The past two years have seen a large increase in tension between South and North Korea.


In March 2010, 46 South Korean sailors died when North Korea sank a South Korean naval vessel. Then in November, North Korea killed several South Koreans when it shelled a South Korean island near the North Korean coast.

Back in 2009, North Korea shook the world when it launched a powerful intercontinental-style rocket – ostensibly to put a satellite into space. The rest of the world – mindful of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions – feared that the real purpose was to test a missile system which could one day be used to carry nuclear war-heads. Their fears only increased when North Korea went on to expel all International Atomic Energy Authority inspectors.

Now observers believe that North Korea has 50 missiles capable of carrying nuclear war heads.

But why has tiny North Korea pitted itself against the international community in this way – and why has it sought to develop nuclear weapons? What’s the long-term history that lies behind the present deteriorating situation?

Longstanding character

Although North Korea was born at the end of the Second World War, much of its character was inherited from medieval and early modern times and was refined amid the violence and mistrust of the Cold War.

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North (and South) Korea were unintended products of a deal struck in February 1945 at Yalta between Roosevelt and Stalin. At that stage – six months before Hiroshima – the Americans, who were about to invade the Japanese home islands, were reeling from thousands of Japanese kamikaze attacks.

They had no idea as to whether the atom bomb would be an effective weapon and, as a sort of insurance policy, they extracted from the USSR a promise to attack the Japanese Empire within 90 days of Germany’s surrender.

Immediately after the atom bombs had fallen on Japan, but before Japan had announced its surrender, the US State-War-Navy Co-ordinating Committee in Washington had decided – and notified the Soviets – that Korea should be split (in terms of liberation and occupation) between the two superpowers along the 38th parallel, pretty muchg where the border is today.

Accordingly, seven days later (and three days after Japan had announced its surrender), the Soviets, having already attacked Japanese-occupied Manchuria, went on to take control of the northern part of Korea.

Mutually hostile nations

It wasn’t until 8 September that US forces took control of the southern half of the country. It was out of these two occupation zones that two competing, mutually hostile countries – North and South Korea – emerged into the Cold War.

The North was an autocratic left-wing regime while the South was an equally autocratic right-wing one. But as the South merged with the western world and became relatively liberal, the North became ever more isolated, insecure, authoritarian and militarised.

North Korea’s isolationism was a product of both modern and much earlier history. Its leader, Kim Il-sung, was a devotee of Stalin, but after the more liberal Khrushchev came to power in the 1950s, North Korea politically distanced itself from the USSR. Similarly, Kim Il-sung disapproved of the chaos of Mao’s cultural revolution – and distanced his regime from China.

The collapse of communism worldwide (including, to an extent, China, where a capitalist economy flourishes under a communist government) has further isolated North Korea. Indeed, North Koreans now find themselves almost completely cut off from the rest of the world. Yet this isolationism is nothing new: it is part of a Korean, and East Asian, tradition going back hundreds of years.

In Chinese-dominated ancient and medieval East Asia, technological achievements, population levels and the philosophical and economic systems made the need for overseas expansion and trade largely redundant.

The region had an internal political and cultural coherence which made external contact unnecessary. Early modern Chinese, Korean and Japanese governments often dealt with external influences and threats by locking them out.

In China, coastlines were sometimes cleared of people. Human-free coastal strips – thousands of miles long and on average 20 miles wide – were created to ensure that people didn’t come into contact with overseas-based rebels and pirates.

When people from Manchuria conquered China in the 17th century, Korea remained the sole representative of truly classical Chinese-style civilisation. And when western merchants wanted to establish trade links, they were banned from entering the country (as indeed most Koreans were from leaving it).

Then when, in the 1860s, Christianity was viewed as a cultural and social threat, 10,000 Korean Christians (who had been illegally converted by illicit missionaries) were executed.
North Korea’s autocratic and hierarchical character is largely inherited from the past as well.

Although it is in part a legacy of Soviet Stalinism, it is also a continuation of a much older tradition. For more than 500 years (from 1392 to 1910), Korea was ruled by one of the world’s longest-lasting royal dynasties.

There was no democratic tradition. Up to 30 per cent of the population were hereditary slaves – mainly the descendents of prisoners taken during internal Korean wars in the fifth to tenth centuries.

Perhaps more so than in any other country, society was based on Confucianist ideas which promoted filial piety, obedience, male supremacy and ancestor worship. Indeed today, although North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung died in 1994, he is still officially the country’s head of state.

Autocracy and loyalty to the regime have been reinforced by a siege mentality born of the Korean and Cold Wars and western hostility.

Even the language promotes deference. More than most other tongues, Korean features syntactic and other devices which oblige one to use different forms of speech to members of different social classes. A wide range of suffixes are used to converse with people – depending on their age and social rank.

Christianity’s role

Intriguingly, although Christianity suffered at the hands of the system, it also played a role in perpetuating it. For in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Protestantism was adopted by many people in northern Korea.

‘Koreanised’ by disciplinarian Confucianist ideas, Korean Protestantism became very autocratic – and ultimately nationalistic (due to its theological antipathy towards Japanese attempts to introduce Shintoism after Japan took over Korea in 1910). Kim Il-sung came, in part, from this autocratic Korean-style Christian background and the church may well have formed part of the cultural bridge which connected pre-modern northern Korea to the modern North Korean state.

All this helps explain the unusual nature of that state. But it doesn’t explain her nuclear ambitions. Why does North Korea want the bomb?

Originally its rationale was a genuine sense of insecurity. Several events contributed more than others. First, in the 1950s and 1960s, the US stationed large numbers of nuclear weapons in South Korea which itself tried to develop a nuclear device for possible use against the North (in the event of a second Korean war).

Then in 1962, the USSR retreated over the Cuban missile crisis – and North Korea concluded from that distant object lesson that it could not rely on the Soviets to give it genuine nuclear cover.

Finally, after its relationship with the Soviet Union and China cooled, the North Korean leadership abandoned pure Marxism-Leninism and adopted a new unique political ideology called Juche (self-reliance).

Juche ideologically encouraged the state to develop its own ‘self-reliant’ homegrown nuclear weapon. Its main function was initially deterrence – but then in the 1990s, disaster struck. Floods permanently destroyed 20 per cent of the arable land, crucial gold mines and many coal mines.

Droughts made the situation worse (up to a million died) and, with North Korea’s former trading partners abandoning her after the fall of Communism, the economy virtually collapsed. It was at that stage that the bomb took on a new role.

Using the threat of nuclear expansion and proliferation, North Korea sought to extract aid (mainly oil and nuclear power plants) from the west, so as to restart its economy and potentially give itself a future.


North Korea: a history

1392–1910 The Neo-Confucian Joseon Dynasty
1910 Japan takes over Korea
Feb 1945 USSR agrees to attack Japanese
Aug–Sep 1945 Soviet and US occupations start
1950–53 Korean War
1958 US nuclear weapons in South Korea
c1960 North Korea begins nuclear research
1965 Juche ‘self-reliance’ begins
1994 Kim Il-sung dies
2006 North Korea tests nuclear bomb
April 2009 North Korea tests intercontinental-style rocket – and then expels international nuclear inspectors
March 2010 North Korea sinks South Korean naval vessel
November 2010 North Korea shells a South Korean island

Map: Martin Sanders