How North Korea Works

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) visits an exhibition of building materials and sci-tech achievements organized by the Ministry of the People's Armed Forces. AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS/Getty Images

In July 2017, North Korea's state-run news agency released an inflammatory statement: "Should the U.S. dare to show even the slightest attempt to remove our supreme leadership, we will strike a merciless blow at the heart of the U.S. with our powerful nuclear hammer, honed and hardened over time" [source: Cohen and Starr].

Once that might have seemed like nothing more than empty bluster. But North Korea's bellicosity is being taken more seriously these days, now that the nation's 30-something dictator, Kim Jong Un, has accelerated efforts to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of hitting U.S. cities. A few days after North Korea issued its warning, it successfully launched a missile that, if it had been on a flattened trajectory, might have traveled 6,500 miles (10,400 kilometers) — putting it in range of Chicago, according to David Wright, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists.


The U.S. responded with a show of force, flying two B-1 bombers over the Korean peninsula, and conducted a test of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system based in Alaska. U.S. Pacific Air Forces Commander Terrence J. O'Shaughnessy called North Korea "the most urgent threat to regional stability" [source: Associated Press].

A few weeks later, after promising to bomb the U.S. territory of Guam, North Korea changed its mind and said it would not be firing any missiles at this time. Kim Jung Un said he "would watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees" [source: Chappell].

It's strange to think that such a crisis could be created by a small, relatively poor country of 25 million, which has existed for decades in isolation imposed by its totalitarian rulers. How has North Korea, one of the world's last remaining communist regimes, managed to survive? What does North Korea's dictator really want from the rest of the world, and what is he willing to do to get it? And what should the rest of the world do to avoid some catastrophic scenario? We'll examine those questions and more in this article.


How North Korea Came Into Existence

Cheonji Lake, aka Heaven Lake, lies between China and North Korea. Topic Images/Getty Images

To understand why North Korea has become such a dangerous international pariah, it's necessary to look back to the country's origins. The Korean peninsula was ruled by local kings for centuries. But from 1910 to 1945, it was part of the Japanese empire, which tried to make Korea into a colony. That came to an end with the Japanese defeat in World War II. The victorious U.S. forces occupied the southern part of the peninsula up to the 38th parallel, while Soviet forces occupied the northern half. As they had in Eastern Europe, the Soviets installed a communist regime, and in 1948, Korea became two countries [source: U.S. Department of State].

To head the North Korean regime, the Soviets selected an obscure figure. Kim Il Sung was born Kim Song Ju in Korea in 1912 but spent most of his childhood in China. The official version of events is that he fought in the resistance there against the Japanese, though at least one North Korea analyst believes he actually assumed the identity, as well as the name, of an older guerrilla leader who had died [sources: Quince, Sanger].


In 1940, Kim Il Sung joined the Soviet Red Army, and in 1946, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin appointed him head of the North Korean Temporary People's Committee. In 1948, the Soviets made him North Korea's prime minister [source: Boissonealt]. In order to build public support for him, they staged a propaganda campaign to convince Koreans that the new leader had led the resistance against the Japanese.

But Kim Il Sung was an uneasy ruler. After the regime's founding, the Soviets withdrew their troops, and repeated border skirmishes with South Korean forces along the border led the North Korean leader to give a speech warning that the South Koreans would be "crushed completely" if they tried to overthrow him. He got the idea of preempting the attack that he feared by invading South Korea first, and tried to talk the reluctant Soviets into supporting him [source: Hanuki]. But when he finally got permission in early 1950, it proved to nearly be his undoing.


How the Cold War Shaped North Korea

North Korean prisoners, taken by U.S. Marines in a foothills battle, march single file across a rice paddy in 1950. CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

In June 1950, Kim Il Sung's forces invaded South Korea, catching that nation and its ally the U.S. by surprise. At first, it looked as if he might prevail, but a small contingent of defenders held out in an enclave around Pusan, along the southern edge of Korea. That gave U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur time to organize a rescue force that landed at Inchon, near Seoul, in September 1950. MacArthur chased the North Korean forces northward into North Korea, and might have put an end to the North Korean regime and reunified Korea for good. The North Korean dictator begged for Stalin's help, but none came. Then, to the overconfident MacArthur's surprise, the Chinese army jumped into the fray and drove his forces back to the 38th parallel [sources: Brown, Boissoneault].

