North Korea - Background information

Natural history
People and culture               


Abridged from the History section of the North Korea: the Bradt Guide

The Korean War

It is unclear when Kim Il Sung first planned an invasion of the South, but he was clearly encouraged by the apparent ease with which the Chinese communists had taken control of their country in 1949. Given that the border along the 38th parallel was still relatively open, it would not have been difficult for Kim to receive regular reports on the weak state of the military in the South. Kim certainly discussed his plans often with Ambassador Shtykov, who supported the idea and reported positively to Stalin. The Soviet leader was sceptical to begin with, fearing a clash with the US that could lead to nuclear warfare, but in the end was won over by Kim, who came to Moscow in April 1950 for discussions. Kim continued to China where he garnered support from a confi dent Mao Zedong; fresh from defeating nationalist forces and having set up the People’s Republic of China, Mao was sure that as the Americans had been forced to accept communism in China, they would do so in Korea too. By then, the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons and Mao did not think the Americans would risk a nuclear war over Korea.

The North attacked on 25 June 1950. The military in the South were largely off-duty and totally unprepared, partly because it was a Sunday. Although the invasion came from the North, it can be seen as a reply to repeated provocations from the South that had taken place along the border since it was established in 1945, rather than as a totally unjustified attack out of the blue. Kim was clearly the driving force behind the decision but final approval was sought and given by Ambassador Shtykov, following instructions from Stalin. The first few days were immensely successful for the North Koreans, with Seoul falling on 28 June. 

Kim assumed the South would surrender after the fall of Seoul and, as a result, he failed to make long-term plans or prepare for a response. However, on 30 June, US President Truman ordered ground forces from Japan to be sent to South Korea, who arrived on 4 July. Nearly 100,000 British troops joined the South Koreans and the US forces under UN control, which also included Australia, Canada, Belgium, France, Turkey and nine other countries. Overall command was under US General Douglas MacArthur, who had been Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan. Many of the deployed troops were as naive as the forces in the North had been, reckoning that it would only take a week to settle before they would return to Japan. General MacArthur’s master stroke was the attack on Inchon, which took place in mid September 1950 and led to Seoul being recaptured by UN forces towards the end of that month. It was planned impeccably, with earlier diversionary raids elsewhere to fool the North Koreans and with spies able transmit details of the local forces in Inchon. UN forces occupied the whole of the South by the end of October.

Had UN forces stopped at the 38th parallel (a policy recommended by the British), it is quite likely that the war would have ended after just five months. Sadly, however, this was not the case, and by November 1950 UN forces occupied most of the North, with Kim Il Sung having to flee to the mountains in the northeast. Concerned that UN forces might extend the war into China, the Chinese invaded the Korean border with 200,000 troops on 25 October, all well-trained by Peng Dehuai and most with fighting experience gained in the Chinese civil war that had finished a year earlier. Fortunately, the Chinese forces were also well-armed, as by now the Soviet supply of arms and food, which had been provided since the outbreak of war, were seriously dwindling. The Chinese were concerned that UN forces might cross the Amnok River and indeed many in the US military were keen to do so. However, President Truman would not allow this and US bombing stopped literally at the border in the middle of the river; a bridge was bombed to destruction on the North Korean side, but untouched on the Chinese side.

A bombing raid on the border town of Sinuiju on 8 November set the pattern for further raids over the next 2½ years; 300 US planes dropped 630 tonnes of bombs, reflecting an intensity that no British or German town faced during World War II. Indeed, the savagery of the war equalled that on the Eastern Front during World War II when there was not the slightest concern for human life. The only town to be spared from this onslaught was Kaesong.

General Douglas MacArthur had seemed the obvious choice as Commander of the UN forces given his experience in the Pacific during World War II, and his recent governmental experience in ruling Japan further increased his popularity. However, he failed in the guerrilla warfare that was needed to defeat the Chinese,
who moved in small units at night and hid in the forests by day. (The US would have similar problems with the Vietcong 20 years later.) He also failed to appreciate the significance of the Chinese invasion until much too late, promising all who would listen that the war would end by Thanksgiving and the troops would be home by Christmas. His public advocacy of the nuclear option against China, which would never be US government policy, inevitably led to his dismissal in April 1951, along with his failure to visit Korea from his base in Japan or, perhaps more surprisingly, the US.

Natural history

A long coastline and significant range in altitude, from balmy beaches to chilly mountains, help North Korea sustain a rich and diverse ecosystem. A number of strictly protected national parks and wildlife sanctuaries dot the country, though being over 80% mountainous means that much of the DPRK’s environment is safeguarded by its own topography, rather than the conservational status a national park may afford. The land that can be intensively toiled almost always is, and habitats, particularly in the lowlands, have transformed due to urbanisation and the collectivisation of agriculture. Recent years have seen some conversion of forest into agricultural plots, together with further degradation due to the growth in the demand for firewood, while successive droughts have caused forest fires and noxious insect damage. Forest is recorded at covering 73% of the DPRK’s territory but some estimates put the actual coverage as low as 50%; thankfully, there are now structured systems in place that are striving to undo the damage done a generation ago. All things considered, however, the country presents itself well – most visitors are surprised at the often pristine landscapes found here, with a thick carpet of shrubs and dense forest often stretching far into the distance, the view only occasionally interrupted by a belching industrial plant of some form.

