- 16 February 1948, North Korea proclaimed a People's Democratic Republic.
- 15 August 1948, Independent Republic of Korea in south proclaimed following UN-supervised elections.
- 9 September 1948, North Korea claimed sovereignty over South.
- 21 October 1948, General Douglas MacArthur arrived in South Korea for inspection.
- 25 June 1950, North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea.
- 26 June 1950, President Harry Truman pledged U.S. military aid.
- 27 June 1950, the United Nations voted to provide direct assistance to South Korea.
- 1 July 1950, U.S. troops began to arrive (French and British soon after).
- 16 September 1950, U.S. troops landed at Inchon not far from Seoul. Macarthur rapidly cleared south and crossed 38th parallel on 1 October and advanced north.
- 26 October 1950, Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, captured.
- 26 November 1950, when U.N. troops approached the Chinese border, China attacked and eventually captured Seoul (4 January 1951).
- 14 March 1951, U.N. forces again recaptured Seoul. General Macarthur managed to stabilized a defensive line in the south.
- 11 April 1951, President Truman dismissed Macarthur as UN commander in Korea.
- 23 November 1951, demarcation line agreed to, but bombardments, shelling and air war continued (10 July 1950 preliminary talks on cease fire had begun in Kaesong.).
- 26-27 July 1953, cease fire finally signed at Panmunjon. About 1 million had died.
The Korean War: The US and Soviet Union in Korea is an ok overview.
There are a series of articles about Korea in the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP). Most of the Korean War material is included in a long *.pdf document, entitled "New Russian Documents on the Korean War." It is very confusing to find documents in this project. There is an index of all of the publications of the CWIHP, which has a whole host of great articles, papers, essays, documents, primary sources, etc. relating to the Cold War.
Some other suggested site:
North Korea is one of the world’s most important countries. Its large military, advanced nuclear program, and deep hostility to the United States means that the rogue regime has the potential to plunge the world into the worst fighting since World War II. Recent tensions — North Korea firing an unidentified missile over Japan on Monday afternoon, most notably — illustrate just how real this threat is.
Yet North Korea, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is also one of the most misunderstood countries in the world. The history of the conflict is complex, and information about Kim Jong Un’s government is hard to come by because it has sealed itself off from much of the world and imposes harsh limits on free speech.
What follows is an attempt, using a lot of maps (and, yes, a few charts), to provide some clarity and context to help better understand both the country and the conflict. We’ll explore where the North Korean regime came from, how much of a threat it really poses to the United States and its allies, and what life is like in the most totalitarian regime on earth.
The history of Korea, and how it became divided
1) The ancient political divide that created Korea
From about 57 BC up until the late seventh century, the Korean Peninsula was dominated by three distinct kingdoms: Goguryeo, which covered much of modern Korea as well as a good chunk of China; Baekje in the southwest; and Silla in the southeast (there was a smaller and less important confederacy, called Gaya, in the south as well). There was no unified “Korean” identity during the 700 years of the so-called “Three Kingdoms” — rather, it was a struggle among these kingdoms for land and supremacy.
The decisive shift came in 660 AD, when Silla formed an alliance with the Tang dynasty in China. Their joint military prowess overwhelmed Baekje and Goguryeo, seizing full control of both by 668. Afterward, Silla turned on its Tang allies and forced them out of the Korean Peninsula, leading to the first unified dynasty on the Korean Peninsula in history. Many of the patterns of subsequent Korean history — from deep internal divisions to Chinese involvement in Korean affairs — have their roots here.
2) Korea was a junior partner to China’s great empires for centuries
Silla control collapsed after several hundred years. Subsequent Korean history was dominated by two monarchies: Goryeo (918-1392), from which the name “Korea” eventually evolved, and Choson (1392-1897). Under Goryeo and Choson rule, Korea was a “tributary” state to various Chinese dynasties — an arrangement in which Korean leaders swore allegiance to China’s rulers in exchange for military protection and trading rights. China, for example, came to Korea’s defense during a vicious Japanese invasion at the end of the 16th century.
The tributary arrangement, as University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings notes, was far less oppressive than European colonialism: China did not govern Korea and had limited influence on its policies, foreign or domestic. It was mostly voluntary on Korea’s part; the leaders of Goryeo and Choson concluded that the benefits of aligning with China in terms of trade, security, and cultural exchange was worth the loss of sovereignty. There were exceptions — when the Mongols conquered China, for example, they also took Korea and ruled it as a colony for about 80 years — but voluntary tribute status was the general rule.
The tributary period established a pattern of Chinese dominance over Korea — a position that China’s modern government views as natural and correct but modern Koreans see as anachronistic at best.
