We’re constantly hearing threats from Kim Jong-Un’s North Korean government, but what’s behind all of that? Let’s find out.
The Korean empire ruled the entire Korean peninsula until 1910, that’s when the more powerful Japanese army took control through a treaty.
When Japan was defeated to end WWII, the peninsula was split between the Soviet Union and the United States.
The Soviets installed Kim Il-sung as the leader of the North, now known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In 1950, Kim’s North invaded the South and would have overrun the entire peninsula, if the American-led UN hadn’t stepped in with 340,000 soldiers. This re-energized South Korean side counterattacked and drove the North Koreans back toward the Yalu River.
That’s when China, led by Chairman Mao, poured more than a million troops onto the North’s side. With 2.5 million soldiers now opposing each other on both sides, the battlefield was crowded, and fighting devolved into grinding trench warfare.
A cease-fire was reached in 1953, but without a signed peace treaty, the North and South officially remain at war to this day, which is why we have a permanent standoff along the 38th parallel called the demilitarized zone, or DMZ for short.
Sadly, this is pretty much the same stretch of land that separated the North and South before the war broke out and 2.2 million people died or were wounded.
Even though he failed in his attempt to control all of Korea, Kim Il-Sung remained in power for 40 more years. He established a totalitarian cult of personality and shut his people off from interacting with the rest of the world.
The North was even further isolated when the Soviet Union was dissolved. This also almost collapsed North Korea’s economy. And, unfortunately for the people of North Korea, economic hardship came right as a flood wiped out many of the country’s crops.
The government let this turn into a widespread famine that lasted more than three years, and killed as many as 3.5 million people. In the middle of this crisis, in 1994, Kim Il-Sung, died.
His son, Kim Jong-Il became the Supreme Leader and he went right along with and continued many of his father’s policies. Including the “military-first” strategy that has seen the DPRK’s active fighting force become the fourth largest in the world.
In 2006, the North successfully tested its first nuclear weapon and then began threatening its neighbors with it as a way to preserve the regime’s credibility in the eyes of its own people and as a way of extorting food aid from other nations.
In 2011 Kim Jong-Ill died and his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, was selected as Supreme Leader. As a show of strength by its new leader, North Korea began issuing stern threats against both the South and the United States, including a promise to strike the American west coast with nuclear missiles.
U.S. President Barack Obama has chosen not to reward the North’s belligerence in a no-deal-making policy known as strategic patience. With the recent history of uprisings toppling dictators in parts of the world where democracy seemed like a total fantasy just a few years ago, the choice to wait North Korea out seems wise.
The contrast in living conditions between the repressed people of the North – and those thriving in the free, technologically-advancing South – will only become more striking. But the fate of the regime probably lies mostly with its protectors in Beijing, as it has a mutual security pact with China that it signed back in 1961. And since China isn’t the freest place on earth either, politically, it makes sense for China to maintain the status quo in Korea so that its own oppressive government seems far less extreme by comparison.