We tend to look at WWII in a kind of historical box, with a beginning and an end. In reality, we feel the effects of WWII to this day. Just as the modern boundaries (and many of the problems) of the Middle East were shaped by WWI, the division of the Korean Peninsula was born of WWII.
Korea’s brief period of sovereignty ended in 1910, when the country was annexed by Imperial Japan. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, Korea was divided into two occupied zones; the north held by the Soviet Union and the south by the United States.
The Cairo Declaration of 1943 called for a unified Korea, but cold war tensions hardened the separation. By 1948, the two Koreas had separate governments, each with its own diametrically opposite governing philosophy.
Kim Il-sung came to power in North Korea in 1946, nationalizing key industries and collectivizing land and other means of production. South Korea declared statehood in May 1948, under the vehemently anti-communist military strongman, Syngman Rhee.
Both governments sought control of the Korean peninsula, but the 1948-49 withdrawal of Soviet and most American forces left the south holding the weaker hand. Escalating border conflicts along the 38th parallel led to war when the North, with assurances of support from the Soviet Union and Communist China, invaded South Korea in June 1950.
Sixteen countries sent troops to South Korea’s aid, about 90% of them Americans. The Soviets sent material aid to the North, while Communist China sent troops. The Korean War lasted three years, causing the death or disappearance of over 2,000,000, combining military and civilian.
The Korean War ended in July 1953, though the two sides technically remain at war to this day, staring each other down over millions of land mines in a fortified demilitarized zone spanning the width of the country.
The night-time satellite image of the two Koreas, tells the story of what happened next. South Korea went through a series of military dictatorships from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, since developing into a successful Republic. In the North, Kim Il-sung built a communist hellhole, a cult of personality established under a North Korean ideology known as “Juche”, (JOO-chay).
The term translates as “independent stand” or “spirit of self-reliance”, its first known reference in a speech given by Kim Il-sung on December 28, 1955. Theoretically based on independent thought, economic self-sufficiency and self-reliance in defense, “independence” applies to the collective, not to the individual, from whom absolute loyalty to the revolutionary party leader is required. In practice, this principle puts one man at the center and above it all. According to recent amendments to the North Korean constitution, that man will always be a well-fed member of the Kim family.
Son of the founder of the Juche Ideal, Kim Jung-il, was a well-known film buff. In a move that would make Caligula blush, he had South Korean film maker Shin Sang-ok kidnapped along with his actress ex-wife, Choi Eun-hee. After four years spent starving in a North Korean gulag, the couple accepted Kim’s “suggestion” that they re-marry and go to work for him, producing the less-than-box-office-smash “Pulgasari”, a kind of North Korean Godzilla film.
The couple escaped, unlike dozens of South Korean and Japanese unfortunates “recruited” with the help of a chloroform soaked rag.
North Korea broke ground on what foreign media called “the worst building in the world” in 1987, just in time for the Seoul Olympics the following year. With 105 stories and eight revolving floors, the Ryugyong would have been the tallest hotel in the world, if it ever opened. Construction shut down in 1992, partly because Soviet funding dried up, and partly because construction was so bad that it’s unsafe to stand within 10 blocks of the thing. In 2008, Orascom Telecom of Egypt agreed to spend $180 million to put glass on the outside, in exchange for a $400 million contract to build the nation’s first 3G cellular network. Whether there will ever be more than one customer, is unclear. Perhaps 2017 will be the year that the Ryugyong becomes more than the world’s largest telecommunications antenna, but so far the place remains “too popular to take reservations”.
Anywhere from 1 to 3 million North Koreans starved to death during the ‘90s, while it’s estimated that one in every hundred North Korean citizens are incarcerated in a system of gulags, torture chambers and concentration camps.
As of 2010, the North Korean Military had 7,679,000 active, reserve, and paramilitary personnel, in a nation of 25,000,000. Over 30% of the nation’s population, and absorbing almost 21% of GDP. Today, that military is under the personal control of a 32 year old who had his own uncle Jang Song-thaek executed, presumably by anti-aircraft machine gun fire, before being incinerated by flame thrower. The same method used to kill two of Mr. Jang’s associates, a week earlier. The New York Times reports that the execution was for a coup plot, but others say he didn’t clap his hands long enough and with the right amount of enthusiasm, over some pronouncement of the “Dear Leader”, Kim Jung-un. The same Dear Leader who controls the nuclear arsenal.
The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea have had more or less “normal” relations, since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The relationship isn’t all moonbeams and lollipops, the DPRK sought relations with Baghdad throughout the Iran-Iraq War. The IRI maintains relations with South Korea as well, but a cordial hatred for the United States has always kept the two united.
Authorities warned the nation of yet another impending famine in March 2016, the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun editorializing that “We may have to go on an arduous march, during which we will have to chew the roots of plants once again.”
The Obama administration recently concluded a nuclear “deal” with Iran, secretly sealed with pallet loads of taxpayer cash. CIA Director John Brennan conceded in September that his agency is “monitoring” whether North Korea is providing Iran with clandestine nuclear assistance. It doesn’t seem a stretch, there have been arms sales and “peaceful nuclear cooperation” between the two since the 1980s. The nuclear relationship between the two is now guided by the steady hands of the “Death to America” mullahs, and the man who banished Christmas and ordered North Korea to worship his grandmother. I cannot imagine what could go wrong.