TLV Deep Dive: The North Korea Conundrum«Back

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TLV Deep Dive: The North Korea Conundrum

November 18, 2017

North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un in one of his notorious, staged photo shoots
celebrating their first successful intercontinental ballistic missile launch.
This photo, taken in July 2017, is meant to taunt President Trump with this “gift” to Americans.

TLV Deep Dive: The North Korea Conundrum
With President Trump just returning from his first official trip to Asia, we will now watch and wait. What can we expect next from North Korea? What can we expect next from the Trump administration?
While in Asia, President Trump’s tone changed somewhat, focusing less on the fiery, war-laced rhetoric and more on diplomacy, even going so far as extending an invite to Kim Jong-un to “come to the table” and make a deal.” Trump also went out of his way to praise China, perhaps to prime President Xi Jinping for trade negotiations, perhaps to coax him into more help with North Korea—probably both.
While no one knows what the future holds with North Korea, it can still be helpful to understand how we got here. To that end, let’s take another historical deep dive, this time into Korea’s past in order to better grasp its present.

A High Level Summary of Korea: 700 BC to Late 1800s
To many, Korea’s long history is lesser known, especially relative to that of its neighbors, China and Japan. Korea’s two neighbors have historically been aggressors, almost always hungry for more power and greater dominion, willing to destroy anyone in their paths. Korea doesn’t share this same story. While multiple Korean kingdoms over the centuries battled each other for territory, these battles rarely expanded beyond what we know as the Korean peninsula today—land Koreans have believed for centuries is their rightful homeland. For the most part, Korea’s history has been concentrated on this land, which they have historically sought to maintain and go about their business, content to be left alone.

The first known account of Korean history, then called Gojoseon, appears in Chinese records from the 700s BC. By the 400s BC, Gojoseon was established to the point of being well known and documented in China. It had also, by this time, transitioned from a feudal state to a centralized kingdom.
Korea was at its geographical largest in 476 AD during the Three Kingdoms Period. The Goguryeo kingdom controlled most of the land. The Baekje and Silla kingdoms dominated the southern territory, with Gaya, a confederacy of multiple kingdoms, occupying a portion as well. At that time, Korea’s domain covered what we know now as North and South Korea as well as some land in Manchuria, a region in northeast China today. 

Goguryeo at its peak: 476 AD
Notable from this period was an alliance in 660 AD between Silla and the Chinese Tang Dynasty to overthrow Goguryeo and Baekje. After success to this end, Silla immediately turned on their Chinese co-conspirators and forced them off the Korean peninsula. It’s from this time that many of Korea’s historical patterns—of internal strife and Chinese involvement in Korean affairs—stem.
Eventually, the Koreans would cede their territory in Manchuria back to the Chinese. By the time of the Joseon Dynasty (1392 - 1897), Korea had taken its modern day shape. Despite the best efforts of various Chinese dynasties, Chinese peoples, and Japanese pirates and armies, Korea’s borders have remained relatively stable since the 1400s—until it was divided after World War II.
The Joseon dynasty: 1392 - 1897
Modern day Korean peninsula
The Joseon dynasty is one of great pride to Koreans. During its 500-year reign, Koreans gave rise to impressive advancements in the natural sciences, literature, medicine, agriculture, technology, and engineering, much of which would influence culture and thought in China and Japan. As a particular point of pride, Sejong the Great, the most beloved king from that time, invented the Korean alphabet to replace the use of Chinese characters—a practical move and a movement away from Chinese influence.
It was at the start of the Joseon dynasty that Korea moved from a predominantly Buddhist society to a Confucian one. The first Joseon king, King Taejo, decreed Neo-Confucianism the state religion, in part to neuter what he saw as power abuses amongst the ruling, aristocratic Buddhists. In its place, he put a strict Confucian code of bureaucratic state and class system.
In keeping with the majority of their history, Koreans made no attempts to expand their reign during the Joseon dynasty, but were often in conflict with themselves. Also in keeping with their history, they fended off numerous attacks from both the Chinese and Japanese. In general, Korea historically had a better relationship with certain Chinese dynasties; while the Chinese and Koreans did war from time to time, they also often partnered to push out numerous Japanese assaults on Korean or Chinese territory.
By the 1800s, corruption and in fighting had weakened the great Joseon dynasty. Meanwhile, the Japanese were gaining regional power. Up to this time, the Chinese—through different dynasties across time—had been the supreme power of East Asia. Yet the center of gravity was beginning to move. After the 1868 Meiji Restoration, where Japanese Emperor Meiji restored practical imperial rule, the Japanese adopted western military technology. With this advanced technology, the Japanese forced the Koreans to open three trade ports in 1876 under Japanese jurisdiction.  
