North Korea - Background information


History
Natural history
People and culture               

History

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

The Korean War

In the West it is firmly believed that the DPRK was the aggressor, with Northern forces invading the South in June 1950. Pyongyang’s version is the south, at the behest of a belligerent US, attacked first, and the North simply responded in kind. If that was the case then the southern offensive into the north must be deemed as spectacular a failure as the success of the north’s counter-attack.

The initial triumph of the DPRK assault suggests a long and hefty build-up, but the North was not totally devoid of provocation. The war was as good as inevitable following the division of Korea, the political gulf between the two states and border incursions by both sides, which had been going on for years. But both states then, as now, were and are committed to reuniting one country, a country split by outside forces with a map and a pen. It was always going to be a mess.

North Korean female soldiers in Juche Tower, North Korea by Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.comFemale soldiers during military training exercises in Pyongyang © Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com

Northern forces hammered southwards with the lightly armed, poorly trained southern forces retreating in such panic they destroyed bridges that their own troops couldn’t retreat across. Within a week, the North had taken Seoul, but as swiftly, the US and United Nations had voted to intervene on the South side. Fifteen countries’ forces were combined into one UN command under US general Douglas MacArthur. The decisive move came in early September: as the DPRK army compressed the South around Pusan, a US Marine division landed at Incheon and cut the DPRK supply and reinforcement routes.

The UN force heartily battered the DPRK army back over the 38th parallel, then pressed on to unite Korea under UN auspices. However, China’s newly established communist government was very wary of losing its brothers in Pyongyang, and worse, a Korea united under American hegemony would only serve to harass China. China’s premier and foreign minister Zhou Enlai threatened direct military intervention if US forces crossed the parallel and didn’t leave the liberation to South Korean troops.

The war was as good as inevitable following the division of Korea, the political gulf between the two states and border incursions by both sides, which had been going on for years.

Nonetheless, MacArthur was eager to finish the job, and by October’s end, having taken Pyongyang by land and Wonsan by sea, and pounding every city from the air, UN forces had reached the Yalu. The Chinese, as they’d threatened, counter-attacked in late November with hundreds of thousands of troops, pushing the surprised UN forces 30 miles south of Seoul as the evil winter set in. But then the UN dug in, and the Chinese suffered their own staggering losses in April and May. Herein the war ground into stalemate as both sides went back and forth around the 38th parallel.

Armistice talks were proposed in June 1951, to which the UN commander General Ridgeway (who replaced the too-hawkish MacArthur) agreed. Two years of negotiations followed while scores died in futile battles every day. Along the way, US president Eisenhower, elected on a promise to end the war, threatened the DPRK with atomic attack.

That was the injustice visited upon a Korean who dared to try to unite his divided country – and Kim Il Sung had gotten so close to unification.

On 27 July 1953, the US, China and the DPRK signed an armistice at the small village of Panmunjom, south of Kaesong, ending the fighting but not the war: peace has never been officially declared. The cost of the war has been estimated at around three million Korean civilians and 700,000 soldiers, a million Chinese troops, 54,000 American soldiers and 3,200 from the other allied countries. Many of the northern civilians were killed in air raids, in which a greater tonnage of bombs was dropped on Korea’s cities by the US air force than either Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan ever received.

That was the injustice visited upon a Korean who dared to try to unite his divided country – and Kim Il Sung had gotten so close to unification. Now, however, Korea would be divided all the more so by the massive US and UN military presence in the South, to protect against his belligerence. In the eyes of the West he had gone from being just another communist leader to a warmonger with whom no peace could be made. Forever after Kim reciprocated this view by fortifying the North.

Natural history

Beautiful beaches in Chilbo, North Korea by Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com

The DPRK has a few national parks, mainly around mountain sites, as in Mount Chilbo, Mount Paektu, Mount Kuwol, Mount Myohyang and Mount Kumgang, which have varying degrees of religious and historic significance and are sprinkled with temple sites, ruined and restored.

In these parks and elsewhere, many cultural sites, particularly old tombs and temples, have been rebuilt following the ravages of war, looting, neglect and falling into official ill-favour. However, areas of extreme human impact contrast with areas of extremely sparse human inhabitation, as around Mount Paektu and the mountains leading into the DPRK’s northeast.

(Photo: The beautiful white-sand beaches along the Chilbo coast © Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com)

The DPRK has for some time realised the potential benefits of tourism, mainly in the form of increasingly large tours from cash-rich China and Russia and more direct investments by ROK firms (above all else, from Hyundai-Asan), as well as a growing number of much smaller, but nonetheless significant tours organised with Western companies. The financial and infrastructural benefits have to be weighed against the losses in terms of pristine, or near-pristine, wildlife cover and the erosions and despoliation brought by inflows of booted feet and the places required to transport and accommodate them.

The DPRK has a few national parks, mainly around mountain sites which have varying degrees of religious and historic significance and are sprinkled with temple sites, ruined and restored.

But it also means that areas without much hope for economic rejuvenation and means of income become viable again, and environmental sites possibly at risk for want of any other value become protected by their intrinsic value. In addition, historical sites of forts and temples receive funding for restoration and protection, and sometimes total reconstruction (if not fabrication). 

People and culture

Abridged from the People section in North Korea: the Bradt Travel Guide

The people

Koreans are an ethnically and culturally homogeneous people, as seen in terms of their racial heritage, facial features, language and history. No wars or feuds are as long-standing and bitter as those between two brothers, which describes Korea’s division perfectly. The people of both states want unification, but cannot yet agree as to how this will come about.

