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Understand North Korea

Posted by in on 5-31-13

Prehistory and founding of a nation

Archaeological finds of prehistoric toolmaking on the Korean Peninsula date back to 70,000 BC with the first pottery found around 8000 BC. Comb-pattern pottery culture peaked around 3500-2000 BC.

According to legend, Korea’s history begins with the founding of Gojoseon (also called Ancient Chosun) by the Dangun in 2333 BC. however, historians believe the kingdom actually dates back to around 7th-4th century BC. China’s Han Dynasty brought down the Gojoseon Kingdom and divided the land into four vassal states, but this did not last long. Natives of the peninsula and Manchuria soon reclaimed the territory, leading to the Three Kingdoms, Goguryeo, Silla, and Baekje. The Goguryeo Kingdom (or Koguryo) ruled the entire area of modern North Korea, as well as parts of Manchuria and the northern parts of modern South Korea. Buddhist and Confucian teachings were prominent in the Goguryeo Kingdom, which adopted Buddhism as the state religion in 372.

The Goguryeo had poor relations with its neighbours, especially the Chinese Sui Dynasty. They were able to fend off an invasion by the Sui, which contributed to the rise of the Tang Dynasty in China. With the change of dynasty however, did not come a change in attitude towards Goguryeo and the opportunistic Silla took advantage. In contrast to the Goguryeo, the Silla had been building positive relations with the Sui by sending Confucian scholars and Buddhist missionaries to learn from them, so once the Tang rose to power, they were able to align themselves with the Tang Dynasty to overthrow the Goguryeo, as well as the Baekje. The Tang attempted to annex the newly conquered territories as part China, but the Silla fought and eventually gained control of the territories in 676, uniting the Korean Peninsula under one rule.

Buddhist learning spread during this time and the former Baekje and Goguryeo leaders were treated well. The kingdom saw relative peace until the 8th and 9th centuries when clan leaders led uprisings and toppled the Silla, establishing the Goryeo Dynasty from which the name “Korea” was derived by Westerners. During this period, the nation suffered Mongol invasions, which led to unrest and the eventual establishment of the Joseon Dynasty in 1389.

Joseon Dynasty

The Joseon Dynasty was one of the longest running dynasties in the world, ruling from 1389 until 1910. King Sejong the Great’s rule was especially celebrated, as he helped create the Korean script, choson’gul, which allowed even the commoners to become literate. He also expanded the nation’s military power to drive out Japanese pirates and northern nomads and regain territories that had been lost. Korean culture developed rapidly and flourished during the Joseon Dynasty until it was attacked by the Japanese in the 16th century and then attacked twice by China, which resulted in severed relations with Japan and Korea becoming a Chinese tributary state. In spite of its losses, the nation experienced about 200 years of peace, and its isolationist policies allowed it to further develop a uniquely Korean culture and identity.

Rapid modernization stirred by the Second Industrial Revolution created tension between China and Japan as they felt the pressures of Western expansionism, each wanting to extend their influence over Korea. This eventually led to the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, which took place on the Korean Peninsula, devastating the Joseon. Then in 1905, Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, making Korea a protectorate until they were finally able to annex Korea in 1910.
Japanese occupation and a divided Korea

The Japanese exercised rule of the peninsula until their defeat in World War II in 1945. Japan was forced to surrender the territory and the Allied Powers divided the nation at the 38th Parallel, with the Soviet Union occupying the northern half and the United States occupying the southern half. The divide was supposed to be temporary, however, the political struggle between the two nations to gain influence over the unified Korea led each to establish governments within their newly created territories. North Korea was established as its own nation in 1948, following the Soviet Communist model, with Kim Il-Sung as its leader.

Conflicts between the North and South were common in the early years and the tension came to a head in 1950 when North Korea launched an invasion of South Korea, starting the Korean War. The South was backed by the United States and the United Nations. The North was backed by the Soviet Union, and China later. The US/UN effort was able to drive North Korea all the way up near the Chinese border, then the Chinese sent in their army and the war continued. The US carpet bombing killed 1.5 million Koreans and an armistice was signed in 1953, maintaining the original borders set prior to the war. Because no treaty has been signed since the armistice, the nations are officially still at war.

