What's Happening in North Korea? John Oliver Breaks It Down. It's Not Pretty

John Oliver
“If everyone is really honest, your level of fear over the North Korea situation is in direct proportion to whether they can hit the exact place where you live," said Oliver. Last Week Tonight

Most Americans don't know much about North Korea other than that the rogue state wants to destroy America and its leader is a pudgy man-boy with a really weird haircut. That man-boy has been ordering missile tests with increasing regularity, though, so it's time to start taking North Korea seriously. Also of concern is President Donald Trump's "decision" to escalate tensions with the dictatorship by threatening "fire and fury" on the nation of 25 million. North Korea did not take kindly to the comments and has since threatened to attack Guam.

Wondering what North Korea is thinking, how we got into this situation or what to do next? John Oliver spent Sunday night's episode of Last Week Tonight attempting to explain.

Related: To Pacify Kim Jong Un, How About Ending The Korean War?

What are they thinking?

In short, it's hard to tell. Getting accurate news out of North Korea is difficult. The country's own news is state-run propaganda, and because the reality is often as strange or stranger than the rumors, it's hard for reporters to ascertain what is actually happening. For example, Oliver highlighted a BBC report that all North Korean men had been forced to have their hair cut like Kim Jong Un. "There is no solid evidence that that story is true, but it is seductive because it sounds like it could be," Oliver said. And though the story is questionable, North Korean state TV did at one time run a series called Let Us Trim Our Hair in Accordance With the Socialist Lifestyle.

What we do know is that Kim Jong Un is terrified of losing power, and the military is the primary way to prevent an invasion. Un's obsession with the military makes Trump look like Gandhi. North Korea currently has the fourth-largest military in the world, though its economy is estimated to be smaller than that of Birmingham, Alabama's, according to The New York Times. His father, Kim Jong Il, felt similarly to the point where he let between 600,000 and 2.4 million of his people die during a famine in the '90s.

How did we get into this mess?

North Korea really, really hates America. We sided with South Korea in the Korean War, which North Korea has not forgotten, and we are the biggest international threat to Un's dictatorship. Here are a few examples of the country's hatred of the United States, highlighted by Oliver:

  • They have a museum of U.S. war atrocities that includes a section about how "American hyenas" stabbed, filleted, salted and ate a North Korean prisoner of war.
  • They start teaching children to hate America at an early age. One defector told of how middle school math problems might ask students "how many American bastards are left to kill" if there were four and two had already been killed.
  • North Korean postage stamps have depicted missiles closing in on the U.S. Capitol.
  • They produced a propaganda video of New York City being destroyed with missiles, set to a karaoke version of "We Are the World."

What do we do about it?

This is the million-dollar question, and just like Trump, Oliver didn't have much of an answer. So far, the administration has shifted blame to China. The world's most populous country shares an 800-mile border with North Korea and is responsible for as much as 90 percent of its total trade. Imposing sanctions is difficult for the Chinese, though, because if Kim Jong Un's regime were to collapse, China would have to deal with millions of refugees. A unified North Korea would also mean a country allied with America—and which contains 30,000 U.S. troops—on China's border.

Trump has threatened "fire and fury," but it isn't that simple. If the U.S. were to launch a targeted attack on North Korea's weapons systems, North Korea could retaliate by using its arsenal of an estimated 8,000 big guns north of the DMZ to attack South Korea, namely the capital city of Seoul, which is within its range. Trump's threats also exacerbated tension, and North Korea has responded with fiery rhetoric of its own, saying it "must respond with absolute force."

Continuing diplomatic efforts may be the best option, but, as Oliver said, for diplomacy to work, "you usually need a specific goal in mind, and Trump is making all of this up as he goes along."

"Here is where we are," Oliver concluded. "We have two nuclear-armed leaders who are accustomed to issuing empty threats to impress their own people, and they are currently goading each other toward Armageddon, which is terrifying."