The most obvious difference is that the ROK exists with a significant Western influence, visibly present in capitalist pop culture, that has flowed in through the development of the ROK economy and the presence of American forces there. In the ROK are also some minorities of other Asian nationalities and expats. The number of minorities in the DPRK is restricted to Chinese and some Japanese, and a minute expat community, whose presence will never undo the country’s decades of hermetic existence.

Meeting the people

Beyond your guides, when in North Korea you may not meet that many Koreans, and Koreans themselves might seem cold or indifferent if they acknowledge you at all. This is not a country where a whole village will pile out to see a foreigner. Historically, foreigners have often not been of great service to Korea and the government puts this point to the people in extremely colourful terms.

This is not a country where a whole village will pile out to see a foreigner – you may not meet many Koreans aside from your guides.

Consider also the strains afflicting this country. No family can have escaped unaffected by Korea’s division, the war and the recent famines. The DPRK’s reconstruction has taken decades of back-breaking work with scant resources, against reciprocated aggression from other countries and based on insecure flows of trade and aid. As the country’s allies were lost in the 1990s, so all the health and nutritional gains evaporated as the economy ground to a halt, and millions died in a time referred to with some understatement as the ‘Arduous March’. Within sight of many of the cities beyond Pyongyang are hillsides covered with graves from that catastrophe of which the locals are forever reminded. These people have had a time of it.

Women celebrating in the park, Pyongyang, North Korea by Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.comWomen celebrating in the park during a national holiday – taking a walk through Pyongyang’s green spaces is a great way to meet locals © Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com

So it’s not surprising that here more than anywhere, friendships take time to build, and a lot of trust. That said, those friends made are friends for life and are notably generous and warm. Most Koreans, like anyone else, like a drink and a dance and a picnic in the woods, because all Koreans are people like anyone else. Those much-espoused notions in Western media that the folks in DPRK are lifeless automatons should be ignored. A walk in the park on a weekend is a great way to meet the locals, particularly if it’s a national holiday when dancing and drinking start early in the afternoon, and if you’re passing and invited to join in, do so! Otherwise, be sure to wave and smile while travelling through the country, and more and more they smile and wave back.

The culture

Music

There is not much by way of a contemporary ‘pop’ music scene of the hysterical teen type visible in Russia, China and the ROK. Pyongyang has no equivalent of Justin Bieber. Those of you who are appalled by the degenerative influence of beatniks with mop-top hairstyles might fit in with the DPRK’s take on popular beat combos. Here groups and bands normally involve formally attired men and women in front of suitably suited bands stashed behind panelled music stands, knocking out crushingly sentimental (and quite sexless) numbers about long-distance relationships of friends and family, home towns, reunification and landscapes, like ‘Doves Fly High’, ‘My Home, Sweet Home’, ‘The Peak of Mount Gumsoo’ and ‘Yearning For My Beloved Mother’.

The Moranbong Music Band, a quintet of young ladies who debuted in 2013, marked a modicum of a departure from that, sashaying across the stage in their evening gowns right up to the seated audience of KPA and KWP bigwigs who are having a riot as lots of pyrotechnics go off, but the television playing a loop of the group’s concerts contrasted with their rumoured fate.

There is not much by way of a contemporary ‘pop’ music scene of the hysterical teen type visible in Russia, China and the ROK.

Otherwise it’s down to the minstrels in the Korean People’s Army Choir to provide the top tunes, including ‘Soldiers Hear Rice-ears Rustle’, ‘The Leader Has Come to Our Outpost’ and ‘Warm Feelings Creep Over the Ridge’, with a heavy accent on Russian military music.

The state actively promotes and supports the teaching and production of dance and music in many forms, as long as the output is healthily infused with politically correct ideals as reflected in Kim Jong Il’s views on opera: ‘The creators of music must complete revolutionary opera songs as in The Song of Kumgangsan Mountains: For fifteen long years through snowstorms, He fought for the rebirth of this beautiful country, The towering peaks and crystal-clear streams, Praise Marshal Kim Il Sung’s kindness in Song.’ Tell the Story, Forest, A True Daughter of the Party and The Fate of a Self-Defence Corps Man are all hit operas from the 1970s.

The state actively promotes and supports the teaching and production of dance and music in many forms, as long as the output is healthily infused with politically correct ideals.

Apart from the mass spectacles of Arirang and the Mass Gymnastics, and the medley presented at the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace, opera, dance and music recitals can be enjoyed in Pyongyang, mainly at the Mansudae Arts and Moranbang theatres. North Korean children have more opportunity than in many other countries to have state-funded tuition in musical instruments and many are markedly proficient in playing them. Korean men enjoy beers very similar to those drunk in England and they like a good singalong around a piano, although karaoke is also becoming as widespread as it is elsewhere, replacing the communal singing.

A selection of top tunes can be heard through Andy Kershaw’s excellent BBC Radio 3 documentary on the country (www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p005y2n0), which also shows how Koreans are prepared to spontaneously belt out a number, including Sinatra’s ‘My Way’, and the brilliance of youthful musical expertise. Specialist tours focusing on the meeting of musicians at places like the Isan Yun Conservatory are possible; just ask your tour operator for more details.

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