became involved with the independence struggle at 8. The memoirs remained unfinished at Kim Il Sung's death in 1994.

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In his father's footsteps

After spending years in the top tiers of the regime, Kim Jong Il took power after his father's death. Kim Jong Il's 16-year rule was marked by famine and economic crisis in an already impoverished country. However, the cult of personality surrounding him and his father, Kim Il Sung, grew even stronger.

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Rising star

Historians outside North Korea believe Kim Jong Il was born in a military camp in eastern Russia, most likely in 1941. However, the leader's official biography claims it happened on the sacred Korean mountain Paektu, exactly 30 years after his father, on April 15, 1942. A North Korean legend says the birth was blessed by a new star and a double rainbow.

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Family trouble

Kim Jong Il had three sons and two daughters with three different women. This 1981 photo shows Kim Jong Il sitting besides his son Kim Jong Nam, with his sister-in-law and her two children in the background. Kim Jong Nam was eventually assassinated in 2017.

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Grooming a successor

In 2009, Western media reported that Kim Jong Il had picked his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to take over as the head of the regime. The two appeared together at a military parade on 2010, a year before Kim Jong Il passed away.

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Together

According to Pyongyang, the death of Kim Jong Il in 2011 was marked by a series of mysterious events. State media reported that ice snapped loudly at a lake on the Paektu mountain during a sudden snowstorm, with a glowing message appearing on the rocks. After Kim Jong Il's death, a 22-meter (72-foot) statue of him was erected next to the one of his father (l.) in Pyongyang.

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Mysterious past

Kim Jong Un mostly stayed out of the spotlight before his ascent to power. His exact age is disputed, but he is believed to have been born between 1982 and 1984. He was reportedly educated in Switzerland. In 2013, he surprised the world by meeting with former NBA star Dennis Rodman in Pyongyang.

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A new cult

Like the leaders before him, Kim Jong Un is hallowed by the state's totalitarian regime. In 2015, South Korean media reported about a new teacher's manual in the North that claimed Kim Jong Un could drive at the age of 3. In 2017, state media said that a monument to the young leader would be build on Mount Paektu.

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A Kim with a hydrogen bomb

Altough Kim took power at a younger age and with less of a public profile than his father and grandfather, he has managed to maintain his grip on power. The assassination of his half-brother Kim Jong Nam in 2017 served to cement his reputation abroad as a merciless dictator. The North Korean leader has also vastly expanded the country's nuclear arsenal.

This huge level of interest has brought an unexpected turn to Thiago Mattos Moreira's life. An expert in international relations, he is currently completing his final year in this field at the Hanyang University in the South Korean capital, Seoul. Now Mattos, who is a researcher at the University of Rio de Janeiro, is in demand as a public speaker.

"People want to know what life in North Korea is really like, whether the country really will be able to start World War III, or if they are just interested in Korean culture."

Brazilian stability in danger

Of course, Brazilians also want to know how such a small country is able to challenge the US, which is the world's biggest military power. And how they can engage in a "classic conflict" scenario, as described by Paulo Watanabe, Professor for International Security at the Sao Paulo State University. This is where one country directly threatens another, a form of conflict that has not been seen since the end of the Cold War, he believes.

China Xiamen BRICS-Treffen Narendra Modi und Xi Jinping

Brazil's Michel Temer (far right) at a BRICS meeting, where North Korea was a hot topic

"In recent years, North Korea is the country that has most clearly challenged American power, " says Watanabe. "By conducting these tests, they want to show that they are on the same level as the US."

Read more: North Korea: Germany, China back peaceful dialogue

Audios and videos on the topic

A war would mean the end of one of the countries, probably North Korea. And it would have a direct effect on the whole world, stresses Watanabe. "Above all, it would have an impact on the Chinese economy," Watanabe explains, which he says is the "center of world trade and certainly the most important partner for Brazilian foreign trade." It means the stability of the Brazilian economy is also at stake.

Binary logic

But is this the reason for the Brazilians' excessive interest in this issue? Claudia Marconi, political scientist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo, believes there is another explanation. She thinks that many of her compatriots would recognize a kind of binary logic in such a conflict: Democracy pitted against a dictatorship, rationality versus irrationality, globalization versus isolation, capitalism versus communism.

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"At the moment, this kind of polarization is strongly reflected in Brazilian society," says Marconi. As an example, she recalls the huge protests in 2015 against the leftist ex-president, Dilma Rousseff, where the conservatives called on leftist supporters to "Go to Cuba!"

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The conflict of fear

Psychologist José Paulo Fiks is a trauma researcher at the Federal University of Sao Paulo. He sees yet another aspect in the fascination with North Korea: It reminds him of the fear of a nuclear strike he experienced in Europe during the Cold War era in the 1980s.

According to Fiks' assessment there are no traumatic memories of war in Brazil, as there are in North Korea. Apparently the trauma ofthe military dictatorship (1964 to 1985) has also very much faded away. It appears that Brazilians are indeed trying to understand what is happening inside the isolated universe of North Korea.

The Brazilians actual fear is more triggered by daily life. "Our brains' receptors and alarm systems are more directed at Brazilian reality. They are directed at the daily violence that is more present in the streets of South America than anywhere else in the world. "

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No best friends forever

Although China and North Korea have maintained close diplomatic relations in the past, the relationship has declined in recent years. Unprecedented border controls on the south of the Jilin Province in China reflect the atmosphere: Apart from passports, travelers must hand in all their devices and luggage for an exhaustive, lengthy inspection.

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Bridge over troubled water

Despite all the restrictions, a viable connection to China is vital for North Korea. A new bridge over the Yalu river, which divides the two countries, is supposed to replace the derelict Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge that covers 70 percent of all bilateral trade. Construction on the North Korean side has stopped due to lack of finance in spite of Chinese private investments.

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Sitting on the fence

North Hamgyong Province, which borders with Russia and China, was hit by massive flooding last year that damaged or washed away barbed wire fences that prevent North Koreans from defecting or smuggling goods. It did not take long for the local administration to start building new fences and deploying guards to the border areas who are under orders to shoot any possible defectors on site.

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Home, sweet home

The number of North Korean defectors has been decreasing for several years in a row, but it is still a sensitive subject for the regime. The photo above shows a South Korean television celebrity Lim Ji Hyun (Jeon Hye Song by her real name) who returned to North Korea under suspicious circumstances and made a public statement in July on the local propaganda TV channel about the "hell in the South."

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Catch me if you can

Many North Korean defectors return to their country after their families are detained or blackmailed. Following a recent report, the regime has dispatched agents to border regions in China to locate and kidnap defectors. The abduction teams stay in the Jiangbin International Hotel and Life's Business Hotel in Dandong, the release stated.

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An amusement park gone wrong

Even though it is impossible for its inhabitants to leave North Korea, the country invites foreign tourists to discover the many attractions of the country. The official North Korean travel agency even launched its international website in August, offering trips to various parts of North Korea and even theme tours focused on architecture, biking, sports or - as cynically as it sounds - labor.

The level of fear differs between Brazil's social classes: The richer people are, the more secure they tend to feel, because they are better able to protect themselves, says the psychologist. But a nuclear disaster reduces those differences, and people suddenly realize they could all be victims to the same extent. "And this is a fear that many Brazilians cannot escape," says Fiks.