By the late 1800s, the Koreans had grown increasingly angry over foreign influence, particularly from Japan, spurring them to rebel and revolt with increasing frequency. At one point, Korean Empress Myeongseong asked the Qing (the last of the great Chinese dynasties) for help in suppressing these internal rebellions. The Qing sent in 3,000 troops, leading to a truce with Korean rebels. Japan did not take kindly to this, viewing the Qing as a threat. The Japanese countered with 8,000 troops, seizing Seoul, and installing a pro-Japanese government. This escalated into the First Sino-Japanese War (1894 - 1895), fought between the Chinese and Japanese almost entirely on the Korean peninsula.
Because of their technological superiority, the Japanese won this conflict decisively, exposing the Qing’s failure to modernize its military. For the first time in known history, the sphere of regional influence shifted from China to Japan, a humiliating blow to the Qing. In the peace treaty with Japan, the Qing acknowledged Korea’s independence from China’s rule, moving Japan closer to Korean dominance. Yet in an act of self-defense and independence, Korea declared the Korean Empire, installing its first emperor in 1897.
Korean Empire: 1897 - 1910
For a few years, Emperor Gojong had some success in modernizing Korea’s military, economy, education system, and industries. France, Russia, Japan, and the U.S. all invested in the new empire in hopes of gaining political influence.
The Korean Empire also sought help from the Russians to improve its military technologies. This would incite the Russo-Japanese War (1904 - 1905), with both empires jockeying for imperial rule over Korea and Manchuria. Once again, the powerful Japanese army was able to push Russia into retreat, making Korea totally vulnerable to Japanese rule.
Japan-Korea Annexation & Occupation: 1910 - 1945
Finally, in 1910, the Japanese realized a centuries-long pursuit of expanded rule into Korea. And a brutal rule it was.
When Korean Emperor Gojong died in 1919, a series of peaceful independence and pro-liberation rallies, the March 1st Movement, were held across the country. Japanese armies forcibly confronted the 2 million peaceful protestors, killing 7,000 of them.
In response, Korea established a government-in-exile, the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, in Shanghai and Chongqing (a major city in southwest China). While this government-in-exile had no formal recognition among world powers, it was used to coordinate various armed resistance assaults on the Japanese.
In the next two decades, as the Korean resistance escalated, with some battles being fought in China, so too did Japan’s military grasp on the peninsula. With the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and then World War II in 1939, Japan did everything it could to destroy Korea as a nation and an identity.
Under Japanese rule, any observance or practice of Korean culture was illegal. The Korean language was forbidden and school curriculum was overhauled to exclude any Korean history or use of its language. Media was not allowed to be in Korean, and worship at Japanese Shinto shrines was mandated. The Japanese destroyed or stole up to 100,000 Korean artifacts. (Still today, Korean artifacts are found in Japanese museums and private collections.)
In 1939, five million Koreans were forced into labor, leading to the death of some 400,000. Tens of thousands of Koreans were forced to join Japan’s military, and some 200,000 girls and women from China and Korea were forced into sex slavery for the Japanese military. (These women have historically and euphemistically been referred to as “Comfort Women.” Even into this century, some of these surviving sex slaves continue to protest the Japanese government and seek compensation for their suffering.)
Koreans were forced to support Japanese war efforts, fighting against their own country and dreams of freedom. Some Koreans fled to China and Russia to form resistance groups and guerilla armies. Eventually, most united as the Korean Liberation Army in 1940 and fought alongside the allies in WWII.
Japanese Surrender & the Division of Korea
In December 1943, the U.S., Great Britain, and China signed the Korean independence agreement at the Cairo Conference, which declared: “The aforesaid three powers, mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea, are determined that ‘in due course’ Korea shall become free and independent.”
But on August 9, 1945, the Soviets initiated a brief conflict that would become known as the Soviet-Japanese War and the last act of WWII. The Soviets invaded and took control of the Japanese puppet state of Manchuko (Chinese territory in Inner Mongolia). Six days later, they also took control over the northeast part of Korea. These maneuvers forced a seat at the negotiating table for the Soviets when the Japanese surrendered to allied forces on August 15. By August 24, the Soviets had established a military government in Pyongyang (the modern day North Korean capital).
Some hypothesize that Japan did not surrender to the allies because of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead, some credit the fall of Japan to the stealth Soviet attacks on the Japanese.
For months prior to the Soviets invading Japanese held territories, they and the Japanese had been in negotiations about a neutrality pact, in which Japan would give land concessions to the Soviets, and in return the Soviets would serve as a third-party in negotiating peace with the allies. The Japanese had been waiting for the Soviets to respond to proposed terms of the pact when they were blindsided by the invasion. No longer confident they could enlist Soviet support in peace talks with the allies, Japan instead surrendered unconditionally to the allies on August 15.
Later in August, the United Nations agreed to a trusteeship administration of the north to the Soviets and the south to the Americans. Two young State Department aides suggested the peninsula be divided at the 38th parallel—doing so effectively split the country in half, but kept Seoul in American control. American forces arrived in South Korea on September 8. Thanks to escalating Cold War tensions and changing geopolitical ideologies, by 1948 two distinct and ideologically diametrically opposed states had been formed in North and South Korea, with friends and family separated akin to division of West and East Germany. Early hopes for a unified Korea were gone.