The ecosystem offers a surprisingly wide range of biodiversity for a country of its size, with just shy of 9,000 plant species, including a significant number of medicinal plants that are important in Eastern medicine. Within the animal kingdom, a total of 865 fish, 17 amphibians (including the Siberian salamander), 26 reptiles (including loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles, David’s ratsnake and the Mongolia racerunner) and 105 mammal species are recorded. The long list of the latter includes such wondrous beasts as the Amur leopard, Siberian tiger, long-tailed goral, Sika deer, Mongolian wolf and Asian black bear. Not to be outshone, marine mammals include three varieties of seal and all manner of dolphins, porpoises and whales.

Within the ornithological sphere, BirdLife International note 33 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas within the country, spread over 2,530km2. Of the 326 recorded bird species in the DPRK, 278 are migratory. The East Asian–Australasian Flyway, which passes through the Korean Peninsula, is one of the world’s most important migratory routes, so the protection of the birds that use this (which include the critically endangered Baer’s pochard, spoon-billed sandpiper and yellow-breasted bunting) is important work. While the coastal mudflats in neighbouring China and South Korea have dwindled, the slow pace of change, coupled with fewer polluting factories and the lower levels of fertiliser and pesticides used in the North, is making the DPRK an increasingly important habitat for these birds.

Many examples of the flora and fauna in the DPRK likely still only exist to the extent they do due to the country’s slow economic development. Yes, the country does use pesticides and chemical fertilisers and yes, it has tolerated deforestation and the degradation of habitats and ecosystems, but the economy has been so hampered for so long that the rate of this environmental damage has been far slower than in many other parts of the world. Now that humankind is becoming increasingly aware of the environmental damage it is doing, it is hoped that, as and when North Korea finally does start to live up to its true economic potential, it can do so in a way that is more thoughtful, thus preserving the exemplary natural history of the country for many generations to come.

People and culture

The Korean psyche, both North and South, is built on a varying degree of mistrust of the outside world. While international trade and relations undoubtedly shaped Korean culture into what it is today, importing religious and political ideals along with a great deal else, it has also led to attacks, occupation and war, be it from the Mongols and the Manchus in feudal times to the Japanese and Americans in the modern age. The 20th-century history of Korea was defined by foreign meddling, division and mass upheaval, with Japan, the USA, China and the Soviet Union/Russia (among others), all getting involved in affairs that many Koreans feel they could have settled themselves, should they have been allowed to do so. The status quo continues to this day. All the interference within Korea has understandably led many to take a dim view of outsiders, particularly when the external nations with said interest in Korea seem to approach the Koreans with an air of superiority. Under such a climate, Joseph de Maistre’s famous words ('Every country has the government it deserves'), as occasionally quoted when North Korea is discussed, are a little unfair – both Koreas had their governments forced upon them by external forces, events that they had no control over. 

Schoolchildren's Palace Pyongyang North Korea by Carl MeadowsA visit to a children's palace is found on most tours in the DPRK © Carl Meadows

Divided into spheres of Soviet and US interest, those living in the Soviet North, like it or not, had a Stalinist system forced upon them. Although the Soviet Union departed Korea, moved on and slowly liberalised, North Korea became increasingly hard-line, surviving a brutal three-year war with the US-/UN-allied South and slowly transforming into an isolationist state living under a personality cult. The experiences in Korea from 1945–60 alone saw the departure of the Japanese, the division of Korea, the Korean War and the rise of the cult of Kim Il Sung, while a second defining period from 1991–2011 saw the collapse of the USSR, the death of Kim Il Sung, the Arduous March and famine, the rule and death of Kim Jong Il and the arrival of Kim Jong Un – all momentous events that will have had a profound effect on the psychology of the nation, both collectively and individually. North Koreans work hard and keep their head down. Days are long, and of what little ‘leisure’ time there is, much is spent bettering oneself through political studies, self-criticism classes or ‘voluntary’ work. But the oft-portrayed stereotype of a mindless drone is a cheap shot and wholly inaccurate – North Koreans are a surprisingly well educated and cultured people who have a genuine lust for life, with hobbies and interests not a world away from our own. On a personal level, I find it far easier to relate with North Koreans that I do with people from many other nations I have visited and, bizarrely, there are some interesting cultural comparisons between Britain and Korea; nations on the fringe of their respective continents, enduring a complicated relationship with their neighbours, who they share similarities with but are also wholly different from.

While the Western world celebrates individualism, independent thinking in North Korea can be dangerous, creativity is stifled and few dare to put their head above the parapet. Though nobody speaks of such things, everybody knows that it is very easy to fall foul of the system, and the scars of others have taught them caution; certain things are simply never discussed and one’s guard is almost never lowered, even to close friends and family. Accordingly, many citizens walk a tightrope almost every day, being careful not to trip up, for the slightest mistake can lead to a sudden and hard fall from grace. Such a life which, while perceived as
normal (as nobody has ever known any different), must put intense psychological pressure and anguish on the entire nation.

Foreigners visiting North Korea will not be kowtowed to – Koreans expect and deserve to be treated on an equal footing, with respect for their culture and customs. Friendships are slow to develop, but even one-time visitors who make the effort will see bonds start to form, while regular travellers to the country can cement genuine lifelong friendships. Sadly, many of the problems in North Korea’s international relations are down to the lack of regard shown to this proud homogenous nation, with a good deal of media coverage on the DPRK being offensive and intolerant at best, and veiled racism at worst. 

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