After two more years of bloody fighting, the two sides finally signed an armistice in 1953 — but not a peace agreement. The Chinese intervention had saved Kim Il Sung, but Chinese leader Mao Zedong had left him hanging for two long days before stepping in. Some experts believe that the fear and uncertainty that the North Korean dictator must have felt forever changed him and his regime. From that point, he viewed the world as a hostile place, where he had no allies that he could really trust [source: Boissoneault].


With his ambitions of ruling all of Korea quashed, Kim Il Sung concentrated on consolidating his power. He purged anyone who might pose a threat, and set up a system in which citizens were grouped into various categories according to political reliability. He wasted some of the economic aid that the Chinese and Soviets provided to build 50,000 statues of himself throughout the country, and erected a museum with 95 halls in Pyongyang to extoll his achievements [source: Independent].

At the same time, Kim Il Sung's animosity toward his perceived external enemies continued. In January 1968, he sent commandos to infiltrate South Korea and stage terror attacks, including a failed attempt to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung Hee. Soon after, the North Korean navy seized a U.S. surveillance ship, the Pueblo, off the North Korean coast, killing one U.S. crew member and seizing another 82 Americans, who were tortured and held captive for 11 months before being released [source: Locker].


The Kim Dynasty

Soldiers walk in front of giant portraits of Kim Il Sung (L) and Kim Jung Il on Kim Il Sung square, Pyongyang, North Korea. Cappronnier Benoit/Getty Images

Though North Korea isn't a monarchy, it might as well be one. Since the nation's beginning, it has been ruled by members of its founder Kim Il Sung's family. When the Eternal President died from a heart attack in July 1994, his eldest son by the first of his two wives, Kim Jong Il ascended to power. Kim Il Sung reportedly selected him because he seemed more ruthless than his other five siblings and had shown his skills as a propagandist [sources: Quince, Ryall].

Kim Jong Il inherited a North Korea that was in desperate straits. The Cold War had ended and the Soviet Union no longer existed to provide economic support. North Korea suddenly had to start paying for oil and other needed imports, as opposed to exchanging credit. That caused its economy to collapse. A brutal famine ensued, which was made worse by floods and droughts, and 2.5 million people reportedly died of starvation [sources: Quince, Phillips].


In response, Kim Jong Il tried to institute some economic reforms. In 2002, for example, the regime began allowing semi-private markets for goods. But that did little to improve North Koreans' overall standard of living [source: CIA Factbook].

When Kim Jong Il, like his father, died of a heart attack in 2011, his third son, Kim Jong Un, rose to power. (He was picked over the first-born son, Kim Jong Nam, who had fallen into disfavor after he tried to use a fake passport to get into Japan, and the second son, Kim Jong Chul, who wasn't hard-nosed enough.) Kim Jong Un, who claimed his father's title of "Dear Leader," had been educated in Switzerland, and reportedly is a fan of Western pop music and basketball [sources: Quince, Ryall, Taylor].

Nevertheless, Kim Jong Un quickly showed that he could be as brutal as his father and grandfather. In his first five years of rule, he strengthened his hold on power by reportedly ordering the execution of 140 senior members of the country's military, government and party elite. The latter included his own uncle and the country's defense minister, Hyon Yong Choi, who was ripped to pieces by fire from an antiaircraft gun in front of his family and others [source: Kwon and Westcott]. In February 2017, his elder sibling Kim Jong Nam was killed in a Malaysian airport by assassins, whom police say sprayed him with VX, a chemical weapon nerve agent [source: Berlinger].


The Hermit Kingdom

North Korean soldiers march during a mass military parade at Kim Il Sung square to mark the 70th anniversary of its ruling Worker's Party of Korea on Oct. 10, 2015. Liu Xingzhe/VCG via Getty Images

Under Kim Il Sung and his successors, the North Korean regime has gone to great lengths to maintain complete control of North Korean society. Political activity, labor unions and independent news media aren't allowed. Radios and TV are pre-tuned to government-controlled stations, and the regime jams foreign broadcasts in an effort to prevent North Koreans from getting information from the outside world.