The 38th Parallel and the North Korean & South Korean border
By 1949, American and Soviet forces had withdrawn from their respective trustee sates. The south, formally named Republic of Korea, gave rise to anti-communist dictator Syngman Rhee with reluctant support from the American government. With support from the Soviets, Communist dictator Kim Il-sung took control of the north, officially named the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Neither dictator accepted the division of the peninsula. Even before the Korean War broke out in 1950, border battles took the lives of 10,000 North and South Korean soldiers.
The Korean War (1950 – 1953)
In June 1950, the world saw the first military action of the Cold War when 70,000 North Korean troops, bolstered with arms from the Soviets, pushed past the 38th parallel. Taking the Americans by total surprise, American troops arrived weeks later in July to fight on South Korea’s behalf. The Americans were fighting not only the North Koreans, but also the idea of communism itself.
“If the best minds in the world had set out to find us the worst possible location in the world to fight this damnable war,” U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson once said, “the unanimous choice would have been Korea.” Its terrain and climate made the horrors of war that much more horrific. The mountainous region was brutally hot and dry in the summer and brutally cold and snowy in the winter. In the first summer of the war, one of the driest on record, soldiers had no choice but to drink contaminated water, making intestinal disease rampant.
General Douglas MacArthur devised a strategy to liberate the North Koreans from communism, which he saw as the only option. His plan saw some initial successes, with soldiers closing in on the Korean-Chinese boarder. Feeling threatened, Mao Zedong sent Chinese troops into North Korea to demand the U.S. retreat from the border.
President Truman was increasingly worried that if he upset the Chinese, the Soviets might see an opportunity to make aggressive moves in Europe. Truman feared World War III in the age of a nuclear Soviet Union. As Truman moved to prevent such escalation, MacArthur did the opposite. In March 1951, MacArthur sent a letter to a Republican House leader, knowing it would be leaked to the press, voicing his view that anything less than an all-out declaration of war on China would be “appeasement” to the communists. Truman soon relieved MacArthur of his duties.
That July, Truman began peace talks at Panmunjom village, just north of the 38th parallel. Fully two years later, in July 1953, the two sides finally reached an armistice. The terms included the creation of a boundary on the 38th parallel that gave 1,5000 square miles of additional territory to South Korea. It created the two-mile wide “demilitarized zone,” (the DMZ) the buffer zone between the two countries that remains intact today.
Three years after the North Koreans attacked the south, essentially nothing had changed, save for the estimated 3 million solders and civilians who died or were never found. 40,000 American soldiers lost their lives, and 100,000 more were injured.
Nearly 65 years later, the two countries technically remain at war. While the DMZ is without military presence, straddling its two-mile spread is one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world. Over the decades, there have been various small and violent incidences in and around the DMZ, in some cases leading to military or civilian deaths.

View of the Joint Security Administration (JSA) at Panmunjom from the southern side.
North and South Korean guards stand guard on their respective sides.
Much like the arbitrary demarcation of the Middle East after World War I lead to a century of conflict and war in the region (and beyond) that persists today, the world continues to pay for the arbitrary division of Korea and for failing to deliver on the promise of a swift reunification.
South Korea: An Overview
Flag of South Korea
Today, South Korea is one of the world’s most vibrant economies. With a population of 57 million, it’s the world’s 7th largest advanced economy and its 5th largest exporter. It has the highest credit rating of all East Asian countries and has open trade agreements with 75% of the global economy.
South Korea is also home to one of the world’s strongest and most engaged democracies; people enjoy high personal freedom and partake in frequent protest (today, usually peacefully). They are a highly educated and skilled people and take home the world’s 8th largest median household income. Having been on the leading edge of technological advancement for several decades, South Korea has been named the world’s most innovative country four years in a row by the Bloomberg Innovation Index.
Stunningly, South Korea achieved all this only in recent decades, making its economy one of the fastest growing in history. The country’s incredible health and stability is especially surprising compared to its unstable path after the Korean War. As was experienced often in Korean history, South Korea’s early days were fraught with internal strife.
Syngman Rhee, the dictator and first president of South Korea who emerged in the years leading up to the Korean War, grew increasingly authoritarian, taking corrupt and repressive measures against political opponents. After a student uprising in April 1960, Syngman resigned, opening the door for a coup in May staged by General Park Chung-hee. General Park quickly took over the role of president in 1963. At this time, South Korea was one of the most impoverished countries in the world, even more so than North Korea.
President Park Chung-hee (1963-1979) was seen as a ruthless dictator, but oddly good at the same time. Similar to Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore, Park Chung-hee functioned as the benevolent and brutal dictator we so often see when a country transitions from flailing Third World to a more democratic government and market economy.
Upon taking office, Park declared martial law. He quickly changed the constitution to enable sweeping presidential powers, making him all but a dictator. He amassed multiple political slush funds, squashed personal friends, and ordered the torture, imprisonment, and execution of many who challenged his rule. It’s estimated that, directly or indirectly, he was responsible for the death of 10,000 Koreans. Yet he also enacted impressive and ultimately radically beneficial economic, infrastructure, and foreign policy reforms, many of which are credited for putting South Korea on its path to global economic power.
