“In fact, they live in a state of constant paradox where truth is anything but constant”
― Guy Delisle, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea
Pick up a newspaper today (assuming of course you can still find one #theprintmediaisnotdead) and chances are that if you look just below that headline article about Donald Trump and Russia, you will find a piece about the oh so ironically named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Typically these articles will center on two main themes, either that the North can barely feed their own people let alone launch a global war or that it’s time we we all started to stock up on canned goods. But how exactly did we get here? To answer this question the staff of the Finest Bagels Blog has put together a comprehensive guide that will hopefully provide our readers with a better understanding of the situation.
So where did these guys come from?
The current states of North and South Korea, while having a much deeper cultural history dating back to the prehistory era, emerged with the end of Second World War. Having originally been annexed by the Empire of Japan in 1910, Korea was liberated as part of the formal treaty of surrender. The peninsula was subsequently divided, Berlin style, along the 38th parallel into a transitional occupied territory. The United States had responsibility for the South while the Soviet Union took responsibility for the North. Negotiations would later begin to reunify the two territories, but rather unsurprisingly, the US and USSR were unable to come to an agreement on the exact terms of reunification. Instead two separate nations were established.
Unsurprisingly, both the US and USSR introduced their own respective systems to the two Koreas. . The Soviets first helped to construct the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) which would go on to dominate the newly formed national government. The WPK regime instituted popular policies including land redistribution, industry nationalization, labor law reform, and equality for women. The Soviets also helped to establish the Korean People’s Army, a collection of former guerrillas who had gained combat experience against the Japanese. The Soviets provided them with modern tanks, trucks, artillery, and small arms. By the end of the decade, North Korea was a fully operational communist state with a shiny new army and political government.
Didn’t we already go to war with them?
Well…technically it was a police action. While the Soviet Union and the United States were having a pissing contest in Berlin, the new ambitious leader of North Korea Kim Il-Sung (more on him later) saw an opportunity. At the time there was a limited US military presence in the Republic of Korea (South Korea), and the country was protected by a sparsely armed and largely untrained South Korean Army. Since it was unlikely that the South was going to give up its newly found free market to reunify with the North (isn’t Capitalism great!), Kim believed an invasion was the only option. Initially Stalin and the Soviet Union were hesitant to support such a bold move, but with the successful test of the USSR’s first nuclear weapons and the rise of Mao Zedong in China, Stalin would eventually give his consent. On June 25th 1950, the North Korean Army invaded their southern neighbor.
In response, the United States rallied a United Nations force to come to the defense of the south. With World War II hero General Stanley MacArthur in command, the coalition forces adopted a policy of total war pushing the invading North Korean Army all the way back to the border of China and flattening nearly everything along the way. Unfortunately, the US-lead army advancing rapidly northwards to the Chinese-North Korean border made China very nervous and prompted them to intervene on behalf of North Korea. The resulting fighting resulted in the coalition forces being forced to retreat back to the 38th parallel. In the end an armistice would restored the original boundaries and brought an end to the fighting, but technically not the war. To this day
So who is this Kim Guy?
Ah, yes…the Kim dynasty. This all starts with Kim Il-Sung. Il-Sung began as a guerilla leader fighting against the Japanese in Korea during World War II, who at the end of the war found his way to Moscow. As part of their efforts to build up the local Communist establishment, the Soviet Union introduced Kim to the North Korean public as a hero, and inadvertently laid the groundwork for the Kim dynasty’s cult of personality. After the Korean War, despite the continuing stalemate and failure to reunify with the South, Kim declared the exercise a victory. Doing this allowed him to turn his attention inward to a series of domestic projects, with the first being economic development. In what was modelled on China’s “great leap forward,” Kim’s government instituted a series of investments in heavy industry, state infrastructure, and the nation’s military. The investments were largely a success, and avoided many of the calamities seen in China. As late as 1970, North Korea’s GDP per capita was almost equivalent with that of South Korea’s. By 1968 all homes were electrified, all children ages 5-16 were enrolled in schools, and over 200 universities/trade schools had been established. This success was quite the feat when you consider the fact that U.S. bombing campaigns had leveled almost every single building in the North, and it elevated Kim to a god-like status within his country and all but guaranteed his bloodline equal acclaim.
