This week we close out our look at North Korea with three different scenarios for the future: War, reform, and reunification. None of the these futures are good. A war would kill millions. Reform could entrench a brutal dictatorship. Reunification could create an impoverished underclass in a new Korea for a generation.
Escaping North Korea is difficult, but it can be done. Notable escapees include Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok, a South Korean actress and director who Kim Jong Il captured and forced to make movies, like the Godzilla knockoff Pulgasari, pictured below. Kenji Fujimoto is the pseudonym for Kim’s personal chef who escaped to Japan in 2001. But, the vast majority of North Koreans escape the country because of famine and desperation, and the trip is a long and arduous one through China and Southeast Asia.
Even as its citizens starved, Kim Jong Il was able to assure that North Korea was able to obtain nuclear weapons. He did this by raising revenue with criminal activity, prioritizing the military above all else, bribing a Pakistani nuclear scientist, and reverse-engineering Scud missiles.
The transition of power from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il was a gradual one. From 1980 until 1994, it’s probably that the younger Kim did most of the day-to-day ruling of North Korea, with Kim Il Sung acting in a more removed capacity. When Kim Il Sung did die, it was at an opportune time. His son assumed power in 1994, just in time to preside over a famine that would kill over two million North Korean citizens.
The 1980s and early 1990s were a bad time for North Korea. The DPRK had to endure South Korea hosting the 1988 Olympics, the country sunk billions of dollars into wasteful infrastructure projects, and the Cold War ended, depriving them of Soviet aid. After that, North Korea suffered a symbolic blow in 1994 when Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, died at the age of eighty two.
For years South Korea was a dysfunctional military dictatorship under leaders like Rhee Syngman and Park Chun Hee. Assassination, martial law, and political repression were the order of the day. North Korean propaganda was able to exploit the militarism, chaos, and violence in their neighbor in propaganda, but after democratic reforms in the 1980s, the relative stability of the Korean peninsula is very different. For the most part. South Korea still does have the occasional presidential scandal.
During the Cold War, North Korea primarily interacted with South Korea and the United States via building the DMZ, several assassination attempts on South Korean presidents, and the taking of the USS Pueblo, the crew of which are pictured below. Note how they held their fingers when being photographed by their North Korean captors.
Juche is the animating principal of North Korea. It’s usually translated as “self-reliance,” but in fact it means whatever is good for the regime. Juche is the ideology that North Korea uses to convince it’s people, the outside world, and itself that its system of totalitarianism and authoritarianism has a coherent ideological basis. It’s distinct from communism, often incoherent, and is what keeps North Korea from integrating itself into the larger world.
The Cold War was a good time for North Korea. For much of the mid 20th century it was relatively better off than South Korea, and North Korean citizens recognized that the new regime was worlds better than what they had under Japanese occupation. In this time period of prosperity, the North Korean leadership played China and the Soviet Union off each other, instituted a caste system, and cultivated a policy of isolationism.
The Korean War was supposed to be over quickly. However, due to intervention from the United Nations, China, and the Soviet Union, what would have been a quick regional conflict turned into a years-long war that involved over twenty countries and left millions dead. At the end of it, the borders between the two Koreas looked much like they had before the war, and it gradually became apparent that the division would not go away anytime soon.
Prior to the Korean War, both North and South saw themselves as the legitimate government for the entire peninsula. At the time, the North was considered the more advanced, industrialized part of the peninsula, and Kim Il Sung believed that he could win a war with the more rural South. Stalin gave Kim permission for an invasion, and the Soviet premier believed that the war would be small, regional, and over quickly. However, the United States was able to mobilize the United Nations for what was termed a “police action” to intervene on the peninsula. The was would be regional, but it would drag on for years and involve several major world powers.
After WWII, the Korean peninsula was briefly united again as The People’s Republic of Korea. However, the unification wouldn’t last. American and Soviet forces divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel, and in the north the Soviet Union set about creating a puppet state. However, the leader they chose, Kim Il Sung, and the founding ideology of their new state would not play out entirely as they had planned.
Japanese occupation changed North Korea, with various citizens either collaborating with or actively resisting it. One of those resistors was a guerrilla fighter named Kim Song Ju, who would later be known as Kim Il Sung. If you believe North Korean propaganda (which you shouldn’t) Kim Il Sung was born of humble farmers and formed a secret Korean resistance during the occupation. In fact, his grandfather was a Protestant minister, he spent most of his youth in China, and the units he fought with were organized either by the Chinese or Russians.
Japan’s occupation of Korea was a gradual process. As far back as 1876 Japan approached Korea with unequal treaties that attempted to economically exploit the peninsula. In 1895 Japanese officials assassinated Korea’s Queen Min, who opposed foreign occupation and influence, and Korea subsequently declared itself an empire. However, Japan returned in 1905 with yet another treaty that stripped Korea of its sovereignty, and completely annexed the peninsula in 1910.
This year, we’re doing a long-form series on North Korea. We’ll get into the history, culture, and ideology of the isolated, totalitarian country. In order to get proper context, we’re starting with a (very) brief overview of Korean history. In the twentieth century, Korea is often thought of as a country in tumult, and one that is at the mercy of its more powerful neighbors. However, for most of Korea’s history, it was anything but.
The Korean Demilitarized Zone is a strange place. In 2008 I was a tourist visiting the peninsula, and I learned about one of the strangest incidents in the DMZ’s history. It was something straight out of a slasher movie, and has gone down in history as The Axe Murder Incident.
Footage of a DMZ tour. I did not take this footage, but the tour shown here is very similar to the one I went on.
A photograph of the fight itself. While the picture is old and blurry, it does portray fatal violence, so I felt it would have been in poor taste to put it directly on the sight.
An article about the Soviet defector who ran across the DMZ, mentioned briefly at the end of the episode.