BOSTON — It is said that when globe-circling astronauts look down from the nighttime sky on Northeast Asia, the southern half of the Korean Peninsula is bathed in light. The northern half is in almost total darkness, with only a few dim bulbs to be seen outside the capital. Great famines sweep the land, and hunger is present even in the best of times.
Yet the largely pre-industrial and isolated country of North Korea is a master of nuclear weaponry. It has an enormous army poised on the border with South Korea, a dangerous tendency towards sudden aggression, unpredictable behavior, and an unfathomable leadership.
Known in the 19th century as the “Hermit Kingdom” for its propensity for isolation, its 21st-century leadership just got more unfathomable with the death of only its second leader since World War II, Kim Jong Il.
Now the world awaits the next of Kim, the third son of the deceased “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Un, who may or may not continue the dynasty into the coming decades.
He is Kim Jong Il’s chosen successor, and was recently made a four-star general even though his military experience was nil. It is likely that North Korea’s all-powerful army will keep the young Kim for the sake of continuity and legitimacy, but nobody really knows.
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The only steady and abiding truth about North Korea is that nobody on the outside knows. Even in this age of instant communications and social networking, even with sophisticated intelligence eavesdropping and satellite imagery, the outside world knows next-to-nothing about the inner workings of the North Korean government.
One hears so-called experts interviewed about what comes next in North Korea, but the honest ones are quick to confess that they don’t know. The hermit appellation still applies.
The stakes in what happens next are high, because North Korea exports missiles and nuclear technology and can be extremely and recklessly aggressive. It is ironic that the Obama administration spends so much time worrying about whether or not Iran will become a nuclear power, while the far more dangerous and unpredictable North Korea shouts its nuclear capabilities like a spoiled child banging on the table with a spoon.
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In ancient times Korea was the conduit through which China’s culture and religions were taken, absorbed and modified before being passed on to Japan. But like Poland in the West, Korea was caught between two much more powerful neighbors.
In the early 19th century, Korea was more successful than others in keeping out Western traders and imperialists who sought to pry open the kingdoms of the east. Missionaries, as was their wont, would try to make inroads on native religions, but in Korea they were more likely to be massacred than tolerated.
In 1866, a British trading company sent the armed side-wheeler, “General Sherman,” to Korea in the hopes of getting it to open up. The ship was told it was not welcome. A confrontation resulted in the General Sherman firing upon crowds and soldiers on the river bank. The Koreans set fire-rafts down upon the American ship and all her crew were killed either by fire or sword when they tried to swim ashore.
The French landed an expeditionary force, but were forced to retreat, and in 1871 an American punitive expedition resulted in the death of several hundred Koreans. Korea’s isolation was coming to an end, and in 1895 Japan went to war with China largely to decide Korea’s fate.
Japan won, and Korea became a Japanese protectorate, only to be annexed by Japan in 1910. World War II resulted in the end of Japanese rule and the division of the country between the capitalist south and the Stalinist north.
Whereas China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have drifted towards capitalist ways, North Korea is the last true Communist country left on earth, with a cult of personality and regimented society worthy of Stalin himself.
The Korean War, which resulted in 38,000 American dead as well as uncounted thousands of Koreans and Chinese, further isolated the north.
In 1968 US-Korean tensions boiled over again with North Korea capturing the spy ship USS Pueblo, mistreating her crew before they were released.
In recent times, the US has vacillated between engagement and isolation. Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeline Albright, actually visited North Korea, while George W. Bush’s administration would have nothing to do with it on the grounds that it was evil.
In the end neither isolation nor engagement have succeeded in sweet-talking North Korea out of its nuclear ambitions, and North Korea has cheerfully cheated on every promise the West thought it had.
Some of the Hermit Kingdom’s peculiarities have sounded like alien behavior in science fiction — such as kidnapping South Koreans and Japanese and keeping them for the rest of their lives so that they could be studied and examined on how their societies worked. And from time to time, missile tests would be fired over the heads of neighbors, or some provocative artillery shells would arrive with no apparent reason.
More recently, North Koreans were caught allegedly trying to help Syria set up a nuclear bomb-making factory, which the Israelis bombed the moment they found out about it.
The only country with any influence over North Korea is China, but China has been extremely reluctant to use its powers of persuasion. China’s worst nightmare is a North Korean implosion, leading to thousands, perhaps millions of North Koreans flooding over China’s borders.
China has tried urging reforms on North Korea, but, seeing what has happened in the Middle East and the fall of dictators, it is unlikely that North Korea would allow any expression of popular will.
And so with the death of Kim Jong Il, North Korea is passing through another moment of transition, but to what remains an enigma.