Modern North Korea

With the nation in a shambles after the war, Kim Il-Sung launched a campaign to unite the people by defaming the United States with Soviet support and purging the nation of dissidents and anyone thought to oppose him. He sided with China during the Sino-Soviet Split on Communist philosophy because he disliked Krushchev’s reforms. He began to praise the Soviet Union once again when China underwent its Cultural Revolution, straining relations with both neighbours. Consequently, he developed his own ideology, Juche (self-reliance), to create the sort of Communism he wanted for his nation. Throughout his life he added to and clarified the Juche ideology in order to justify his governing decisions.

The Korean War not only divided the people, but it also divided the labour force. When the peninsula was united, North Korea had most of the nation’s industries while South Korea was the agricultural centre. This divide allowed North Korea to initially bounce back faster than the South in the rebuilding process. The Soviet Union then funded agricultural efforts in the North, in accordance with the Communist model. This system began to unravel in the late 1970s and 1980s as the Soviet system began to falter. With the end of Soviet aid in 1991 it became impossible to continue to supply sufficient fuel, fertilizer and equipment. After so many years of government mismanagement and severe floods, the North’s agricultural system collapsed in the mid-1990s leading to widespread famine and death for countless North Koreans. Kim Il-Sung died in 1994 while the nation tried to deal with the crisis, slowing government response as the new leader Kim Jong-Il inherited his father’s position.

The North finally allowed international relief agencies to assist and the worst aspects of the famine were contained. However the DPRK continues to rely heavily on international food aid to feed its population while at the same time continuing to expend resources on its “songun”, or “military first” policy, which Kim Jong-Il introduced and used in conjunction with his father’s Juche ideology (which he “interpreted”).

Today the DPRK maintains an army of about one million men, most stationed within a few miles of the DMZ which divides the two Koreas. North Korea’s long-range missile development and research into nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and massive conventional armed forces are of major concern to the international community. In December 2002, Kim Jong-Il reneged on a 1994 “Agreed Framework” signed by his father which required the shut down of its nuclear reactors, expelling UN monitors and further raising fears that the nation would produce nuclear weapons. Missile testing was conducted in 1998, 2006, and most recently April 2009. In October 2006 North Korea announced that it had conducted its first nuclear test. These actions have led to UN and other international sanctions.

Current negotiations, most notably the “Six-Party Talks” involving China, Russia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea and the United States, are aimed at bringing about an end to the DPRK nuclear weapons program, in hopes that a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War may finally be agreed upon, paving the way for the opening of diplomatic ties between North Korea and the United States. Unfortunately, in March 2010, a South Korean ship was sunk near the 38th parallel, increasing tensions between North and South Korea. Although North Korea claims not to have attacked the ship, the blame has largely been placed on North Korea.

The death of Kim Jong-Il on 17 Dec 2011 has created many feelings of uncertainty as the world waits to see how the transfer of power will affect the nation. North Korea has also developed miltary armored vehicles since the war such as the Pokpung-ho (Storm Tiger) (M-2002), the Type 85 (YW531H), and the Chonma-ho (Pegasus)(all of which were made and developed by North Korea after the Soviet Union fall)


In North Korea, the vast majority of people are Korean. Because of the lack of immigration, North Korea is one of the most ethnically homogeneous nations on earth. At any one time, there are a few hundred foreigners to be found, however, most of them are tourists.


The climate is generally classed as continental, with rainfall concentrated in summer. Summer months are warm, but winter temperatures can fall as low as -30 degrees C. Late spring droughts are often followed by severe flooding. There are occasional typhoons during the early Autumn.


Mostly hills and mountains separated by deep, narrow valleys. The coastal plains are wide in the West; discontinuous in east. The mountainous interior is isolated and sparsely populated.


Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick. An excellent book recounting the lives of six North Koreans who managed to defect and find their way to South Korea. Provides a compelling picture of the miseries and occasional beauty in the lives of ordinary North Koreans during the famine of the 90s. ISBN 0385523912

Eyes of the Tailless Animals: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman by Soon Ok Lee. First-hand accounts of the prison system within North Korea

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden

The Aquariums of Pyongyang, by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot: An account of the imprisonment of Kang Chol-Hwan and his family in the Yodok concentration camp in North Korea.

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