Once the United States caught wind of these economic improvements, President Kennedy supported South Korea outright with a series of investments. Kennedy sought an economically vibrant Japan and South Korea to serve as containment to the communism all around them.
In kind, Park set out to normalize relations with Japan, which gradually lead to increased trade between the countries—a key move to connect Korea to a larger global and financing trading network. He signed a treaty to equalize the Korean-U.S. relationship. With American troops stationed in South Korea, the U.S. had functioned as a security guarantor since the Korean War. In an equalizing effort, Park sent 320,000 South Korean troops to fight alongside the U.S. in the Vietnam War.
Park was committed to ending poverty and evolving the country from Third World to First World by shifting its economic focus to export-oriented industrialization. One such initiative to this end was creating the Pohang Iron and Steel Company to provide cheap steel to those establishing the first automobile factories and shipyards in South Korea.
Believing the government should control the economy to varying and sometimes sizable degrees, Park offered companies incentives in the way of tax cuts, rapid licensing, subsidies etc. if they met government-defined five-year targets. LG, Samsung, and Hyundai are just some of companies that were able to exploit these incentives as catalysts to global significance. Park’s government also oversaw the development of the nationwide interstate highway system and the Seoul subway system.
Despite measurable economic success in the 1960s, the economy began to lag in the 1970s. In turn, Koreans lost patience with Park’s autocratic rule and the torture and sometimes killing of opponents. More and more protests erupted, some violent, across the country. In October 1979, Park’s best friend and own security chief assassinated him; the assassin’s motives remain unconfirmed, but it’s thought he was one of many who’d grown concerned with Park’s increasingly repressive acts.
Park Chung-hee on the cover of Newsweek after his death, published November 5, 1979
Park’s legacy remains controversial to this day. In some ways, he wasn’t too different from his counterpart to the north. He essentially dissolved the constitution for his unopposed rule and a third term. He blackmailed, arrested, jailed, and executed opposition figures. Yet in many ways, he was the opposite of his counterpart to the north. He modernized the country’s infrastructure, oversaw a considerable rise in personal wealth, and set South Korea up to become a powerful and competitive global economy.
While Park’s regime killed an estimated 10,000 opponents, some view it as, well, not so bad in numbers relative to his more murderous contemporaries (Mao Zedong in China: upwards of 50 million; Pol Pot in Cambodia: 1.7 million; Suharto in Indonesia: 500,000). And while Park pilfered money from the government, he was personally very frugal. Upon his death, no hidden wealth was found anywhere, leading to speculation that the money he stole, he put back into the country.
After Park’s death in 1979, scores from his oppressed opposition rose to run for president, until one of them, General Chun Doo-hwan, achieved a coup d’état and claimed despotic rule. Chun expanded martial law, shut down some universities, limited the press, and made political activities illegal.
Despite some protests that Chun violently suppressed, his rule was unbroken for eight years. When police interrogated and tortured to death a Seoul National University student about the whereabouts of a campus radical leader, national demonstrations broke out. Koreans were tired of Chun’s oppressive ways. After eight months of outcry, Chun and his party relented, announcing the direct election of a president. Shortly after, South Korea joined the UN in 1991. South Korea has since functioned as a proper democracy—and still to a people passionate about holding their government accountable.
In 2016, then President Park Geun-hye (daughter of President Park Chung-hee) was accused of corruption and bribery. The first charges were brought in November 2016, resulting in massive countrywide demonstrations. One month later, Park was impeached and suspended, replaced by an acting president. She was formally removed from office in March 2017. 
The U.S. still acts as a security guarantor to South Korea, with 28,500 troops currently stationed in the country. This presence has allowed the U.S. to shape policy towards North Korea. But South Korea’s newest president, Moon Jae-in, has departed from this tradition. Instead, Moon has stated his government would take the lead on matters with North Korea. For the first time in decades, South Korea has acted in rhetorical defiance of U.S. policy preferences towards North Korea. It appears we may be seeing Korea’s historical independent streak pop up once again with Moon Jae-in’s election.
North Korea: An Overview
 Flag of North Korea
Things couldn’t be more different above the 38th parallel. North Korea, today with a population of 25 million, describes itself as a self-reliant socialist state, with industry government run and farms collectivized. This description results from its guiding Juche ideology (translated to “self-reliance”), born as a Marxist-Leninist variant from Kim Il-sung’s “original, brilliant and revolutionary contribution to national and international thought.”
Juche decrees that “man is the master of his destiny” and that the North Korean people are “masters of the revolution and construction.” Only through self-reliance and strength, says Juche, can a nation become truly socialist. The North Koreans use Juche to justify various actions towards “independence” and self-defense, while most outsiders view it as a means to justify extreme isolationism and often-violent oppression of its people.
