Field Guide

Field Guide to What The Heck's Going on in N. Korea

North Korea is a hot buttered mess. So much so, that if there is a bad harvest (which has been happening a lot lately), there’s nationwide famine – something that doesn’t really happen in a peacetime industrial economy. What you’ve probably been hearing about North Korea, though, is that they’re really into nuclear weapons right now. That’s right — the country can’t feed its own people, but when it comes to nuclear weaponry, they just can’t get enough! And by “they” I mean “Kim Jong-un et al” and not the people who just want some f***ing dinner please.

Most of us have a general idea of the United States’ history with North Korea, though it’s probably limited to that M*A*S*H episode where Alan Alda is sassy and then gets all serious in surgery, says something deep about war, and then finds out he’s Jack Donaghy’s father. The US and Korea have been all over the place going way back to the 19th century. Like the General Sherman Incident in 1866, which is this funny story where a US gunboat went to Korea to negotiate a trade treaty and instead it got attacked by Korean forces who killed the crew after both fired guns for a while because the boat defied instructions (and then the US retaliated with the Shinmiyangyo attack). This is why we use our words, guys.

Things almost took an uphill turn in 1882 (settle down class, we have a lot to cover), when the US and Korea established trade relations. Cut to 0.010 seconds later and the Russo-Japanese War (1905), in which the US negotiated peace, and then five years later the US was all “whatevs” when Japan annexed Korea. Korea was not amused.

So then WWII happened (well, WWI happened, and the Great Depression, and a bunch of other stuff, but I’m trying to keep this brief), and when it was over, the UN divided Korea into North and South along the 38th parallel. The US occupied South Korea, and a few years later when Kim Il-sung came back from exile and took over the country, he declared the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (heretofore referred to as DPRK because my carpal tunnel is kicking in already). The US didn’t give the DPRK diplomatic recongition, but Soviet Russia did — probably because they had installed Kim Il-sung as leader of the country in the first place.

If you’re ever lived in a Soviet satellite country, like the one I was born and semi-raised in (Hungary), then you know that the main takeaway from the whole thing is that sh*t was cray. The government was a bureaucracy that ran on bullsh*t, red tape, incompetency and occasionally executing people who argued with you. Korea didn’t vote Kim Il-sung into office, and the 2 leaders of the country since then have been his son and grandson. The Korean War was started by North Korea invading South Korea, approved by Stalin (you know it’s a bad idea when Stalin approves).

There were a few years of violent stalemate, and once the Korean War ended, Kim Il-sung’s approval rating – especially in the USSR – wasn’t exactly stellar. In fact, part of the reason he was allowed to remain in power at all was that the Soviets were too busy in 1956 dealing with the revolution in Hungary (there’s this painting from my grandparents’ house that still has bullet holes in it) and couldn’t be bothered to get rid of him. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the US removed the last of its nuclear weapons from South Korea, and we could finally start catching up on Dallas and MTV in Hungary.

In the late 50s, North Korea (can I just call it NoKo? No? OK just checking) started building massive underground fortifications, and in ’63 they asked the Soviet Union for help with nuclear weapons development but got shut down. Since then there have been a number of ups and downs with nuclear non-proliferation treaties, negotiations, sanctions, and a lot of “no we’re not making nuclear weapons” followed by “except the ones we plan to aim at your house.” The UN has been trying to keep everyone on the playground away from the dodgeball court, and both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have gone to North Korea – as non-representatives but civilian intermediaries – to try and smooth things out.

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  • Brandy Clark

    Im just commenting because I feel like you should know that after all that work, someone actually read this. and appreciates it. Im aware of whats going on NOW, but before reading this article I wasnt really sure how it had all started.

  • Caitlin Jennifer Gordon

    Agreed! Much appreciation for all of this. I feel like it can all get so muddled, but this was super helpful.

  • Elisabeth Horton-Cook

    I am shamefully neglectful of keeping up with the news. Thank you for this informative piece.

  • Caroline Stephanie

    Thanks for the insight, now I know what is happening in the political realm of things. Or at least historically.

  • Kimberly Donoghue

    I totally LOVE how this is written. I am always confused about politics and history (embarrassing, I know…) but I read this and understood it. And giggled. A lot. I really do appreciate this article! Thanks!

    • Jessie Medlin

      Don’t be embarrassed. I, too, have issues with retaining historical and political information. :) Everyone has their thing! Ours just isn’t history / politics. Doesn’t mean we don’t want to learn at all! :)

  • Rachel Barth

    This was awesome. You should probably start writing actual history books.

  • Andrea Ramonna Torres

    Thank you i feel completely caught up with whats going on!

