North Korea may be viewed by many as the sad clown of international politics, but the threat it poses is very real. Could the next major conflict be ignited by a young despot with a fetish for Nike trainers and basketball? Sean Williams investigates Kim Jong-un, Earth’s most infamous pariah

Pyongyang Racer is North Korea’s first video game. The aim is to drive around the capital city’s empty main road passing tourist sites and fighting a fast-depleting fuel supply. Errant turns are met with a stern warning – “Go back! Or else…” – while a slip off the street is simply erased. Not that mistakes are easy to make, as your pixelated ride has a pedestrian top speed. As glimpses into the world’s strangest nation go, Pyongyang Racer is a telling one.

It can be hard to take North Korea, the East Asian pariah state, seriously. News ranges from the ridiculous (“Ancient unicorn lair discovered beneath Pyongyang”) to the chilling (“Seoul to become ‘Sea of Fire’”). But everything in North Korea is utter madness. And with its latest despot at the helm, the small nation has turned its crazy up to 11 and could be on the brink of a catastrophic war.

It rains a lot in North Korea, a mess of mountains and hilly hinterlands. Sometimes the millions who work in fields for identical state wages run out of fuel. Trucks and machinery give way to beasts of burden and contraptions so old they look like they’ve been lifted from a museum display. Sometimes, during the rainier days, seas of farm hands will drop to their knees and salvage single grains of rice. It’s the same in factory production, and, you suspect, far worse for the country’s estimated 200,000 prisoners, some of whom stay locked up in terrifying gulags for their whole lives.

Many are starving to death in a growing famine that echoes 1997’s ‘Arduous March’ in which up to 3.5m (of 24m) perished. Some have resorted to eating their own children (who had already passed away). North Koreans, on average, stand three inches shorter than their southern neighbours.

But Kim Jong-un has other, more caustic, worries. In recent weeks his rhetoric has stepped up from fiery to all-out whizz-bang insanity. He has declared war with South Korea and the US, reopened a nuclear facility and, bizarrely, threatened a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the US island territory of Guam (although the tiny militarised spot is barely within range of North Korea’s most potent missile, the Musudan).

North Korea is said to have up to a dozen nuclear weapons. It doesn’t, currently, have the technology to put them on rockets. “Kim Jong-il never threatened the US mainland with nuclear strikes,” says expert Hannes Hanso. “The rhetoric has to be taken more seriously than before.” Some already think Kim has crossed a point of no return. Even China, the North’s only ally, has cooled on its commitments to Kim, allowing economic sanctions that are hitting his regime hard.

Kim Jong-un wasn’t much of a brainbox at school. Educated in snowy Switzerland, where he was known by friends as ‘Pak Un’, the young boy developed a taste for American treats that seems incongruous with his current anti-US vitriol. A penchant for pricey Nike trainers and fancy gadgets was twinned with a profound love of basketball that culminated in a visit, this year, by former Chicago Bulls player Dennis Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters.

His father, Kim Jong-il, also had a fetish for opulence: his movie collection was 20,000 strong, and he had live lobsters airlifted to his private armoured train while on official visits. “Lifestyle issues are very different from policy, though,” says Hanso. “An Apple computer and a basketball star friend do not mean North Korea will be friendly to the West.”


But on December 17, 2011, Kim Jong-il, who himself had inherited the North Korean helm from his own father and founder of the country, Kim Il-sung, died. Suddenly the young man with apparatchik overalls and hipster hairdo deliberately chosen so as not to conform with North Korea’s 28 state-sanctioned styles (wearing jeans is also a crime) was thrust into the global spotlight. And things have been a lot different since. As well as the bluster, Kim has admitted that his closed economy is failing, something his father would never have done. But while his talk is scary, general opinion is that he is saying what he is to keep his people in check.

A military victory, even with North Korea’s 1.1m-strong active army (the world’s largest), would be impossible: fuel would be gone within weeks, and many of the army’s 4,200 tanks and 820 fighter jets are rusting old Soviet junk. “The North Korean leadership will know that their army is hopelessly outdated and no match for a modern fighting force,” says Hanso. “The threats are targeted at his own generals.”

The view in America is, predictably, bemused. But perhaps surprisingly, most commentators have thus far avoided advocating conflict with Kim and his giant army. The US is historically no slouch when it comes to confrontation. If Kim Jong-un values his survival, and that of North Korea, he, like Pyongyang Racer’s interminably bored chauffeur, should try staying on the straight and narrow. Otherwise the world’s weirdest dictator could find himself erased as quickly as a simple wrong turn.