The country follows Songun, a policy of military first. With over 9 million active, reserve, and paramilitary personnel, North Korea has the largest government-sponsored military per capita in the world (supported with antiquated Cold War-era Soviet equipment, no less capable of carrying out devastation in South Korea).
The country is officially atheist and public displays of religion can spell trouble for its citizens. Instead, the regime favors stoking a fervent cult of personality around Kim Il-sung and his family, which requires total loyalty and subjugation to the one-man dictatorship passed through the family.
In the 1950s, with Soviet support, Kim Il-sung consolidated post-war factions into his Korean Workers’ Party. Along the way, he banished or executed any and all dissenting voices. By the late 1950s, 30,000 people had been unjustly imprisoned, some executed, for acts like failing to print Kim’s image on high enough paper quality. He also forcibly seized grain from peasants as part of the “agricultural collectivization” effort.
In 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev stunned the communist world with a denunciation of Stalin and his cult of personality—a stance that both Kim Il-sung and Mao Zedong rejected. Members of Kim Il-sung’s government seized on the moment to sound the alarm on Kim’s increasingly Stalinist and brutal regime, in which Kim had begun to make all decisions on his own.
Kim’s adherence to Stalinism, as well as his rewriting of history that his guerilla army single-handedly liberated the Koreans from the Japanese in WWII (thereby ignoring the fact of China’s help), strained relations with the Soviets and China, respectively. But while China and the Soviet Union diverged in communist philosophies, both saw North Korea as a buffer to the other. North Korea was then able to play the two countries off each other. Despite mounting regional friction and with aid from China and the Soviet Union, North Korea’s economy was stronger than South Korea’s economy throughout the 1960s.
Relations with China were further stressed in the 1970s when China began normalizing relations with the U.S. Tensions culminated in 1976 when Mao Zedong died and China moved away from a Stalinist approach to communism. Kim severed trade ties with China, redoubling on the already cracking Juche policy of total self-reliance. Throughout the 1980s, North Korea’s economy suffered and eventually collapsed with the fall of the USSR in 1991, when Soviet aid and oil immediately stopped. Backed into a corner, North Korea joined the UN in 1991 and sought to repair relations with China.
Kim Il-sung died of a heart attack in 1994, with his son Kim Jong-il lined up to succeed. After his mandated three-year mourning period, Kim Jong-il officially took office in 1997. Where Kim Il-sung was charismatic, comfortable with the people, beloved by many, Kim Jong-il was not. He was said to be introverted, awkward, artistic and, therefore, always lived in his father’s shadow.
In 1995, flood devastated North Korea and its crops, exacerbating its already collapsed economy. Widespread famine gripped the country for four years. The government had no resources to fix it. With a population then of 22 million, it’s estimated that up to 3.5 million North Koreans died from starvation or hunger related illness. The famine marked the emergence of illegal black markets, which the government has tolerated to varying degrees since. In this time, the government grew more corrupt and people grew more disillusioned with it. Meanwhile, tensions were rising over North Korea’s quest for nuclear arms.
When George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, he declared North Korea a “rogue” state and part of the “axis of evil” (along with Iran and Iraq) for its continued pursuit of nuclear arms. Bush called upon the UN to increase pressure on North Korea to stop its nuclear program. The 2000s saw the North Koreans repeatedly agreeing to curtail their nuclear programs and repeatedly breaking those agreements.
In this climate, South Korea’s Sunshine Policy—an attempt begun in 1998 to take a softer and more generous approach towards North Korea in hopes of enticing reunification—met resistance in certain thought circles. Many saw the aid to North Korea as achieving little more than funding its nuclear ambitions.
In 2011, Kim Jong-Il died and power was handed to his son, Kim Jong-un. Much like most things in North Korea, Kim Jong-un’s age (and many details of his life) is unknown. It is thought that when he took power, he was in his late twenties.
Images of North Koreans publicly grieving the death of Kim Jong-il

While we can’t know the sincerity of anyone’s displays of grief, it is known that individuals can be punished for not grieving adequately. After Kim Jong-il’s death, thousands were allegedly sentenced to six months in labor camps for not grieving or attending organized mourning events.
Kim Jong-un is most known for the alarming and defiant development of the country’s nuclear program, having tested dozens of provocative ballistic missiles, some even launched towards Japan; conducted five of the six nuclear tests in North Korea’s history; and in July, tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) thought capable of reaching American shores. Now the world fears that North Korea could attach a nuclear warhead to such an ICBM.
In recent years, Kim Jong-un appears to be escalating efforts to purge his regime of any subordinates showing hints of disloyalty. In 2014, he had his uncle killed, believing he was a paid operative of China working to stage a coup. In 2017, it is assumed he ordered the assassination of his half brother, under Chinese protection at the time. Some speculate this was a preemptive strike against rumors that China sought to replace Kim Jong-un with his half brother.
All three Kims have helmed a vicious regime. Kim Il-sung is said to have killed 400,000 North Koreans in prison camps—camps that remain in horrific use today. All three rulers have executed those who break with their view and untold numbers who’ve broken their stringent laws. Kim Jong-un is said to have killed 2 million people already in his short reign. Arguably, North Korean citizens—malnourished, abused, starving, manipulated, afraid—are prisoners and slaves to their government.
