For decades, North Korea has operated more like a national cult than a country. Dictator Kim Il Sung, known as the Great Leader, who was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Il (the "Dear Leader"), created one of the most isolated and eccentric cultures in the world. The few visitors allowed into the country are usually struck by how clean, how controlled and how eerily quiet it is. It's like a country held in suspended animation.
North Korea has been governed by Kim Il Sung's credo of self-reliance—the Juche Idea. Always an elusive goal (North Korea's existence has relied heavily on the largesse of other Communist and post-Communist countries), the collapse of its donor base has led to a series of hardships and setbacks that undermine its defiant isolation. Its economy has been in free fall, and its agriculture in crisis, aggravated by floods followed by drought. For much of the mid-1990s, the country was on the brink of mass starvation, but it seems the worst of the famine that may have killed more than 2 million people is over.
North Korea is the least-visited country in the world, with around 1,500 Westerners traveling there annually. Any sort of independent tourism is impossible as all visitors must have Korean guides with them at all times and have their itineraries predetermined. Even prior to its present miseries, only the most curious and adventurous travelers wanted to experience the bleak, gray culture perpetuated by the Great Leader and his son, which stands in surreal contrast to the country's rugged natural beauty.
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