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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