By many accounts, the North Koreans are a brainwashed people, taught to believe that their neighbors to the south live in total destitution and taught to believe their economic suffering comes from oppression by the evil United States. North Koreans are also taught to believe their leaders from the Kim family are gods—born from stars under double rainbows; capable of walking within weeks and speaking shortly after; without the need for, um, bowel movements, and other such insanity.
The North Korean government tightly controls what the people are allowed to know through its total propaganda machine. All news is state run, as are its few websites. (Have a surreal look for yourself: Korean Central News Agency and Uriminzokkiri (meaning “on our own”), both available in English.)
However, cracks in the Kim regime and its propaganda are finally happening, in large part due to the smuggling in of entertainment. South Korean soap operas have become popular in North Korea. On these TV shows, South Koreans by no means look on the brink of starvation and death.
Many defectors and activists airdrop USB drives into North Korea packed with information aimed at breaking indoctrinated beliefs. One such group, Flash Drives for Freedom, loads up their sticks with South Korean culture. According to a member of this effort, “It's much more subversive to show South Koreans who have running water” than it is to try to convince North Koreans that Kim Jong-un is the devil.
Korean Identity & Roots of Reunification
In the early 20th century, as they were losing more control to Japan, Korean intellectuals began crafting a Korean nationalist histiography as a means of cultivating a national identity. The efforts of these intellectuals shaped postwar histiography in both North and South Korea.
The key initial work of this movement was New Reading of History written by Korean journalist Shin Chaeho. He declared Korean history was that of the minjok people, a race that descended from the god Dangun, who ruled the Korean peninsula and parts of Manchuria from 2333 BC. In taking this view, Shin Chaeho and his peers forsook the Joseon and Confucian worldview of Korea, which they believed perpetuated a the country as subservient to a Chinese worldview. They also rejected the Japanese colonial histiography, which depicted Koreans as a backwards people historically dependent on its neighbors.
Today, only fringe groups support Shin Chaeho’s irredentist view. Instead, the roots of today’s predominant national identity are those that were more fervently committed to resisting Japanese identity and cultural usurpation. Political and ideological differences aside, the North and South Korean regimes do share a historical minjok-based view of Korean history and identity. It is this nationalist view that underpins reunification hopes and talks.
Yet both regimes reject the legitimacy of the other. In South Korea’s constitution, the sole acknowledgment of the peninsula’s division is a reference to the president’s responsibility to work towards reunification. It also claims North Korea as its jurisdiction.
North Korea’s constitution has no such proviso about South Korean jurisdiction. Instead, it refers to the Republic of Korea (South Korea) as an entity occupying the Korean territory. North Korea’s constitution does have a clause stressing the need for reunification.
Attempts to Reunify Korea
For two decades after the end of the Korean War, the north made many failed assassination attempts on South Korean leaders and kidnapped several South Koreans. It nearly provoked war over the 1976 Panmunjom axe murderer incident, where two North Korean soldiers killed two U.S. Army officers at the JSA in Panmunjom village. In 1974, the South Koreans discovered the first of four underground Tunnels of Aggression—tunnels North Koreans had been building into Seoul and other parts of South Korea to be used, eventually, to invade the south.
(In their clandestine construction of these tunnels, which required repeatedly bombing into the earth, the North Koreans claimed they were merely building coalmines. They went as far as to blacken the tunnels’ walls to give the appearance of active coal mining. Today, tourists can go into part of the third tunnel on the South Korean side.)
A visitor at the Third Tunnel of Aggression on the South Korean side of the DMZ
During most of this time, neither country took any active measures to seek reunification—until 1971, when secret talks between the powers eventually lead to the 1972 July 4 North-South Joint Statement. The agreement outlined nine steps both countries would take towards peaceful and independently achieved reunification. But a year later, the North-South Coordination Committee dispersed due to no progress having been made on the agreement and South Korea’s preference that the countries seek separate entry into international organizations.
In 1998, as soon-to-be South Korean President Kim Dae-jung sought the presidency, he introduced the Sunshine Policy as a campaign pledge. The idea was to emphasize economic assistance to North Korea instead of sanctions and military threats. President Kim’s government sent vast quantities of food to the North, alleviated inter-country business restraints, and, to no avail, called for the U.S. to cease the economic embargo against the country.
In 2000, the leaders from the north and south met in Pyongyang and shook hands for the first time since the countries were split into two. They signed the June 15th North-South Joint Declaration, which again sought to outline terms of cooperation and reunification. In the opening ceremonies of the 2000, 2004, and 2006 Olympics, the two nations marched as a unified team, but competed separately.

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il
met in Pyongyang and shook hands, June 14, 2000
Ultimately, thanks to North Korea’s increasingly frequent and hostile nuclear developments, the Sunshine Policy was deemed a failure by 2010. Relations have steadily deteriorated since.