3) The 20th-century Japanese empire reshaped Korea
It was actually Japan, not China, that pulled Korea into global conflict. Japan’s industrialization in the 19th century — well ahead of competing East Asian powers — put an end to Chinese hegemony over the region. In 1895, Japan defeated China in a war designed principally to replace China as the dominant foreign influence in Korea; in 1910, imperial Japan annexed Korea.
Japan’s occupation, which lasted until the end of World War II, was horrific — the Japanese military forced thousands of Korean women to serve as camp prostitutes, euphemistically called “comfort women,” which remains a prickly issue in Japanese-Korean relations today. Imperial Japan also attempted to impose its own language and culture on occupied Korea, leaving Koreans with a profound fear of once again being controlled by a hostile foreign power — which is part of why the modern DPRK is so obsessed with protecting itself from foreign invasion.
4) The US came very close to reunifying Korea
World War II directly led to the partition of Korea. In the final stages of the war against Japan, Soviet troops had taken the northern half of Korea while US troops occupied the southern part. The post-WWII division proved to be unstable, as both the communist North and capitalist South claimed to be the legitimate government of all Korea. In June 1950, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung invaded the South with support from both Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung.
Initially, the well-equipped Northern army overwhelmed the relatively unprepared Southern forces, nearly conquering the entire country. But US intervention, authorized by the United Nations, turned the tide — specifically through a surprise landing at Inchon, a beach near occupied Seoul, in September 1950 (depicted in the above map).
5) Chinese intervention forced a US retreat — and changed history
After Inchon, US and South Korean troops nearly reconquered the entire Korean Peninsula. But the further north they got, the more worried China’s young communist government became about a capitalist presence on their borders. Mao’s government warned the US to stay away from the Yalu River, which forms the boundary between North Korea and China — a warning that, in General Douglas McArthur’s zeal to seize all of the North, was ignored. Chinese forces streamed across the border in October 1950, attacking the US-led coalition and once again shifting the war’s momentum. Chinese intervention marked a permanent break from the benevolent view of China during the tributary period, leading to its modern role as a patron to North Korea and a security threat to South Korea.
6) After all the intervention, the Korean borders ended up basically where they started
By 1951, the war had become a stalemate. The Chinese and American interventions canceled out each side’s gains, as you can see in the above GIF. Both sides continued to fight along the 38th parallel — a latitude line 38 degrees north of the equator that had been the line drawn by Soviet and American territory in Korea prior to the war.
In 1953, the belligerents signed an armistice that turned this line — not a natural division between countries, but an arbitrary line in the middle of Korea drawn by American and Soviet planners — into the basis for an indefinite split. Korea was, for the first time in centuries, formally divided.
7) Where the Korean border lies today
The North-South border agreed upon in 1953 does not run exactly along the 38th parallel; instead, it’s based on where the front combat line between the North and South was when the fighting ended. The 160-mile-long border is surrounded by something called the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a 2.5-mile-wide area that neither side’s forces are allowed to enter (with a few small exceptions). Today, the area just outside the DMZ is (ironically, given the name) one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world.
Neither North nor South Korean leaders believe the DMZ marks a natural border that should exist forever. Both countries still claim to be the sole legitimate Korean government.
The birth of a totalitarian system
8) Why the “Marxist” North Korean government is actually a family dynasty
The North Korean government that emerged after the Korean War is not, contrary to popular belief, a classic Marxist or Stalinist state. For one thing, its leadership is essentially monarchical: Kim Il Sung handed power to his son, Kim Jong Il, who gave it to his son, Kim Jong Un. It’s guided by an official ideology, Juche (“self-reliance”), that positions Koreans as a pure yet vulnerable people who are building authentic socialism but can only do so with the protection of a semi-divine leader from the Kim dynasty. It’s an odd blend of a kind of racial purity ideology promulgated by the Japanese empire, pre-modern Korean monarchism, and Marxism — cobbled together to justify the Kim family’s control and extreme policies.
9) The North’s economic policies have shattered its society
Postwar South Korea eventually entered the international economy, building up an economic model focusing on export manufacturing starting in the ’70s and technology more recently. South Korea is as a result one of the world’s richest nations; its GDP per capita is higher than that of many European nations.
North Korea took the precise opposite approach to economic development, banning private enterprise and attempting to plan the entirety of the national economy from Pyongyang. The result is that the North, which started out slightly richer than the South, ended up much, much poorer. Its GDP per capita is less than half of Sudan’s.
10) The North cannot keep the lights on — literally
There’s no more dramatic demonstration of North Korea’s deprivation than this map of light emission at night, based on satellite photos NASA captured in 2012.Light emission can be used as proxy for wealth, as wealthier countries have access to better lighting technology and electrical grids.South Korea, as you can see, is lit up — as are Japan and China. North Korea is almost entirely black, except for a small dot of light on the capital city of Pyongyang. It’s an astonishing demonstration of just how poor North Korea is relative to its neighbors.
