Tensions between the US and North Korea are heating up. Here’s how we got to this point — and where we might be headed.
The news about North Korea sounds, and is, pretty scary.
North Korea now has an intercontinental ballistic missile that is theoretically capable of hitting major US cities including Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC. And the US military now believes North Korea has the capability to “miniaturize” a nuclear weapon and fit it onto that missile.
President Trump is openly threatening North Korea with apocalyptic language, warning on Tuesday that North Korea “best not make any more threats to the US. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Just a few hours later, the North responded with a statement saying that its military is “examining the operational plan” to strike areas around the US territory of Guam with medium-to-long-range strategic ballistic missiles.
Why is all of this happening? Why are we talking about a possible war with a tiny, desperately poor country on the other side of the world? It’s a long, complicated story that goes back decades — all the way back to the Korean War in the early 1950s. It’s a story of diplomatic failures, madcap dictators, and tricky geopolitical maneuvering.
So for those of you who are confused, don’t sweat it — we’ve got you covered. Here are answers to some of the most basic questions about North Korea that will help you get up to speed on where we are in the conflict, how we got here, and where we’re likely headed.
1) What is North Korea?
North Korea, known officially as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is a small country sandwiched between China and South Korea in Northeast Asia. It is home to an estimated 25 million people, nearly 3 million of whom live in the capital city of Pyongyang.
Since 1948, it has been run by the Kim family. The first leader was Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who was in power from 1948 to 1994. He was treated like a god in both life and death. He is still known today as the “Great Leader” and the “Eternal President,” and monuments glorifying his reign are everywhere in the country.
Kim Il Sung’s cult of personality really began to take root in 1950, when he led the Soviet-backed invasion of South Korea, kicking off the Korean War. The United States intervened in the war on behalf of South Korea, and China later intervened on behalf of the communist North. It was a bloody war that ultimately killed some 5 million soldiers and civilians.
At the war’s end in 1953, the two countries became separated by a demilitarized zone, or DMZ, and remain so to this day. Technically, both sides are still at war, since an armistice (truce) was signed, not a peace treaty.
After the deal was signed, South Korea — with heavy US financial and security support — began to slowly transform itself into what is now one of the world’s wealthiest, best-educated, and most technologically advanced societies.
The North also briefly flourished because of support from the Soviet Union and China, but those good times didn’t last. Mismanagement, crippling debt, and a series of devastating droughts and floods demolished the North Korean economy and set off what would eventually become lingering food shortages in the country.
At the same time, the Soviet Union was suffering its own economic troubles, causing its leaders to pull back on aid to North Korea. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in the early 1990s, the North Korean economy went into a dramatic downward spiral, culminating in a horrendous famine that killed between 600,000 and 1 million people.
Yet through all of this, Kim Il Sung cultivated a powerful cult of personality. North Koreans were inundated with propaganda branding Kim as the country’s benevolent father figure who was transforming the country into a glorious socialist utopia through his unique brand of ideology, known as “juche.” Translated as “self-reliance,” juche stresses total independence in all facets of national life, from foreign policy to economics to national defense.
When Kim died at the age of 82, the Korean Central News Agency, the country’s official news organization, published a glowing seven-page announcement that said “he turned our country, where age-old backwardness and poverty had prevailed, into a powerful Socialist country, independent, self-supporting and self-reliant.” He was, as the news agency concluded, the “sun of the nation.”
Since Kim’s death in 1994, his son and grandson, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, respectively, have carried on his legacy, aiming to run the country exactly like he did. They purposefully demonstrate in their own propaganda how closely they hew to Kim Il Sung’s style of governance. Kim Jong Un even goes out of his way to look as much like his grandfather as he possibly can.
Despite some modest reforms to the economy under the two younger Kims, the country is still far, far behind the rest of the world. The CIA ranks North Korea as the 211th-poorest country out of the 230 it tracks, and its people live on about $1,800 a year.
North Korea is almost solely reliant on China as a trading partner, with most of its money coming from the millions of tons of coal it exports to China every year. It also sends iron ore, seafood, and clothing to the Chinese. This is why the news that China had suspended its coal imports from North Korea back in February was such a big deal, even though China’s overall trade with North Korea has increased.