  • Jessie Medlin

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! :) I have such a hard time reading and retaining information in regards to history and politics! I am so glad someone broke it down for me 😀 — I really wish you would take other historical events and write about them. I’d LOVE to read that blog. :)

    • Julia Gazdag

      I’m awful at retaining information long-term. I got a 4 on the AP US History test — a year later I had to look up what years the Civil War spanned. So goes my brain.

  • Naghma Mithani

    North Korea also recently declared that it was still actively in a state of war with South Korea, since a peace treaty had never been formally signed after the end of the Korean War or as the Koreans like to call it The Forgotten War.

  • Lorena Patricio

    Loved it! really , I think this is the best I’ve read about it! I enjoyed it so much I’m gonna make sure my students get to read it! =)

  • Mali McElfresh

    I wish the news was as entertaining as this! Brilliant!

  • Andrada Sabo

    I loved your article! So much information written in such a pleasant way to read :)
    You should write more articles, like this one, on historical events . . . I could use catching up on some history. Good Luck! :)

  • David Amezcua

    You are still the best.

  • Mia Moreno

    Great article, lady! I’m going to have my 12-yr-old read this. Everything makes sense now to me, at least in a factual way, thank you!

  • Megan Johndreau

    i actually live in south korea, and i promise you, sh*t isn’t getting real here. north korea doesn’t even make the news here. but the cherry blossoms (which are in full bloom and lovely) do. north korea and south korea have technically been at war since the korean war, and every couple of years north korea threatens to engulf south korea in a sea of fire. kim jong-un is just stomping around like a petulant child because he’s not getting what he wants. although i really enjoy your article and find it very informative (love the bit about jong-il’s birth name). i just think it’s really important that people know that it’s not quite the ordeal that cnn makes it out to be.

    • Julia Gazdag

      Well, if they have nuclear capabilities that does make things more serious than just empty threats and throwing fits.

  • Stu Mosby

    haha what an amusing, quirky history lesson ! Thank you !!

  • Michael Lee Elmendorf

    Whats going on? The US initiated/instigated this current problem by having military maneuvers/practice (with nuclear capable weaponry) in South Korea at the border of North Korea. This happens every Spring. It is a bit unnerving for N. Korea. What the media and US “politicians” fail to say, is North Korea is stating they will attack and use nuclear weapons if attacked. The US is instigating this and the media, by-in-large is not reporting to the public about it: Google: Watch Youtube clip: “FAIR TV: North Korea Alarmism, Spinning Gun Polls, USA Today Says We’re All Rich!” Google: “Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting: (FAIR, the national media watch group, has been offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship since 1986)

    *My father was in the Medical Corps in South Korea. He was attached to a MASH unit, during the conflict with North Korea (Police Action) in the 1950s. Do not buy into the latest media/”politician” propaganda regarding the North Korean regime

    • Michael Lee Elmendorf

      “Tensions on the Korean Peninsula rise very predictably each year when the United States and South Korea conduct large-scale joint military exercises to prepare for a crisis. Tensions usually don’t get as bad as they are now, as the U.S.-South Korea Foal Eagle maneuvers head toward their conclusion, but the war games never fail to bring a sharp response from North Korea.

      Google: “A look at US-South Korea joint military exercises” This will lead to an AP Associated Press article

      • Michael Lee Elmendorf

        Where in the movies is a lair the hero? Nowhere in art: literature, fiction, movies, tv, song, music… is lying, misleading people (shady-media-manipulation ) and/or propaganda romanticized(?) It is very creepy. Where in the movies is a lair the protagonist? According to our popular entertainment, the liar is the bad guy(?) It is extremely ignoble. This is why I cannot stomach watching TV. Even though, I fricken love Zooey Deschanel, fricken love her, I cannot stomach to sit in front of the TV and watch FOX. Sorry, but FOX is one of the worst offenders of the above deceit. Again this thing with North Korea makes my blood boil. From the start of this, I read the fine print, N Korea was reacting to US planes flying too close to the border. For some reason, the media, then the politicians started manipulating (creepy as all hell) the public (scaring people) into believing N Korea is the aggressor with nuclear weapons ready. Why? Where in the movies is a lair the hero, and lying is noble? Nowhere?

        • Michael Lee Elmendorf

          One last thing regarding the North Korean regime; it has been voted in a tie, 3rd to last place as worst country on earth: this in a world-wide BBC poll. It is tied with another “state” called “Israel.” What? You didn’t hear this on the “news?” I doubt it. Please Google: “BBC poll ranks Israel third in list of worst countries worldwide”

  • Hilary June

    This article reminds me of my favourite quote from The Office “explain it to me as if you were explaining it to a 6-year-old” [Michael to Oscar about surpluses, which fyi, is how I learned about surpluses] … it’s the best, right?!

    Thanks for the article!

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