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68. A Pig in a Poke in North Korea Just the Other Day

MAR 9, 2023


In this episode Pete and Ryan discover a country veiled in mystery – North Korea. In an episode where nothing is quite what it seems, discover peculiar prankshows with a shocking punchline, the devastating consequences of making fun of a North Korean leader, and the little-known member of the Kim family whose love for Disney brought nothing but disaster.

This episode covered North Korea, also known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea also also known as the DPRK.

North Korea is the northern half of the Korean Peninsula with China and Russia to the north and South Korea to the South, perhaps unsurprisingly.

It’s about 120,000 square kilometres (46,000 square miles) with a population of about 26million people.

North Korea is an "independent socialist state" which means it holds elections, which at first were won by a man named Kim Il Sung, but later when he died they were won by Kim Jong Il, who just happened to be the son of Kim Ill Sung.

But after he died, the democratic wheels turned again and found a new top dog – one Kim Jong Un, who in an astonishing coincidence was the son of Kim Jong Il.

There are critics that suggest it is not as democractic as it claims.

In North Korea, they don’t follow the same timeline as Western countries. In 1997North Korea decided it was going to start its calendar at zero, starting from when Kim Il Sung was born - in 1912. So in North Korea it’s currently the year 112. But this is only for years after 1912. Any years before are given in the western manner.


North Korea is not exactly the land of do-as-you-please. In fact, life is strictly regimented. For example, there are only 28 state-approved haircuts. The rules say men’s hair should be kept between 1-5 cm in length, with recommended haircuts every 15 days.

Women are allowed to choose from one of 14 slightly longer styles. Spiked hairstyles are banned, and let’s not even think about highlights.

But if all this is confusing you, you can get more information from the entertaining and informative five-part television series "Let's trim our hair in accordance with the socialist lifestyle." Gripping stuff.

History of North Korea

The Neolithic period began after 6000 BCE, then a Bronze Age at 2000 BCE and an iron age in 700 BCE.

This was followed by an early kingdom known as Gojoseon or early Joseon. Then, from 57BCE to 668CE there are what is known as the Three Kingdoms of Korea, which then transform into the Later Three Kingdoms of Korea, which seems like something of a failure of imagination.

Then there was a period called Goryeo which saw the spread of Buddhism, and the rise of a civil service, somewhat interrupted by the arrival of Mongols in the 13th century.

In 1392 the Joseon dynasty was established, not to be confused with the early Joseon period. This period saw a number of interesting developments, including the creation of Hangul, the Korean writing system.

A couple of centuries of general peace followed, only to be rudely interrupted by the Japanese, who were beaten off with the help of Ming Dynasty China, but an experience which caused Korea to take an isolationist turn.

This included refusing to modernise in the 19th Century when things elsewhere were generally globalising and industrialising.

Then just as they were starting to realise reform might actually be a good idea, the Japanese showed up again. And in greater numbers.

In 1910 Japan annexed Korea and from then until 1945 Korea was actually a colony of Japan.

Japan was not a kind occupier. They implemented a policy of Japanisation – essentially trying to wipe out Koreanness. Citizens were required to take new, Japanese names instead of their own Korean names, the Korean language was suppressed and it was a crime to teach history from anything other than approved textbooks.

But of course this endee in 1945 when Japan found itself on the losing side of the second world war.

But there wasn’t to be much peace for Korea, which fell immediately into – the cold war.

Korea became divided into a Northern area in the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union and a Southern part which was ‘looked after’ by the United States, a situation which solidified in 1938 as the two areas formally became separate countries, divided at the 38th Parallel and an area of tension for cold war watchers.

Things went from cold to hot when the leader of North Korea himself, Kim Il Sung, in 1950 decided to try to reunite North and South by means of an invasion.

The subsequent war went on for three years, with China and the Soviet Union supporting the North and a United Nations force that was heavily dominated by American troops fighting with the South.

The end result was that nobody won and we still have North and South Korea today – with Korea becoming kind of a sliding doors country – the South chose to liberalise the economy and make catchy pop tunes and compelling Netflix drama, whilst the North “chose” authoritarianism, a massively militarised country, and a cult of personality surrounding its leaders.

The first of these was Kim Il Sung, who ruled until 1994 and was followed by his son Kim Jong Il. He was proclaimed "eternal President of the Republic" in 1998, although eternal proved to be a bit optimistic as in 2011 he died, and the baton was passed to his son Kim Jong Un, who remains in power to this day.

In fairness, at the start it was North Korea who performed better – supported by the Soviet Union in particular, but in the 1990s the fall of the Soviet Union saw North Korea lose a major sponsor and a lot of money.

This was compounded by flooding that triggered a terrible famine in the country, forcing the notoriously reclusive country in 1995 to formally request aid from the international community.

This was not the start of a general opening-up. Today, it’s still a secretive country, spending massive amounts of money on its military in a policy known as military-first. It is not a well developed country in many ways.

There is a lack of reliable electricity, even in the capital and a famous image of the country is the night-time satellite picture of the area which shows China and South Korea brilliantly illuminated by a web of city lights, and then a dark, almost empty spot where North Korea is.

