Every single home in this country has two portraits on the wall, one of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, who is still president even though he died 11 years ago, and one of his son, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. Inspectors regularly visit homes to make sure the portraits are well cared for.
Every subway car carries those same two portraits as well, and every adult wears a button depicting the Great Leader. And every home (or village, in rural areas) has an audio speaker, which starts broadcasting propaganda at 6 each morning to tell people how lucky they are.
Children spend long hours in day care centers from the age of 6 months, sometimes returning to their parents only on weekends. Men normally perform seven or more years of military service. Disabled people are sometimes expelled from Pyongyang, a green and well-groomed capital that is one of the prettiest in Asia, because they are considered unsightly.
And although the national ideology is juche, or self-reliance, the U.N. World Food Program feeds 6.5 million North Koreans, almost one-third of the population. Even so, hunger is widespread and has left 37 percent of the children stunted.
Yet North Korea focuses its resources on prestige projects, like an amazing 10-lane highway to Nampo (with no traffic).
Many conservatives in and out of the Bush administration assume that North Korea's population must be seething and that the regime must be on its last legs. Indeed, the Bush administration's policy on North Korea, to the extent that it has one, seems to be to wait for it to collapse.
I'm afraid that could be a long, long wait. The central paradox of North Korea is this: No government in the world today is more brutal or has failed its people more abjectly, yet it appears to be in solid control and may even have substantial popular support.
From a brief visit like mine, it's hard to gauge the mood, because anyone who criticizes the government risks immediate arrest. But Chinese and other foreigners I've spoken to who live in North Korea or visit regularly say they believe that most North Koreans buy into the system, just as ordinary Chinese did during the Maoist period.
Likewise, over the years I've interviewed dozens of North Koreans who have fled to China or South Korea, and they overwhelmingly say that while they personally dislike the regime - that's why they fled - their relatives believe in the Kim dynasty with a quasi-religious faith. They say that when everyone is raised to worship the Dear Leader, when there are no contrary voices, people genuinely revere the leader.
Most say the faith is not as strong as it was a dozen years ago, mostly because so many people have heard whispers of Chinese prosperity. But they still laugh at the idea that the Dear Leader is about to be toppled.
"I think we'll have regime change in America before we have regime change in North Korea," says Han Park, a Korea specialist at the University of Georgia. He estimates that 30 percent of North Koreans have a stake in the system, and that most of the rest know so little about the outside world that they don't realize how badly off they are.
A hermetic seal is the main reason the Kim dynasty has survived so long. When I arrived at Pyongyang airport, I was obliged to hand over my cellphones and satellite phones, to be picked up on my departure. Even many senior government officials have no access to the Internet.
From the moment I landed at the airport, I kept trying to change money. But the airport refused, my hotel refused and shops refused. Foreigners are supposed to pay for everything only in foreign currency and be isolated from the local economy. (Finally, a friendly Korean official - they were all surprisingly friendly, with unexpectedly good senses of humor - gave me a few coins as souvenirs for my children.)
If the American policy premise about North Korea - that it is near collapse - is highly dubious, our essential policy approach is even more so. The West should be trying to break that hermetic seal, to increase interactions with North Korea and to infiltrate into North Korea the most effective subversive agents we have: overweight Western business executives.
Instead, we maintain sanctions, isolate North Korea and wait indefinitely for the regime to collapse. I'm afraid we're helping the Dear Leader stay in power.