Last year will go down as monumental in the history of North Korea.
The country carried out 16 tests between February 2017 and the end of the year, with 23 missiles fired with increasingly frightening accuracy.
One such launch, carried out in the early hours of November 29, flew higher and further than previous tests – eventually landing in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
As the nuclear threat grew, US President Donald Trump doubled down on his claims that he would unleash ‘fire and fury’ at the small nation.
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In 2017, North Korea seemed more isolated than ever.
But how did the country get to this point? Has it always been isolationist, or is what we’re seeing now simply the result of a complex combination of events in the modern era? And what exactly is driving North Korea’s nuclear ambitions?
Dr Niki Alsford, Director of the International Institute of Korean Studies (IKSU) at the University of Central Lancashire, told Metro.co.uk that North Korea – Korea generally, in fact – has a ‘long history of self-isolation’.
‘The Choson dynasty from the 14th century to the 20th century, for the most part, kept the country isolated from the outside world,’ he said. ‘But this was not unique to Korea – both Japan and China had adopted isolationist policies in the past. With Korea it just held out that bit longer.
‘The term “hermit kingdom” was first given to Korea in the 19th century, but nationalism surrounding the idea of Korea burst in the resistance to Japanese colonial rule.’
It was the country’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule that created the ideological divide between North and South Korea. Japan colonised Korea from the end of the Choson dynasty in 1910 until the end of World War II, in 1945.
After this, Dr Alsford explained, the North and South of the country ‘each developed in a distinctive way’.
‘The North developed under this cult of leadership, while the South went from dictatorship to democracy with a pluralistic society, and a popular culture which actually transcends all forms of cultural boundaries.’
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But what really unifies North Korea ideologically is the concept of ‘juche’ – meaning self-reliance.
‘North Korea has manifestly not collapsed, despite exhibiting these characteristics of an isolated, or hollowed-out state, and I think the key word here is “juche”,’ Dr Alsford continued. ‘Isolationism reinforces this idea of self-reliance. Even though from the west we look at this in terms of its foundations in Leninist thought and communism, actually, juche is the ideology of North Korea and North Korean propaganda.’
In keeping with juche, in the second half of the 1940s North Korea was almost fully self-sufficient. A crucial factor in the country’s initial success was the support it received from both China and the Soviet Union, and its ability to exploit the risk between the two nations by playing them off against each other. By playing the ‘shrimp between two whales’, as Dr Alsford described it, the country managed to sustain itself relatively well.
But this started to change after the collapse of the USSR. When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, the kind of isolation we now associate with North Korea really began to grow.
Then, in the mid-1990s, one of the most calamitous events of modern North Korean history happened – the Great Famine.
‘The Great Famine in the 1990s is a very, very important part of North Korean history,’ Dr Alsford said. ‘The famine weakened the bond between the state and the people. It forced the average North Korean to fend for themselves.’
It’s believed the famine, also referred to as the Arduous March, killed up to 3.5million people between 1994 and 1998. Many of those who died were children.
And just a few years later, things went from bad to worse when George W Bush included North Korea in his ‘axis of evil’ speech in 2002.
‘Our second goal is to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction,’ Bush said at the State of the Union Address in January 2002. ‘Some of these regimes have been pretty quiet since September the 11th. But we know their true nature.
‘North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens.’
The following year, in January 2003, North Korea pulled out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty – a treaty that barred them from making nuclear weapons. Pyongyang blamed US aggression for its decision. This further isolated them.
But a major barrier to any US-North Korean relations – and one of the main driving forces behind North Korea’s nuclear ambitions – are the painful, still raw memories of brutality at the hands of Americans during the Korean War, which took place from 1950 to 1953.
Dr Alsford said: ‘The carpet bombing of the North by Americans in the Korean War is still something that haunts the country today. There are many people who are still alive who experienced that. This is actually a genuine fear. So there is a belief that being a nuclear state helps to offset that.’
And that is something that is often missing when we talk about North Korea – the people who live there, trying to get by day-to-day. A burgeoning ‘grey market’ exists in North Korea now – a quasi-capitalist state – in which citizens sell things as part of small capitalist ventures, whilst also working their official state jobs. North Koreans near the Chinese border, for example, will often be seen wearing skinny jeans – despite this technically not being allowed. Similarly, in Pyongyang many people now own mobile phones. This grey market system is allowed to continue in large part thanks to corruption, particularly among the country’s elite – but it is also the main reason ordinary North Koreans are able to look after themselves and stave off another Arduous March, despite there reportedly being an horrific drought currently hitting the country.
‘People tend to be focused on this idea that North Korean citizens are robots, that they’re brainwashed Kim Il-sung worshippers,’ Dr Alsford said. ‘What happens when we do that is that we tend to strip those people of their own agency.
‘Of course there are people who are victims of the state security apparatus, and I’m in no way making the claim that they’re not – but when you talk about North Koreans, the chief concern of every North Korean is to make money, raise their children, and have a little leisure time. And increasingly, many are able to do this under the umbrella of the state.’
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