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North Korea - History

North Korea History

According to the Koreans, the first of their kin was born in 2333 BC. Scientists with slightly less respect for Korean mythology believe Korea was first inhabited around 30,000 BC, when tribes from central and northern Asia stumbled on the peninsula. Under constant pressure from China, these tribes banded together to found a kingdom in the 1st century AD. By 700 AD the Silla Kingdom of Korea was hitting its cultural stride, littering the country with palaces, pagodas and pleasure gardens and influencing the development of Japan's culture. But in the early 13th century the Mongols reached Korea and gave it their customary scorched-earth treatment. When the Mongol Empire collapsed, the Choson Dynasty took over and a Korean script was developed.

In 1592 Japan invaded, followed by China - the Koreans were routed and the Chinese Manchu Dynasty moved in. Turning its back on the mean and nasty world, Korea closed its doors to outside influence until the early 20th century, thus presaging the events of the twentieth century.

In 1904, Japan invaded, and formally annexed the peninsula in 1910. The Japanese, who hung on until the end of WWII, were harsh masters, and anti-Japanese sentiment is still strong in both North and South Korea. Much of the guerilla warfare conducted against the occupying Japanese took place in the northern provinces and Manchuria, and northerners are still proud of having carried a disproportionate burden in the struggle against Japan.

After the war, the USA occupied the south of the peninsula, while the USSR took over the north. Stalin sent Kim II Sung (the 'Great Leader'), a young Korean officer from a specially trained unit of the Red Army, to take charge of communising the North, and he steadily ascended to the head of a separate government of North Korea, in defiance of a United Nations plan for nationwide elections. Elections were held only in the South, and when the South declared its independence, the North invaded. The ensuing war lasted until 1953 (or is still continuing, if you consider that the South never signed the armistice and count MASH re-runs).

Although somtimes referred to as the 'Forgotten War', because it fell between the global conflagraton of WWII and the morally-conflicted and moratorium-rich Vietnam war, the Korean War was savage and brutal. By the time the war ended, two million people had died and the North was virtually flattened after almost continual bombing by the US Air Force - far heavier than either Japan or Germany had endured during WWII. The peninsula was officially divided just north of the 38th Parallel, and Kim Il Sung shoved the North down the Soviet-style path, complete with Soviet-style purges, Soviet-style gulags and even a Soviet-style Kim personality cult. But the North Korean economy also developed more rapidly than the South in the early years, thanks to the new Juche (self-reliance) ideology that Kim created and installed. North Korea developed heavy industry progressed industrially and socially, and North Koreans were offered some of their first schools, clinics, food reserves, labour rights and recreation facilities they had ever had. Life improved markedly if you weren't a class enemy.

But the post-Korean war period also bought a continual cycle of tit-for-tat and unneighbourly behaviour between North and South Korea. A whole lot of sniping and name-calling went on with the US and Russia lining up in their respective corners ready to protect their respective protégés. By the early 1990s the cult of Kim was in full swing - the sun rose and set, literally, through the agency of Kim Il Sung, their leader, and portraits of him were emblazoned over the heart of every North Korean. Even his death in 1994 and a widespread famine in the late 1990s failed to dent the cultish adulation.

In 1994 Kim Il Sung surprised everyone by announcing that he would freeze North Korea's nuclear program and would meet with South Korea's president Kim Young-sam for summit talks. The summit never happened, as Kim Il Sung died on 8 July 1994. His son, Kim Jong Il (the 'Dear Leader') took over the reins of power and ushered in a new period of even more uncertainty. There was a general feeling that he wasn't quite a chip off the old block; contrarily the general feeling was that he a few chips short of a casino bet.

For the next six years, Kim Jong Il led a reclusive and introverted lifestyle, refusing to meet heads of state or any other dignitaries. Reports filtered back of the Dear Leader spending his time watching foreign videos and sampling cognac at a distinctly non-marxist rate. In 1998, North Korea pronounced Kim Il Sung (dead, at this point, for over four years) their Eternal President. Kim Jong Il was given the second highest post of Chairman of the National Defense Commission. None of these myth-building enterprises helped end the economic malaise or the famine.

Kim Jong Il's reclusiveness and isolationist politics became legend, so the announcement of an historic meeting between Kim Il Jong and the South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung, in June 2000, made Asian watchers sit up and take notice. Kin Jong Il's new-found expansiveness and diplomatic bonhomie suggested one of two things: a genuine thaw and North Korea's entrance into the 21st century; or Kim Jong Il was playing a tricky game of nuclear beggar-my-neighbor with his old sparring partner, the USA.

North Korea's nuclear buildup continued unabated, raising international concerns to the point that the country was included in the George W. Bush's famous 'axis of evil' of 2002. Attempts to scuttle the regime by choking it of oil seem to have only made the regime angrier, and the people hungrier. The economy was kept barely alive by the exportation of arms and heroin. In October 2002, North Korea announced it had become the world's ninth nuclear power, triggering a crisis that it continuing to unravel.

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