It's a place where people live in fear of being arrested arbitrarily and tortured by the regime. Some prisoners are executed in grisly public spectacles that the government uses to keep the population docile. Others are sent to join the 80,000 to 120,000 people in the country's network of forced labor camps. In some cases, three generations of family members are sent to these camps to atone for the "sins" of one person [sources: Human Rights Watch, Phillips].


The North Korean regime rules the lives of its citizens so totally that it even dictates what hairstyles they can wear. Women are permitted to choose one of 14 approved styles. Young men are barred from growing their hair longer than 5 centimeters (a little less than 2 inches), while older males are allowed to grow their hair to 7 centimeters (3 inches) [source: Subramanian].

Because of the regime's paranoia about being attacked, North Korea maintains a huge military for its size, with 1.2 million full-time service members and another 7.7 million reservists for a population of 25 million [source: McCafferty]. By contrast, South Korea has 655,000 soldiers and a population of 50 million.

Every Oct. 10 — the anniversary of the founding of the North Korean communist party —the regime stages an immense parade, in which hundreds of trucks and armored vehicles and tens of thousands of soldiers march through the capital city of Pyongyang in an elaborately choreographed demonstration of the nation's military might. In addition to promoting nationalist fervor, it's a show apparently intended to deter the regime's perceived enemies.


Life in North Korea

Han Gwang, supermarket
Shopper Han Gwang-Rim (34) poses for a portrait with his daughter Su Ryon (3) at a supermarket in Pyongyang. ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea has farms that grow rice, corn, potatoes, soybeans and other crops, but food production isn't enough to meet the country's needs. Its industrial sector — which includes chemical plants, textile factories and mines — isn't exactly thriving, either. Production dropped by 3.1 percent in 2015, the most recent year for which estimates are available, and its GDP is just $40 billion [source: CIA Factbook].

As result, for ordinary North Koreans, life is very difficult. The life expectancy is around 67 years for men and 74 years for women, significantly lower than on the other side of the 38th parallel (In South Korea, life expectancy is 79 years for men and 85 years for women) [source: CIA Factbook]. Years of chronic food shortages have stunted North Koreans' growth, so that a 2010 study of North Korean defectors found that the men were between 1.9 and 4.3 inches (4.9 and 10.8 centimeters) shorter and 13.2 to 27.6 pounds (6 to 12.5 kilograms) lighter than their South Korean counterparts [source: Choi et al.].


According to author Paul French, Pyongyang suffers chronic power outages due to fuel shortages, so that people often use candles or kerosene lamps to light their homes after dark. In winter, they sleep in their clothes due to lack of heat. The power shortages also mean that elevators in buildings seldom work. And since most people live in high rises of 20 to 40 stories, it can be very difficult to get around if you are enfeebled. "There are stories of old people, who having moved in, have never been able to leave," writes French.

After the workday ends, most ordinary North Koreans must stay behind for the daily "Community Session" and "Learning Session." The Community Session is a time to go over the day's tasks and production goals. The Learning Session is to disseminate party policy and report yourself — or others — for breaking the rules. However, defectors report that attendance has been dropping at these meetings, with little censure, as the party begins to understand that most people need their spare time to hunt for food to buy, and are often ill from malnourishment [source: French].

For those in the communist elite, though, things are considerably better. Kim Jong Un reportedly lives a life of luxury on a private island. "It's like going to Hawaii or Ibiza, but he's the only one that lives there," reported former NBA star Dennis Rodman, after a 2013 visit [source: Ryall].

Sanctions haven't put a crimp in Kim Jong Un's lifestyle. That may be because the regime has developed numerous unsavory sources of income, including drug smuggling and counterfeiting U.S. currency, to buy what it needs to maintain their luxurious lifestyle [sources: Fifeld, Bowden]. But even lesser officials make extra income though corruption, such as stealing some of the gold, silver and nickel produced by North Korean mines and selling it on the Chinese black market [source: Phillips].