However, this economic prosperity would not last. In 1973, the world faced an oil crisis and the international prices for most of North Korea’s native minerals plummeted. This left the Kim administration with large debts and no way of paying them off. To make matters worse, the centrally planned economy that had been the economic driver for North Korea’s past success had reached its productive limits. By 1974, the country began to default on their loans and by 1985 had halted almost all of its repayments entirely. By the time the Soviet Union, the nation’s largest investor, collapsed in 1989, North Korea was in economic ruin. Three years later, Kim Il-Sung would die of heart failure and would be succeeded by his son Kim Jong-Il.
This Kim, while benefiting from the achievements of his father, had only a fraction of his support. As a result Kim would go onto adopt a governing policy known as “Songgun” or “Army First,” and transform his country from a communist state to a military dictatorship. When not detaining and torturing his own people or denying medical care to the poor, Kim Jong-Il got his kicks from promising to build a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the United States. Unfortunately, in 2005 the Kim government would announce that it had taken the first step towards this goal by successfully detonating its first nuclear warhead. The response from the international community was to slap the country with massive economic sanctions. A pattern that we would see repeated with each successive, but usually failed, nuclear test carried out. Kim Jong-Il, like his father, would eventually die of a heart attack. But he left his successor, his son Kim Jong-Un, something more useful than his father left him: complete control over the lives of his citizens.
While Kim Jong-Un was a relative unknown when he first came to power, with some even speculating that he could be a moderating force within North Korea, he quickly revealed that he had no intentions of diverting from the path his father started the country on. Since taking office, Kim the third has undertaken a series of increasingly aggressive actions against South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Kim seems to be using the United States, and a perceived looming threat of invasion by them, as a means of maintaining control over the country. By using this rally around the flag effect, Kim has managed to justify his increased spending on the military and crackdown on dissenters, despite an inability to feed his own people. While it remains to be seen what Kim Jong-Un’s overall legacy will be, he has given us a pretty good hint…
You’re talking about the nuclear thing, right?
Yes, yes I am. On July 4th, North Korea successfully tested an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) reaching a milestone that most experts believed they were years away from achieving. The missile, dubbed Hwasong-14, exceeded 4,100 linear miles putting all of Alaska, but not the US mainland, within range. While this is concerning, there are still several hurdles standing between North Korea and full membership in the nuclear club. In addition to only being able to strike one out of fifty states of its main professed enemy, North Korea has not yet been able to miniaturize a nuclear warhead capable of fitting on to its long range missiles. While this advancement is concerning, you probably don’t need to start retrofitting that backyard bunker quite yet.
So what can we do about it?
When it comes to North Korea, the United States has four general options. The first is prevention, a Bush-era style preemptive military action to try and take out Pyongyang’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, leadership, and military capabilities. While this would end the standoff as well as the Kim dynasty, is brings with it an unnamed amount of problems. The second option is a more limited military action. For example the United States could use a more strategic military strike, such as special forces operations, drones, strategic bombings, or cyber warfare, to take out targets associated with the North Korean nuclear program. While more measured than a full on military strike, this option still plays into Kim’s “looming threat” propaganda and in the end could cause more harm than good. The third option is more economic sanctions, this time preferably with the assistance of the Chinese. While In the past, Kim has used the “rally around the flag” effect to work around these sanctions and keep his people in line, one would think that there has to be a breaking point somewhere, though past experience has shown us that unless the Chinese are on board, no amount of sanctions will be effective. The final option is simply acceptance of a nuclear capable North Korea and any other consequences that would result from a seemingly aggressive, nuclear armed state. The truth of the matter is that in the end there are no good options, only less bad ones.