There are few countries more mysterious today than North Korea. This secluded dictatorship has isolated itself from the rest of the world, suffering from famine and poverty while it’s neighbor, South Korea, is wealthy and modern. Preferring to exert its power by showing off its nuclear weapons, North Korea is often considered an enemy of the United States – however there are hopes that things could take a more positive turn. So, where does this conflict with North Korea come from?
The Korean War: A Primer
On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, triggering what is known as the Korean War, which would not end until July 1953. The roots of the deadly conflict could be traced to when the country was under Japanese rule before and during the Second World War. At the end of WWII, the Soviet Union and United States liberated Korea from the Japanese forces. However, a new conflict soon began.
This was a conflict of communism vs. capitalism, where the communist Soviet Union competed with the capitalist United States to influence the direction of world politics. Following WWII, the Soviet Union occupied the north of Korea, while the United States held onto the south until 1948.
After two years of tensions, the north sent 135,000 soldiers of the North Korean People’s Army to invade south, starting the Korean War. The three-year military conflict ended in a stalemate.
A Nation is Born
In 1948, two new nations were established: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republican of Korea (South Korea). The two countries were ideologically opposite. The U.S. installed the anti-communist Syngman Rhee to lead Seoul, while the Soviet Union put in the young communist Kim Il-sung to rule Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city.
The North Korean structure was founded on the idea of Juche (self-reliance). The economy was controlled and managed by the state, from agriculture to property. The country would eventually change into a brutal authoritarian regime that operated on secrecy as it isolated itself from the rest of the world.
Since its founding, North Korea has only been led by the Kim family:
- Kim Il-sung: September 1948 to July 1994
- Kim Jong-il: July 1994 to December 2011
- Kim Jong-un: December 2011 to present
There are two people considered likely to be the next Supreme Leader if Kim Jong-un dies: Kim Yo-jong (sister) and Kim Pyong-il (uncle).
Life in the North
For much of its existence, North Korea has refrained from participating in the international community – it has been extremely isolated and so it’s hard for outsiders to really know what’s going on there. In recent years, under Kim Jong-un’s direction, Pyongyang has opened up the country a bit more, participating in diplomatic engagements and economic cooperation with regional partners. While this is considered an improvement from the last 60 years, most citizens still live in treacherous conditions that make it unbearable to live, which has produced waves of refugees fleeing to the south.
Pam Shine, the Founding Director of Global Advocacy and Leadership Institute, summarized the situation in North Korea as “crimes against humanity.” A repressive government, vast numbers of people starving to death, concentration camps, and a population forced into submission – this is everyday life in North Korea.
An Enemy of the US?
The U.S. and North Korea have a long history going back to America’s first casualty in the Korean War: Private Kenneth Shadrick of West Virginia, who was killed on July 5, 1950. Both sides have been hostile to each other, and Washington’s official view was that North Korea is an enemy, which amplified when Pyongyang obtained nuclear weapons. However, since 2017, America’s opinion has been gradually shifting due to President Donald Trump’s diplomatic efforts with Kim Jong-un.
Will North Korea denuclearize? Will the country embrace democratic reforms in the future? How will the next administration handle the Kim regime? Who will succeed Kim Jong-un? There are more questions than answers regarding Pyongyang, and it is a situation that will not be resolved anytime soon.