The Korean Peninsula juts out into the Pacific Rim from northwestern Asia. The peninsula is bound by the Sea of Japan (the East Sea) and the Yellow Sea. North and South Korea share the peninsula. These countries have been separated by the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) since 1953.
To the west and north is China and to the far north along the coast is Russia. Korea is separated from China by the Yellow Sea and the Yalu and Tumen Rivers to the north. The Yalu and Tumen rivers form the actual border between North Korea and China.
Japan is located just east of the Korean Peninsula across the Korea Strait. The Korean Peninsula is now split between South Korea and North Korea. The capital city of North Korea is Pyongyang, and Seoul is the capital of South Korea.
The topography of the Korean Peninsula is mountainous with arable or cultivable land in high demand. Approximately 70 percent of the Korean Peninsula is mountainous.
Off the southern and western coasts of the Korean Peninsula are about three thousand small and mostly uninhabited islands, all within the territory of South Korea.
North and South Korea have very different, yet related, environmental issues, primarily related to the degree of industrialization. With a low level of industrialism, North Korea has severe issues of water pollution as well as deforestation and related soil erosion and degradation. Other issues in North Korea include inadequate supplies of clean drinking water and many waterborne diseases. South Korea has water pollution associated with sewage discharge and industrial effluent from its many industrial centers. Air pollution is severe at times in the larger cities, which also contributes to higher levels of acid rain.
The physical size in square miles of North Korea or South Korea is similar to the physical area of the US state of Kentucky. North Korea is slightly larger, and South Korea is slightly smaller. For centuries, Korea was a unified kingdom that was often invaded by outsiders. After the fall of the Chinese Qing (Manchu) Dynasty, the Japanese took control of the Korean Peninsula (1910) and controlled it as a colony. You can read a book about this time in Korea’s history:
When My Name Was Keoko
Sun-hee and her older brother, Tae-yul, live in Korea with their parents. Because Korea is under Japanese occupation, the children study Japanese and speak it at school. Their own language, their flag, the folktales Uncle tells them—even their names—are all part of the Korean culture that is now forbidden. When World War II comes to Korea, Sun-hee is surprised that the Japanese expect their Korean subjects to fight on their side. But the greatest shock of all comes when Tae-yul enlists in the Japanese army in an attempt to protect Uncle, who is suspected of aiding the Korean resistance. Sun-hee stays behind, entrusted with the life-and-death secrets of a family at war.
Japanese colonial rule ended in 1945 when the United States defeated Japan, forcing it to give up its colonial possessions. The structure of modern Korea is a result of the ending of World War II.
The conclusion of World War II was a critical period for the Korean Peninsula. The United States and the Soviet Union both fought against the Japanese in Korea. When the war was over, the Soviet Union took administrative control of the peninsula north of the thirty-eighth parallel, and the United States established administrative control over the area south of the thirty-eighth parallel. The United States and the Soviet Union divided Korea approximately in half and eventually established governments in their respective regions that were sympathetic to each nation’s own ideology. The Soviet Union administered the northern portion; the United States administered the southern region. Politics deeply affected each of the regions. Communism dominated North Korea and capitalism dominated South Korea. In 1950, with aid from China and the Soviet Union, the Communists from the north invaded the south. After bitter fighting, a peace agreement was reached in 1953 to officially divide the Korean Peninsula near the thirty-eighth parallel. Korea remains divided to this day. The United States has thousands of soldiers stationed along the Cease-Fire Line (or DMZ), which is the most heavily guarded border in the world.
The following video explains a lot of the history of Korea and will help you understand why North Korea is so different from South Korea.
The government of North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) was formed with the leadership of Communist dictator Kim Il Sung, who shaped his country with a mix of Soviet and Chinese authoritarian rule. Having few personal freedoms, the people worked hard to rebuild a state. Using the threat of a US military invasion as a means of rallying his people, Kim Il Sung built up a military of more than one million soldiers, one of the largest in the world. People could not travel in or out of the country without strict regulation. North Korea existed without much notice until the 1990s, when things suddenly changed.
When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, North Korea lost a valued source of financial support and oil. Without fuel and funding, many of the factories closed. Unemployment rates rose significantly. Meanwhile, China adopted a more open posture and began to increase its level of trade with the West. The result was that China began to lose interest in propping up North Korea politically. North Korea was facing serious problems. Massive food shortages caused famine and starvation. Thousands of people died. Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and the country lost their “Great Leader.” He had ruled the country since World War II and in the end was deified as a god to be worshiped by the people.