11) How North Korea’s economic system starved millions
The economic system that developed in North Korea during the Cold War depended heavily on Soviet aid, particularly in the area of food. North Korea has very little arable land, and the collective farms it managed to build were radically inefficient. So when the Soviet Union began to totter in the ’80s, and aid slowed, North Koreans started to starve.
This culminated in a massive famine, called the “Arduous March” in North Korea, between 1994 and 1998. Somewhere between 500,000 and 2 million people died, partially because Kim Jong Il’s government prioritized feeding its military under a policy it called “Songun” (or military first). The famine was eventually solved by international assistance, but the Songun policy remained a core part of North Korean state ideology — the Kim regime told its people that they were poor because their leaders needed to spend every dollar on the defense of the nation from American and South Korean imperialists. This is partly why belligerence and military brinksmanship became a regular feature of North Korean policy in recent years.
12) North Korea uses a huge network of modern gulags to maintain control
The Kim regime doesn’t simply count on ideological indoctrination, ideas like Juche and Songun, to maintain power. The government violently represses political organization, free speech, and basically any activity not sanctioned by the regime.
There’s no better symbol of this repression than North Korea’s network of prison camps. Amnesty International estimated that in 2016, about 120,000 North Koreans were held in these camps, where they are subjected to “rape, infanticide, torture, deliberate starvation, forced labor, and executions.” Further, Amnesty reports, “many of those detained in these camps have committed no crime, but are collectively punished through guilt by association as family members of those deemed threatening to the regime.”
13) Executions happen regularly around the country
The above is a map of mass executions near a waterway in North Korea, put together by a Korean human rights group based on interviews with North Koreans from the area who have escaped. The location is not identified, so the North Korean government doesn’t know to cover up the evidence of war crimes there.
What it shows is that when the Kim regime doesn’t want to detain someone, it simply executes them — and does so regularly. This level of brutal repression is difficult for Americans to understand, but it helps explain why uprisings against the DPRK government are so unheard of. The government’s capacity to repress dissent is vast, and so its willingness to employ that capacity in brutal fashion.
North Korea's relations with the world
14) The “Demilitarized Zone” between North and South is incredibly militarized
The DMZ today is one of the world’s tensest borders. Because both sides fear invasion by the other, they have spent enormous resources attempting to build up defenses — the boundary is surrounded by roughly 1 million land mines. South Korea is especially worried by Seoul’s proximity to the DMZ; its capital, home to 10 million people, is close enough to be in range of North Korean artillery. This military buildup means both countries are in a state of constant tension, watching the other side to see if they make a move.
15) America has a lot of troops near North Korea
The US military strategy in East Asia is, more or less, to maintain enough troops in the area to credibly deter aggression by revisionist powers — meaning China and especially North Korea. While there are only about 23,500 US troops in South Korea proper, hardly enough to stop the 1.16 million-strong North Korean army, their presence sends a strong signal to the North that any attack on South Korea would, inevitably, be an attack on the United States — and that the many US assets in the Pacific would move in as quickly as they could to retaliate.
16) What the North’s isolation looks like from the air
Here’s a neat visualization, from Martyn Williams of North Korea Tech, of one day of flight patterns over North Korea, South Korea, and Japan. It shows how isolated the North is from global commerce, as essentially no flights are going in, but also the ways in which its belligerence and weak political political institutions set it apart.
Williams explains the reason the FAA bans flights over most of the North:
The ban is in place because of North Korea’s unpredictable short- and medium-range missile launches and uncertainties over just how good the coordination is between civil air traffic controllers and the military. The rules are in place to avoid an aircraft getting shot down, either by mistake or due to a misunderstanding.
17) The torturous path people take to escape North Korea
There are nearly 30,000 North Korean refugees living in South Korea today. Because they can’t walk through the DMZ or fly out on a commercial flight, they have to sneak across the border to China.
But China won’t let them go straight to South Korea (and in fact typically just sends them right back to North Korea). So they typically trek 3,000 miles to Thailand, relying on a network of smugglers and secret Christian activists to get them there or to another country (like Mongolia). Only afterward can they finally fly to the South.
These defectors are an invaluable source of knowledge on what life is like in the North, but more importantly, they’re a testament to how horrible life is inside North Korea. It takes a lot to convince people to take the kind of risks they take.
18) North Korea’s growing dependence on China
After the Soviet Union fell, North Korea lost its principal economic partner — which contributed in part to the famine of the 1990s. As the years went on, China increasingly took the Soviet Union’s old place as economic guarantor, ramping up both imports from and exports to the North. This has only intensified as time has gone on: As of 2017, China makes up roughly 90 percent of North Korean trade, providing a vital role in propping up the Kim regime through (for example) coal exports that keep its power plants running. This could potentially give China serious leverage over North Korea — if it chose to use it.
