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.

Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il (ne Yuri Irsenovich Kim), took over in 1994, and continued his father’s long-standing leadership when it came to encouraging a national attitude that assumed the US was the absolute worst and had nothing better to do than go after a small impoverished country (I mean, they didn’t even have resources we wanted!). To give you an idea of how bad US and North Korean relationships have been historically, the two have no diplomatic relation and a Swedish consulate has to mediate (Jens Lekman will save us all).

During George W. Bush’s presidency, North Korea unfroze it’s existing plutonium-based nuclear facilities, expelled inspectors and got cracking on making plutonium for nuclear weapons again, finally conceding to participating in six-party talks (US, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia), and shut down a nuclear facility in exchange for aid. The US expressed a strong interest in regime change, resisted two-party talks until China put on the pressure, accused North Korea of counterfeiting American currency with zero evidence, and agreed to send aid in exchange for the abandonment of nuclear weapon-building.

And also, there’s a story with pirates! No joke. In 2007 a NoKo (whatever, I do what I want) merchant ship was attacked by Somali pirates. Just FYI, Somali pirates aren’t, like, Jack Sparrow happy fun-time Keith Richards parody pirates. They’re more like f***-your-sh*t-up-and-down-the-Mogadishu-coast pirates. US Navy ships were on the case, and while 22 NoKo sailors fought the 8 pirates on board in HAND TO HAND COMBAT (pass the popcorn), the US Navy threw in some aid and got permission to treat the wounded crew and pirates. NoKo was pleased! They were actually pleased! They even let the New York Philharmonic come and play in 2008. It was on TV there and everything.

I hope you enjoyed that interlude, because it’s all downhill from here. Later in ’08 NoKo was back on the nuclear weapons train (intervention fail), saying the US had failed to fulfill its disarmament promises. The next year, NoKo imprisoned two American journalists filming a documentary on the trafficking of female sex workers on the Chinese border. Enter Bill Clinton, who got the two women – now sentenced to hard labor – out of jail and back home. By the way, this whole time the people of North Korea have been impoverished, starving, and oppressed, and the UN has been really upset about this, as is their job to be.

In 2010 (we’re almost caught up, stay with me) NoKo news stated that the US was behind the sinking of a SoKo warship that officials said was done by a NoKo torpedo. Kim Jong-il died the following year, and in an election held by nobody anywhere, his son Kim Jong-un took over. The Kim Jongs have an almost cult-like following in NoKo, so I guess elections weren’t really necessary. Just your average totalitarian regime, move along. Kim Jong-un seemed super chill and like he wanted everything to be groovy: he froze nuclear tests, invited back inspectors who had been kicked out a few years earlier, and to show support, Obama sent over 240,000 tons of food. And by “food” I mean “mostly biscuits.”

Two weeks later (this lasted two weeks) NoKo launched a satellite, notoriously something you do alongside missile launches, and the US stopped sending cookies. No cookies for liars who keep developing weapons programs. In January of 2013 (we’re up to this year!) NoKo stated that they intend to plan out their third nuclear test, mostly to threaten the US. The US intelligence community believes that NoKo is able to target Hawaii and within three years could be capable of reaching the contiguous United States. The people of North Korea are still pretty much starving and living in squalor, by the way.

On March 29th, as in, a couple of weeks ago, Kim Jong-un threatened the US by letting everyone know he had rockets ready to fire at American bases in the Pacific, in reaction to a pair of B2 stealth bombers that had flown over the Korean peninsula (BECAUSE THEY WERE DEVELOPING NUCLEAR WEAPONS). Chuck Hagel, US Secretary of Defense, said that NoKo posed a “real and clear danger.”

Sh*t’s getting real, guys. The people of NoKo are starving because the government is still running on Stalinist rules and is busy developing military weaponry to protect a country no one wants to invade, because it has nothing to offer except famine and outdated technology – certainly not resources. Where’s a French Revolution when you need one?

By the way, that whole Dennis Rodman thing was for an HBO documentary, and according to PR statements, it wasn’t planned for Kim Jong-un to show up. The delegation was about community basketball for kids. I’m just going to let you decide what that whole thing was about, and we’ll all watch the HBO doc and reconvene.

So there you have it. US-NoKo relations from 1866-Present. If you’ve read this far, thank you. I passed out ten paragraphs ago.

Featured Image via The Independent