How Much of a Threat Does North Korea Pose?

north Korean dancers
Young North Koreans dance on during a national day celebration in Pyongyang. Christian Aslund/Getty Images

The North Korean regime, eager to deter any attempt by a latter-day Gen. MacArthur to invade the nation and overthrow it, has been stockpiling weapons of mass destruction for decades. Back in 1997, a North Korean army defector told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that the regime had amassed an arsenal that included 5,000 tons (4,536 metric tons) of toxic gas and two or three nuclear warheads, which it was poised to use against U.S. forces. In 2006, Kim Jong Il confirmed that information by staging a test explosion of a nuclear weapon [source: Bowden].

Since then, North Korea has staged several more successful nuclear tests, and its arsenal has grown to between 13 and 30 nuclear weapons, according an April 2017 presentation by David Albright, a former United Nations weapons inspector who now heads the Institute for Science and International Security.


But just because North Korea has nukes, it doesn't necessarily mean that it could use them to attack the U.S. tomorrow. In his presentation, Albright also noted there are reasons to doubt that North Korea has the ability right now to build a nuclear device that will fit atop an ICBM and survive re-entry through Earth's atmosphere so that it can explode over a U.S. city.

But that provides scant comfort. In 2015, another analyst, Jeffrey Lewis of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, noted that the North Koreans probably already had the ability to build a miniaturized nuke, but the question was whether the warhead would remain stable upon re-entry or veer off target and perhaps explode over San Jose instead of San Francisco. "That's a problem, of course, but Kim Jong Un might be content with such an outcome," he wrote in the political journal 38 North.


Why Can't the World Do Something About North Korea?

kindergarten, north Korea
Children play with their teachers at Dongbong Co-operative Farm kindergarten in Hamhung, North Korea. Katie Garrod/Getty Images

Although North Korea has been a thorn in the world's side, it particularly affects South Korea and its ally the U.S. But unfortunately, neither country has much leverage. For the past four decades, a succession of U.S. presidents has tried all sorts of measures to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

The U.S. has employed both carrots and sticks, ranging from military exercises designed to display greater might, to aid deals to allowing release of frozen bank assets as an incentive to negotiate. The U.S. also has championed international sanctions against North Korea, and coaxed China — North Korea's lone remaining ally from communism's heyday and its most important trading partner — to use its influence [sources: Sanger, Fifeld, Bowden].


Unfortunately, none of this has worked. And now, Kim Jong Un's mysterious motives make the problem even more complicated. Unlike his father, who made bellicose public threats but quietly sent his diplomats to make known he could be bought off, the latest Dear Leader has said that he'll never bargain away his nukes or missiles as long as the U.S. is poised to attack him. It could be that he figures the U.S. is too afraid that he'll launch a catastrophic attack on Seoul with conventional weapons to stop his weapons programs.

All of the options for stopping Kim Jong Un are problematic. As journalist Mark Bowden detailed in a recent Atlantic article, stopping North Korea's missile and nuke programs with a military attack would be difficult, and most likely would exact a horrific cost in both American and Korean lives. Trying to assassinate Kim would require infiltrating his inner circle — almost impossible — and there's no guarantee that a replacement leader would be any better.

In August 2017, the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted to impose strict sanctions on North Korea — in response to its launch of the ICBMs. Experts think it may cost Pyongyang $1 billion a year — a huge sum for a poor country. North Korea was already under sanctions from the U.S., the Security Council and the European Union for previous nuclear activity, but this new development is more wide-ranging and likely to cause more hurt economically. The aim is cut off a third of North Korea's annual exports, forcing Kim to abandon his nuclear weapons program or at least be willing to negotiate [source: Taylor]. But since previous sanctions didn't have that effect, it's hard to know what will happen this time.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How North Korea Works

I was in kindergarten during the 1962 missile crisis, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union came to the brink of war. I remember how scared and helpless I felt as we listened to the radio in the family car and tried to make sense of the talk about missiles and warheads. It's sad to think that many years later, North Korea's effort to develop nuclear-tipped ICBMs will mean that another generation of kids may experience those same fears.

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