Since 2011, expectations of a possibly abrupt reunification—perhaps due to war or the collapse of the Kim regime—have spurred talks about a reunification tax in South Korea to fund what many see as the inevitable merging of the two economies. A unified Korea would unlock an even more powerful economy. South Korea, a technological force, sees incredible potential in reconciliation with North Korea, which sits on $6 trillion worth of essentially untapped natural resources and minerals that the south lacks.
South Korea also sees division from the north as a deep psychic wound. They’ve made many optimistic overtures in hopes for reunification, building monuments throughout the country and along the DMZ. Of note, in 2002, they renovated and re-opened Dorasan train station, which once connected the north and south. Prior to the split, Korea had planned for a passenger rail system that would go all the way from Seoul to Paris, by way of Pyongyang and connection with the Trans-China and Trans-Siberia railways. In a symbolic bid for reunification, the train station is open daily—complete with listed departure times to Pyongyang—despite no passenger trains coming into or leaving the station from the north. It functions mostly as a tourist destination.
Dorasan Station in South Korea: 34 miles from Seoul and 127 miles from Pyongyang

A gesture of hope that one day passenger trains will run between Dorasan and Pyongyang
What Does Kim Jong-un Want?
The U.S. is clear in its want to denuclearize North Korea. But what does Kim Jong-un want? Surely he doesn’t want global nuclear war. As secretive, isolated, and far removed from the international public stage as Kim Jong-un is, politicians, diplomats, think tankers, international relations experts, and media pundits are still trying to get into this man’s head. Is he insane? Paranoid? Concerned only with his survival? A cult leader?
Consensus is emerging that Kim Jong-un is in fact not mentally ill, but very rational. From this vantage point, perhaps a most compelling argument explains his behaviors as an attempt to buy time so he can play the long game towards a specific goal.
Kim Jong-un was educated in Switzerland. He has traveled extensively around the world. He’s also a student of China’s rapid economic rise. He’s well aware that China achieved power and wealth through both rapid and patient embrace of certain capitalistic practices.
For years, a capitalistic black market has existed in North Korea where people sell smuggled goods from China and other neighboring states. Smuggling is punishable by death. Yet smuggling is happening with more frequency and goes largely ignored. Why would Kim Jong-un turn a blind eye to such crimes? Might he be preparing to transition North Korea from a communist state to a dictatorial economy, one that even trades globally? Exactly as China did when it transitioned its economy?
Kim Jong-un doesn’t want to be humiliated on the international public stage. Nor does he want to lose power or be killed. In order to protect himself, perhaps Kim realizes that to maintain rule, North Korea needs to follow the China model.
Ian Bremmer points out a fact of which Kim Jong-un is obviously aware—Saddam Hussein, no nukes: dead. Muammar al-Qadaffi, no nukes: dead. Kim Jong-un, getting nukes: not dead.
The development of a meaningful nuclear arsenal could be part of a larger strategy to transition North Korea into a Chinese-style economy, with nukes serving as a deterrent to decapitate Kim as his government’s head. In effect, nukes buy him time to play the long game on North Korea’s economy, while simultaneously allowing him to command a certain kind of respect on the international stage.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un is allowing the North Koreans to become familiar with the workings of capitalism. He’s able to both appear like the hawkish, vigilant defender of his people and also maintain control over the under-the-radar and slow emergence of a managed, market economy—just as China did and just as several dictators have done in modern history.
The gradual opening of China’s economy happened under the vision and stewardship of economic leader Deng Xiaoping. It took him eleven years of careful, calculated, steady choreography to realize his vision of a Chinese economy modernized across agriculture, industry, science and technology, and military. And it also took money—in the form of direct foreign investment by Western corporations.
Perhaps Kim Jong-un hopes one day also to win economic support of Western corporations and governments—just as both India and Pakistan did after repeatedly defying UN sanctions and commands to stop nuclear aims. Once they got nukes, they also got a seat at the global economic table.
What About China?
To the Chinese, North Korea was seen as a strategic buffer between South Korea, the U.S., and Japan. While exact figures of China’s financial support to North Korea are unknown, it’s been estimated that North Korea accounts for a stunning 40% of China’s aid budget and that China sends them 50,000 tons of oil a month. In Maoist China, this expense was seen as worthwhile. But now that China trades in the billions annually with all three of the countries for which North Korea was meant to serve as buffer, North Korea is ever more felt to be an embarrassment, and an expensive one at that.
It’s thought that to ever-improve their credibility and legitimacy on the world stage, China would love to disavow its arrangement with North Korea. But North Korea’s collapse would also create issues for China.
First is the fear that it would cause a humanitarian crisis with millions of North Koreans flooding into China and destabilizing its northeast region. Second, China is concerned that South Koreans, even in a united Korea, would still want an American military presence as a security guarantor in the region. Many Chinese analysts believe this is phase two of America’s larger plan—first to compel the fall of North Korea, second to counter China’s ever-expanding superpower status. What better way to do this, some Chinese think, than to put American troops on the Korea-Chinese border? For those in China who fear this possibility, they see helping pro-U.S. South Korea deal with North Korea as ultimately undermining their own security and power interests.
