Essay: North Korea Due to Its Relative Geographic

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North Korea

Due to its relative geographic and political isolation, North Korea remains of the most interesting and least understood countries in the world. Nicknamed the "Hermit Kingdom" for its extreme secrecy and attempts at a completely autonomous existence, North Korea has maintained a rocky relationship with West ever since its creation in the aftermath of World War II (French 1). Examining the country from a number of different perspectives will reveal certain lesser-known realities about life in North Korea while offering the reader a look into the country's likely political and economic future. In particular, understanding how the country's history has shaped its contemporary struggles will give insight into the difficulties everyday North Koreans face even as their leadership engages in high-stakes political maneuvering, all the while benefiting from the repression of the people.

North Korea rests on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula, a mass of land that extends south from China. Although most of North Korea's northern border is shared with China, a small strip of that border actually touches the edge of Russia near the northeastern-most area of the country. To the south lies South Korea, and the two countries split the peninsula roughly in half at the famous 38th parallel, which marks the demilitarized zone between each country (Kim, North Korea at the Crossroads 180). This position has made North Korea an important strategic entity in the region even though it remains extremely isolated, because the country is close to a number of major actors, including China, Russia, and Japan. As a result, North Korea sits at one of the globe's centers of power even though North Korea itself is not usually considered a superpower by any means, despite its relative success in developing nuclear weapons.

Although nearby mainland China features a number of different climates, North Korea is largely made up of mountainous or rocky terrain, and in fact the country's "hostile climate, bad soil conditions, elevated terrain and shorter growing seasons" have come to define the country as its political and social goal of self-sufficiency runs up against the practical realities of agriculture in such an inhospitable environment (Schwekendiek 133). Although the country is ideally situated to serve as a lever of power in the Pacific due to its proximity to China, Russia, and Japan, its actual climate and environment help make North Korea and especially difficult place to live. Furthermore, because North Korea has isolated itself, its proximity to other major powers has not brought with it a robust economy, so the country is forced to rely on the climate it has rather that succeed through imports and exports.

This difficult climate has contributed to one of the country's most pressing issues, namely, how it can feed its population. Starvation has been an issue almost since the country's inception, and the political and economic developments over its history have only exacerbated this problem. At the same time that the country's climate makes it difficult to produce enough food for the population, the political and economic circumstances of the country make it almost impossible to find assistance elsewhere, and even when this assistance does come, it comes at a high price for both North Korea and the international community. However, before discussing the contemporary political and economic issues that contribute to North Korea's instability, it is necessary to understand its history, because the roots of its contemporary problems lie in the founding of the country in the first place.

The climate and environment of North Korea is a direct result of the country's history, because its current borders only exists as a result of the post-World War II political environment. Prior to World War II, Korea existed as unified peninsula, although it had been under the control of the Japanese empire since 1905 as a result of the Russo-Japanese war (CIA.gov). Following decades of imperial rule, Korea finally saw some degree of liberty with the defeat of Japan during World War II. However, this liberty was largely illusory, because almost immediately the conquering powers of World War II used Korea as the first battlefield of the Cold War. This was because the two sides, led by the United States and the Soviet Union, decided to split up the territory: "following an American proposal, Japanese forces north of the 38th parallel surrender to the Soviet Union; south of it, they surrender to the Americans" (Kim, North Korea at the Crossroads 180). Following the expulsion of Japanese forces from the peninsula, the two areas established themselves as different countries.

After World War II, the United States and its allies supported the Republic of Korea in the south and the Soviet Union and its allies supported the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the north. This set-up soon erupted into war, as the North, led by its founder Kim Il-Sung, attacked South Korea and began the Korean War, which lasted from 1950-1953 (CIA.gov). By the time it was over roughly 1.6 million people had died in combat alone, with many more suffering from the side effects of war such as disease and Starvation (Schwekendiek 31). The war caused a serious rift between both North Korea and South Korea and North Korea and the rest of the world. In fact, this rift continues to this day because the Korean War never officially ended; instead of signing a peace treaty, the two sides merely signed an armistice that ended open hostilities but kept the two sides at war (French 314).

As a result, North Korea has maintained hostile posture towards the United States to this day, and the two countries do not maintain any official diplomatic ties (CIA.gov). As will be seen, this arrangement has led to substantial economic issues for North Korea, as its isolation has made it difficult for the country to develop its economy effectively or evenly. However, before exploring the economic and political issues facing contemporary North Korea, it will be helpful to get a better idea of culture and population.

Finding population data on North Korea has been historically difficult, because the extreme secrecy with which the regime has conducted itself over the last few decades has meant that external researchers have frequently not had the most up-to-date or accurate information (Kim, "The Population of North Korea" 120). According to the United States Central Intelligence Agency, the best estimate for North Korea's population as of 2013 is somewhere around 24,720,400 people. While the country enjoys high rates of literacy, its economic and political woes have meant that average life expectancy is not particularly high, with the average male dying at around sixty-five years of age (CIA.gov). The official language of North Korea is Korean, and it is spoken by the vast majority of the country, although the CIA notes that "there is a small Chinese community and a few ethnic Japanese" in the country (CIA.gov).

North Korea features a number of religions, but in almost every respect these religious only exist in name, rather than practice. The country is "traditionally Buddhist and Confucianist, [with] some Christian and syncretic Chondogya (Religion of the Heavenly Way)," but in reality these religious activities are so constrained by the government that they cannot really be considered examples of religious practice (CIA.gov). Instead, they simple serve to provide the appearance of religious freedom to the country, because in reality the government maintains strict controls over meetings and the discussion of any texts that might be considered subversive or contrary to the official line (Havet and Gaudreau 1). While there are likely underground religious movements that practice without the consent or knowledge of the government, getting information on these groups is likely even more difficult that getting data from the North Korean government itself, so it is impossible to say the number of religious adherents in North Korea.

The current state of religious oppression is directly tied to the political nature of North Korea. Since its inception, North Korea has been centered around a cult of personality focusing on the Kim family. Beginning with the country's founder, Kim Il-Sung, power has been passed down from father to son. Kim Jong-Il took over the rule when Kim Il-Sung died in 1994, and after Kim Jong-Il's death in 2011, his son Kim Jong-Un assumed leadership of the country (CIA.gov). The family has maintained -control over the entire country, including its economy and military.

Although North Korean was ostensibly born as part of a Communist revolution, the country's governance has been more in line with totalitarian dictatorships like that of Stalin or Mao than with genuine communal efforts (Armstrong 361). Even as countless North Koreans have died from starvation and disease, the Kim family has maintained lavish lifestyles, and has continued to spend exorbitant amounts of money on military projects, including efforts to expand its nuclear arsenal (Kim & Chang 141). In many ways North Korea stands out for the way in which the Kim family has maintained despotic power over the course of multiple generations, because this continuity means it… [END OF PREVIEW]

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