The government dictatorship continued as the Great Leader’s son, Kim Jong-il, took over the leadership role. Kim Jong Il, known as the “Dear Leader,” took repression of his people to new levels. Televisions and radios sold in North Korea could only receive government-controlled frequencies. Cell phones and the Internet were banned. The government took a hard line against dissenters. If you were caught speaking against the state or taking any action to support dissent, you could be arrested, fined, placed in a prison camp, or executed. People were not allowed to leave or enter the country without government approval. Only a couple hundred tourists were allowed into the country per year and are closely escorted.
Kim Jong-il took hard measures to stay in power and to avoid yielding to the capitalist frenzy of corporate colonialism.
In 2011, Kim Jon-un, Kim Jong-il’s son, became the leader of North Korea and was announced as the “Great Successor” upon his father’s death in 2011. Kim rules a dictatorship where elections are not free and fair, government critics are persecuted, media is controlled by the regime, internet access is limited by the regime, and there is no freedom of religion.
North Korea is widely accused of having perhaps the worst human rights record in the world. Based on satellite images and defector testimonies, Amnesty International estimates that around 200,000 prisoners are held in six large political prison camps, where they are forced to work in conditions approaching slavery. The government uses collective punishment whereby members of a family get punished for the crimes of one person.
According to North Korean documents and refugee testimonies, all North Koreans are sorted into groups according to their Songbun, an ascribed status system based on a citizen’s assessed loyalty to the government. Based on their own behavior and the political, social, and economic background of their family for three generations as well as behavior by relatives within that range, Songbun is allegedly used to determine whether an individual is trusted with responsibility, given opportunities, or even receives adequate food.
North Korea has demonized the United States as the ultimate threat and has used state-funded propaganda to indoctrinate its people. North Korea’s government continually tells its people that the United States will invade at any minute and to be prepared for the worst. Propaganda has been used to create and enforce military, economic, and political policies for an ideology that supports the unification of all of Korea under Communist control. North Koreans live under “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” where the regime “seeks to dominate every aspect of its citizens’ lives and terrorizes them from within.
North Korea is mainly mountainous; there is little quality farmland. While only 2 percent of the land is in permanent crops, about a third of the population works in agriculture. The best farmland in North Korea is located south of the capital city of Pyongyang.
The capital is a restricted area where only the most loyal to the state can live. The elite who live in this city enjoy a privileged life compared to other North Koreans. There are many high-quality restaurants in Pyongyang with Korean and international food and is an active nightlife with late-night restaurants and karaoke. The city has water parks, amusement parks, skating rinks, health clubs, a shooting range, and a dolphinarium.
There is a serious shortage of goods and services in other parts of North Korea.
Electricity is not available on a dependable basis. Massive international food aid has sustained the people of North Korea. Outside food aid is accepted even though North Korea has continued a policy of self-reliance and self-sufficiency called Juche. Juche is designed to keep Korea from becoming dependent on the outside. The policy of Juche has been quite effective in isolating the people of North Korea and keeping dictator Kim Jong Il in power. The policy of Juche also holds back the wave of corporate capitalism that seeks to exploit labor and resources in global markets for economic profit.
One way that North Koreans are finding out about the outside world is through smuggled-in cell phones and videos from South Korea. Popular video productions include South Korean soap operas, because of the common heritage, language, and ethnicity. The North Korean government has attempted to crack down on smuggled videos. Citizens found with smuggled videotapes are punished with steep fines or imprisonment. Desperate North Koreans have escaped across the border into northern China, where thousands of refugees have sought out better opportunities for their future. It is ironic to think that Communist China, with historically few human rights, would be a place where people would seek refuge, but China’s economy is growing and North Korea’s economy is stagnant, which creates strong push-pull forces on migration.
Want to read a book by a woman who used to live in North Korea?
The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea is an extraordinary insight into life under one of the world’s most ruthless and secretive dictatorships – and the story of one woman’s terrifying struggle to avoid capture/repatriation and guide her family to freedom.
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Additional information and image credits:
North Korea map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32649926
Korean Peninsula By Jyusin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5285843
Demilitarized zone By Rishabh Tatiraju – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21452471
Yalu River By Kmusser – Own work using Digital Chart of the World and GTOPO data., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6345365
Tumen River Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1558610
Korea Strait CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=288322
Mt Seorak By Taewangkorea – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=832182347
Kim Jong-un https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Jong-un
Statues in N. Korea By J.A. de Roo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21244159
North Korea https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Korea
Pyongyang By Uri Tours (uritours.com), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36440111