19) The risk of North Korean collapse explains why China can’t control Kim
The reason China has stepped up to help the North is the same reason it can’t really push the North around: China is terrified of what happens if and when the government in Pyongyang collapses.
The above map shows a rough estimate of the number of people who would need humanitarian assistance in different parts of North Korea. It shows that the US and South Korean militaries would need to enter the North to provide aid, maintain order so it can be distributed, and prepare for the reunification of the Koreas.
The collapse of North Korea, then, would mean a humanitarian crisis in which millions of refugees are projected to try to stream across the Chinese border — and the likely presence of a rival military presence right on China’s border.
Therefore, China can’t credibly threaten to cut off trade in a way that would seriously undermine the government in Pyongyang without risking disaster, and Kim Jong Un knows it.
20) North Korea gets away with incredibly risky stuff
North Korea’s geopolitical and domestic position makes it rational, for all sorts of reasons, for it to engage in really risky behaviors. Military brinksmanship, like missile tests or firing artillery at South Korea, can be used to grab attention and try to wring diplomatic concessions from the West.
Manufactured crises also get used by the North Korean state media to prove that the Songun (military first) policy is still necessary: that the military still needs to suck up huge amounts of the country’s resources to deter the “imperialist” threat. Kim Jong Un seems to use it to build up his own personal mythology as a strong leader.
So the North frequently does provocative things — one of the scariest of which was the 2010 sinking of a South Korean destroyer, the ROKS Cheonan, in waters also claimed by the North. In these crises, South Korean and American analysts are forced to guess what the North is trying to accomplish — a dangerous state of affairs.
21) The US and South Korea are constantly trying to deter the North
One reason these North Korean provocations haven’t gotten out of hand (so far) is that the North knows its opponents are stronger and well prepared for an attack. There are a variety of ways the US and South Korea signal this, but war games — where troops train together on or around the Korean Peninsula — are one of the most visible.
Seeing that the US and South Korean forces are capable of fighting in practice and not just on paper helps the North understand that it can’t take its aggression too far without risking major military consequences. The annual Foal Eagle training sessions in the spring, for example, typically involve practicing amphibious landings and anti-infiltration sweeps — the kinds of things that US and South Korean troops would be doing in the event of war with Pyongyang.
22) Missile defenses show how the US has been trying to minimize the threat from the North
One of the more recent ways the US has worked to protect South Korea, and by extension deter the North, is by deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system — or THAAD for short. THAAD works by shooting down missiles when they’re on the way down, and has an effective range of roughly 125 miles. Unlike many missile defense systems, THAAD actually has a pretty good track record — the US military reports that it has successfully shot down target missiles in 13 practice tests.
But tests aren’t the same thing as actual battlefield conditions. And even if it works under such stress, there just simply aren’t enough THAAD batteries to shoot down all of the missiles North Korea could lob south.
What’s more, THAAD is highly controversial in South Korea. It is placed on a golf course (of all places) deep in the country’s south, the yellow triangle on the above map. As you can see, it puts it in range to protect several US military facilities — but not Seoul. There are also serious concerns about the potential environmental impact THAAD might have on nearby communities.
23) But no matter what, a North-South war would inevitably be devastating
If deterrence truly does fail, we are in for a conflict on a scale unlike any we’ve seen in decades — and that’s even before we talk nuclear weapons. The North has such a large volume of artillery pointed at Seoul and other areas just south of the DMZ that it could do incredible damage to the South before they could be taken out.
A barrage targeting Seoul, in particular, is terrifying to contemplate: It’s one of the densest major cities in the world, with 27,000 people per square mile, which means the amount of carnage that an artillery barrage could accomplish dwarfs anything seen even in a conflict as terrible as Syria.
A South Korean simulation conducted in 2004 estimated that there could be up to 2 million casualties in the first 24 hours of a conflict alone — before we get to protracted ground conflict. There is no military option for confronting North Korea that doesn’t end in immense amounts of bloodshed, civilian and military alike.
The North Korean nuclear program
24) How a Pakistani scientist helped North Korea get nukes
The North Korean nuclear program has its origins in the 1950s, when the Soviet Union helped Kim Il Sung set up rudimentary nuclear facilities. But the program didn’t become a topic of global concern until 1993, when North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the Treaty on the Non Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) — an indication that they were pursuing the bomb.
The crisis was temporarily averted by a negotiated agreement with the United States, called the Agreed Framework, in 1994 — but the agreement broke down, and North Korea’s nuclear program continued to advance. This was due in no small part to Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani nuclear scientist who built a global smuggling network that moved nuclear secrets from his country’s program to rogue states.
AQ Khan, as he’s commonly called, sold North Korea vital nuclear technology in the 1990s. There is some evidence that he may have had the Pakistani military’s backing — suggesting the North’s program had many fathers.
25) The Iraq War shows why North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons became so important