North Korea is known for its incendiary rhetoric. Usually its statements are compared to that of a boasting gangster, with little real implications. Dennis Rodman’s recent trip to the country, and subsequent claims of friendship, can make the whole situation seem comical. But many are saying that the young Kim Jong-Un’s recent threats of a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States and South Korea has crossed a line. Accurately understanding this crucial situation requires a rudimentary knowledge of the Korean peninsula’s contentious past. With that in mind, here are ten pertinent facts about Asia’s most volatile resident.
1. The divided Koreas are a product of WW2
Japan ruled the Korean peninsula until the end of World War Two. The victorious, though contentious, United States and Russia divided the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel. Not surprisingly, the northern portion became Communist, and the southern area was nominally democratic.
2. The United States’ involvement in the Korean War was due to Cold War pressures
Immediately after the end of WW2, tensions began building between the now ideologically separated states of North and South Korea. In June, 1950, the recently established Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) invaded the south. The United States decided to enter the war when, under President Truman, it was feared that a Communist Korea would endanger Japan, which was seen as a regional buffer against China and Russia. The war ended when China entered the fray on the behalf of the North Koreans. An armistice was signed in 1953, and the war was effectively, though not officially, over. The 38th parallel now marks the northern and southern boundaries of the two countries as the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ.
3. Kim Jong-Un succeeded Kim Jong-Il on 17 December, 2011
Immediately following his father’s death, and still only in his late twenties, Kim Jong-Un took the reins of North Korea. Un represents the third generation of his family to rule. His grandfather, Kim Il Sung, created the state in 1948. All three leaders have relied on a strictly enforced cult of personality to help maintain control. Strangely, like his father before him, Un at least claims to be a huge basketball fan. Dennis Rodman, along with other members of the Harlam Globe Trotters, were recently permitted to enter the country. Very few US citizens or westerners are allowed in the country at all. Rodman is believed to be the first US citizen to ever directly engage with Un.
4. North Korea is an isolationist dictatorship
Since its inception, North Korea has been a near total loner. Its people are widely understood to be in poverty, and face severe consequences for any sort of negative public commentary about the ruling class. The state controls all media, and regularly releases propaganda statements of little or no truth. It is strictly forbidden for North Koreans to consume any sort of non state controlled media. All radios and TVs are altered so that they can only pick up state sponsored broadcasts. Above is a satellite photo depicting the lack of electricity in the country.
5.The people are among the most oppressed in the world
Every year, the North Korean government murders thousands of its citizens. Suspected enemies of the state, which includes people who attempt to leave the country, are sent to concentration camps that invoke images of the Holocaust. As many as 200,000 people are suspected of currently being held in camps. A recent report by Amnesty International suggests that North Korea may be expanding them. Men and women who have escaped the camps, or used to work as guards, and have made their way out of the country, have given testimonials of horrible atrocities that are committed against the country’s own citizens. In the infamous Camp-22, one former guard estimated that 1500-2000 people died each year. The people also do not have enough to eat, and mass starvation has frequently been a problem.
6. North Korea claims to have developed its first nuclear weapon in 2006
A seismic disturbance in the are of North Korea corroberates a claim that it first tested a nuclear weapon in 2006. Another underground test was conducted in 2009. On February 11th, 2013, another test was confirmed. This last test was of a reportedly much more advanced warhead type. North Korea’s repeated refusal to curtail its nuclear weapons efforts has caused the UN to release a fresh round of sanctions. These sanctions are the reason for the North Korean government’s recent threats of a pre-emptive nuclear strike. It is generally believed that any sort of offensive nuclear action by North Korea would be suicidal. An official South Korean statement reads that any such incident would result in the North Korean government being “erased from the Earth.”
7. Soon North Korea may be able to hit numerous western targets
Much to the alarm of the international community, North Korea has been conducting tests of missile delivery systems. It has been suspected that their creation of a rudimentary space program has been a guise under which they can test military technologies. On 12 Dec 2012, after a previous failed test in April, they managed to put a satellite into orbit. Once North Korea has successfully developed a mobile ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile), they will have the ability to survive a first strike from the US, as their ICBM locations will be difficult to determine. This will significantly increase their leverage by giving them the ability to inflict catastrophic damage on US cities. Some believe that, given the current trajectory, they will be capable of doing this within a decade.
8. North Korea attacked South Korea in 2010
In retaliation for South Korean military exercises, North Korea bombarded the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong with artillery. The attack damaged infrastructure, killed 4 South Koreans, and injured 19. South Korea retaliated by shelling north Korean artillery positions. The response drew widespread criticism from the South Korean people, as they believed that the government, namely Defense Minister Kim Tae-young, responded too softly. The minister resigned as a result. It was the first artillery exchange between the countries since the 70’s, and fully unmasks the dangerous volatility of the Northern government. In any such incident, a full scale escalation to war is always a looming threat.
9. Many South Koreans now want nukes
Because of the North’s continuously unpredictable behavior, seventy percent of South Koreans now want their own nuclear weapons program. Technically, South Korea falls under the US’s nuclear umbrella. It involves a tit for tat scheme based on the Cold War’s policy of mutually assured destruction. This basically translates as “you hit us and we’ll hit you back.” South Korea is a part of the Non Proliferation Treaty, which prevents them from legally pursuing nuclear weapons. Were they to contest the treaty, neighboring Japan, which is often at political odds with South Korea and somewhat of a regional rival, may also desire the same thing. This would further destabilize the region. Experts agree that if North Korea did attack with a nuclear weapon, the US would not likely retaliate in kind. Tactical weapons with less long-term implications would probably be favored.
10. Kim Jong-Un has declared the 1953 War Armistice nullified
In a brash move, and infuriated by a new round of sanctions against it because of last month’s nuclear tests, the North Korean government has chosen to withdraw from the armistice which effectively ended the Korean War. The UN has rejected the withdrawal, stating that the government does not have the authority to do so. Though, the message is clear, North Korea’s characteristic volatility is out to one-up itself. China is North Korea’s most powerful ally, but how much longer will they be able to tolerate the antics of such a dangerous neighbor? One thing is for sure, with widespread accusations and evidence of egregious human rights violations, very few are rooting for the North Korean government. Perhaps not even their own people.