Like all rational people, China also wants to avoid nuclear war and radioactive fallout on its shores. That said, compared to South Korea and the U.S., the Chinese have historically deprioritized a nuclear North Korea. Yet the increasing frequency of North Korea’s nuclear provocations has forced China to take this threat more seriously.
But how seriously? President Trump has put vocal pressure on President Xi Jinping to decrease aid to North Korea because it enables their nuclear pursuits. While this approach might have merit as North Korea’s nuclear capabilities expand, President Xi’s recent reelection raises questions.
Just some weeks ago, President Xi was reelected under circumstances that suggest he will seek a third term in five years. Many are arguing no one has had this much power in China since Chairman Mao. Given what appears to be an overt display of hunger for more power, will Xi want to help the U.S., the only other country standing in the way of China’s premier superpower status? Or will he want to consolidate even more power in East Asia through some sort of unilateral agreement with North Korea?
What Now?
Historically speaking, Korea’s current history isn’t too different from its past. The nation has long since been plagued by internal strife. It’s long since been bothered by foreign meddlers and assailants. And either due to internal wars or external threats, isolated and small territory that it is, it’s long since needed help now and then from one of those meddling foreign states. In an effort to restore self-reliance, Korea has repeatedly asked for external support, creating a pattern of meddling, cooperation, resistance, and self-reliance—only to start again.
Even in North Korea and South Korea, recent circumstances have not been that different. In the early decades of these young countries, both were at the hands of brutal dictators. It just so happened that the one in the north was communist and the one in the south was not. It just happened that the one in the north wanted to isolate and the one in the south was willing to work with other nations. It just happened that as the one in the north grew more ruthless, those who tried to disempower him lost. And as the one in the south grew more ruthless, those who tried to disempower him won.
Today, North and South Korea are ideologically diametrically opposed. Yet both are united by two strong forces, the strong forces that have, sooner or later, glued Korea back together after bouts of separation: the belief in minjok (the idea that Koreans are a distinct race with a distinct national identity) and a belief in self-reliance. With South Korea moving ever so slightly back towards a more self-reliant stance, will this destabilize the region more? Or will it serve to emphasize somewhat that which unites, not divides, North and South Korea?
Historically, Korea has always been able to reunite and restore autonomous rule, if even only until the next threat, internal or external. Will this time be different?
With the specter of nuclear war looming larger and larger and regional and global geopolitical relationships growing ever more complicated, what happens is anyone’s guess. Some people believe that President Trump’s escalating rhetoric and fiery Tweets about North Korea are pouring fuel on a fire. Others believe they are the shrewdest approach to backing Kim Jong-un into a corner. After all, Kim Jong-un has been making over-the-top, aggressive statements, even declarations of war, to the world for years. Are they more serious now?
Time will tell. In the meantime, both the U.S. and North Korea have made relatively recent statements, explicit or otherwise, that suggest neither country wants to make a first military strike. Let’s hope such statements are and remain true.
What Life is Like in North Korea
Two great links that provide more detail on North Korea’s history, economy, army, and daily life:
Tales of what life is like in North Korea are often stranger than fiction. There’s:
Dennis Rodman diplomacy.
- Kim Jong-il’s obsession with film and celebrities, his desire to have the biggest movie studio in the East, and his kidnapping of two famed South Korean film stars, whom he forced to make movies, to realize that dream.
- Kim Jong-il’s attempt to make the North Korean version of James Cameron’s “Titanic,” which he hoped would be viewed globally and rival the American version’s box office and awards success (needless to say, it did not).
- There are the strange, likely faked tears and outpourings of grief at the command of the government.
- There’s the flamboyantly animated, beloved by Kim Il-sung “woman in pink,” who’s been serving as North Korea’s preeminent news anchor—“the people’s broadcaster”—since 1971.
- The eerie $552 million, never-been-occupied “Hotel of Doom” in Pyongyang.
- The bizarre circumstances around “The Interview,” Seth Rogen and James Franco’s satirical takedown of North Korea, which prompted Kim Jong-un to threaten to bomb American theaters, sending the movie instead straight to Netflix.
- The high-end Masikryong ski resort Kim Jong-un commissioned, but isn’t used because his people are too poor to afford such a leisure activity.
- The North Koreans who are assigned by the government to certain posts and roles—like skier, subway rider, escalator taker, nurse, doctor—when visitors pass through to make the country look bustling and alive and well.
The fake village, thought to be built only of empty building-front facades, on the North Korean side of the DMZ. It is viewable from a South Korean platform and was created to look vibrant and lure South Koreans to defect to the north.  

There are also wrenching, incredible stories from North Korean defectors who’ve risked everything—often sneaking out without being able to inform their families, often traveling a thousand miles on foot across China and other lands—to liberate themselves from North Korea:
And hopefully there will be more defections, particularly those from Kim’s regime who can work from the outside to topple it:
For further reading and photo viewing:

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