And although you can visit North Korea – not right now, it closed its borders at the start of the COVID pandemic and has not opened them since, but even if you did visit, you’d see… only what they wanted you to see really, you’re not allowed to wander around on your own and you will almost certainly find people reluctant to talk to you, as talking with a foreigner could get them in a lot of trouble, living as they do in one of the most strictly controlled societies on Earth, where blue jeans are illegal, the vast majority of people are not allowed to access the internet, most people don’t have computers and most people lack electricity to run them a lot of the time anyway.

As for phone calls, a sim card will only allow you to make calls in the country – no international phone calls are allowed.

And this is just a small selection of the strict rules that dominate the lives of the people of North Korea.

Pig in a Poke

The phrase “Pig in a poke” refers to a pig (self explanatory) in a poke, or sack, a word taken from the French pocque (indeed you might have a small bag, a pocquette). This derivation can also be seen in the word “pouch”.

The idea was that a merchant would sell piglets in sacks, or pokes. The catch being, when a customer bought their pig, without actually looking in the sack, when they got home and opened the bag, instead of a tasty piglet, a much-less-valuable chicken, or cat or something would jump out.

In other words, check the goods before you buy something.

One of the earliest references to this is the Poverbs of Hendyng from the around 1275CE in which he advises “Wan man ȝevit þe a pig, opin þe powch.”

This is apparently not such a specific problem as it sounds as languages around the world seem to have a similar expression. Estonian, Irish and Zulu all have the expression “pig in a sack”. Indonesian, Hungarian and Hebrew all have “cat in the bag” which of course we also see in ‘letting the cat out of the bag’ in English. The Portuguese say to “buy a cat instead of a hare’ and the maltese say “to buy fish in the sea.”

And of course, we use it in English, including Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State who used it in 2018 when he said he would not buy a pig in a poke when negotiating the denuclearisation of North Korea – he meant he would not just believe facililties were destroyed, he would send in investigators to confirm it.

It’s just a prank bro

Siti Aisya was a young Indonesian woman, from a small village, who left school at 12 and by 17, was married and soon after, had a child as well.

The marriage broke down and she left the child with her parents to head off to the big city to find her fortune, as so many young women before her have done.

Eventually, she finds herself in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur where she crossed paths with a man claiming to be Japanese, who called himself James and who tells Siti she has star quality.

He tells her he can make her famous.

The job was for a prankshow on youtube. He says if she does things for the show, he’ll film it and each time he’ll give her one hundred dollars.

She agrees. It’s a hundred dollars after all.

She does the first jobs, in which she’s asked to approach men at random in the local mall, smear baby oil on them, then apologise and walk away.

She does it, and she duly receives a hundred dollars.

Over a few weeks she performs a few more of these pranks, in malls and in sometimes in Kuala Lumpur airport. Each time the prank is the same – smear some baby oil or lotion on an unsuspecting person’s face, apologise, walk away, collect a hundred dollars.

She figures she must be doing well because she is now flown to Cambodia to meet another producer called Mr Chang.

She continues to do jobs for him in Pnom Penh and Kuala Lumpur and he is pleased.

In fact one day, he comes to her and says ‘I’ve got a job for you that is going to make you famous’.

This job is slightly different. There is a specific person in mind for the smearing and she’s told she’ll be working with another actress for the prank.

The man is a big boss from the company, she’s told, and might not find it so funny, so you’d be best to get away quickly after this one.

Then the day of the big, career making job arrives - the 13th February, 2017.

Siti meets Mr Chang in Kuala Lumpur airport and he pours some liquid onto her hands from a hotel shampoo bottle – it’s the same prank as before – just rub the liquid on him.

She walks up to the man and, just as she is about to reach him, another woman closes in and rubs liquid into his face.

This must be the other actress. She follows and do the same, as instructed, hurrying away and nipping into the washroom to scrub the liquid off her hands.

She goes off for a bit of shopping before heading back to her hotel.

Unfortunately for Siti, she bought a pig in a poke with the prankshow job, because there was, in fact, no prankshow.

Her contacts were believed to be North Korean agents, and the liquid that was on her hands was called Venomous Agent X - a fast-acting and deadly nerve agent.

The man she smeared with the liquid, a man named on his passport as Kim Chol, a North Korean citizen, was dead about 20 minutes after she touched him.

She thought she was getting a job as a prank show host, she got a job as a hired killer.

It’s important to note, though that the government of North Korea denies any involvement in the death of Kim Chol.

Hack attack!

It’s 2014, one of the films set to be released by Sony is a comedy by Seth Rogen in which two journalists on a talk show who are trying to show they are a serious news outfit manage to arrange an interview with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

The CIA come along and suggest they use the opportunity to assassinate the head of state.

High jinks ensue, there’s some back and forth about whether Kim Jong Un is in fact A Bad Man, but in any event, at the end the movie, Kim Jong Un, leader of North Korea has been killed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the government of North Korea was incensed by this depiction of their sitting head of state being murdered - in North Korea, nobody is even allowed to portray Kim Jong Un, let alone see him assassinated on film.

In fact the North Koreans send a letter to the UN describing the film and the United States government’s allowing it as “Undisguised sponsoring of terrorism as well as an act of war.”

But they did much more than that, allegedly.

On Monday November 24th when staff came into work, instead of the usual booting up of the computer when it was turned on, everyone got an image of a creepy skeleton and the words “hacked by GOP” “Guardians of Peace” adding “We’ve obtained all your internal data including your secrets and top secrets.

It transpires that for two months, possibly for even longer, malware released by the North Koreans had gained access to Sony computer systems and had been crawling though Sony’s network, stealing information.

But that’s not all. The hackers then start emailing reporters directly with information gained by the hack, all aimed at embarrassing Sony and costing them money.

They directly leak other info, including the full movies of Brad Pitt’s Fury and Annie and they release commercially sensitive information such as staff and stars’ pay and Sony executives embarrassing emails.

Then, it got worse: The Guardians of Peace released a new message: “Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made. The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.”

After that, the film was pulled from most cinemas that did not want to threaten all the other movies they were showing because of risk of showing one.

All this is believed to be the work of a hacking operation known by various names, including Guardians of Peace and The Lazarus Group.

But this hacking group isn’t just a gang of teenagers in their parents basement, this is a group believed, by the FBI at least, and many others, to be an official, nationally supported effort, run by none other than the North Korean state itself.

The group is described by the FBI as “a group of hackers of the North Korean government’s Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB)… that some private cybersecurity researchers have labeled the “Lazarus Group” and Advanced Persistent Threat 38 (APT38).

The Lazarus Group is also believed to have been behind the Wannacry virus as well as a frankly mind-boggling attempt to electronically steal a billion dollars from the Bank of Bangladesh. All pretty remarkable for a country with barely any computers or even electricity.

It’s important to note, though that the North Korean government denies any involvement in the hack, or with the Lazarus group.

The Korean Leader who never was

Kim Jong Il was the leader of North Korea and son of Kim Il Sung, but he was not the eldest son. That distinction went to someone named Kim Jong Nam.

Born in 1971 to Kim Jong Il, and a leading actress at the North Korea Film Studio called Song Hye Rim, unfourtnately she was married at the time, but not to Kim Jong Il.

It’s said that Kim Jong Il truly loved his son but in socially conservative North Korea he was kept a secret - so instead of being paraded around as the son of the leader, he was hidden away, home schooled by his aunt.

After spending a while in PyongYang with his mother’s relatives, he was packed away to Moscow when he was 8 years old.

This started an international education that moved between Russia and Switzerland until at the age of 18, he returned to Pyongyang.

It wasn’t quite the family reunion he was hoping for. Whilst he had been away, his father Kim Jong Il had met a dancer – and fallen in love again – and had another child, a son.

That child was named Kim Jong Un.

Still, Kim Jong Nam was still the oldest son, and as such a possible contender for the leadership. In 1998, he was appointed to a senior job in the Ministry of Public Security.

Problem was, Nam was also a bit of a trouble maker – a bit of a playboy. He’d grown up outside the stringent constraints of North Korea. And he had one terrible, unforgivable vice - Disney.

In 2001 a man was arrested in Narita airport, Tokyo. His passport said he was Pang Xiong, from Dominica.

He wasn’t Pang Xiong, he wasn’t from Dominica, the passports were fake. On his arrest, he told Japanese police "I am Kim Jong Nam".

The son of the leader of North Korea had been effective caught sneaking out on a trip to Disneyland Tokyo.

The net result was that Kim Jong Nam fell out of favour.

He even left North Korea, starting a life in the Chinese city of Macao, a hotbed of gambling and excitement.

but what was he up to in his time in this sort of exile?

One theory was that he was using a network of online casinos to launder money that was being made by the activities of Korea’s state-sponsored crimes and he was still closely tied to the regime.

Another was that he cut off from North Korea completely and in need of money, and that he had been in contact with the CIA, possibly even supplying them information.

Another was that he was in danger of becoming a pro-reform voice for North Korea. In interviews with Japanese journalist Yoji Gomi, Kim called for economic and political reform in the country. Maybe this made him a dangerous potential figurehead for a change of leadership.

The truth is, we don’t really know what he was doing for sure, it’s just another mystery in a never-ending list of mysteries surrounding North Korea in general and Kim Jong Nam in particular.

But what we do know is that he took another trip, this time to Kuala Lumpur airport. Travelling under a false passport in the name of Kim Chol, North Korean citizen.

The same Kim Chol who was approached by two women, and had liquid rubbed on his face. A liquid it transpired was Venomous Agent X.

At the time of his death, in his backpack, Kim Jong Nam travelling as Kim Chol had a dozen vials of antidote to Venomous Agent X.
The North Korean Government deny any involvement in the death of Kim Jong Nam, and the even deny that the body in Kuala Lumpur airport even was Kim Jong Nam.

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