Flawed split sowed seeds of war
Split in two
Korea used to be just one country, but for a long time it was caught between the wars of China and Japan. From 1910 until 1945, it was ruled by the Japanese. But after the second world war, when Japan surrendered, Korea was divided into North and South, along the 38th parallel.
The split, formalised in 1948, was in accordance with a United Nations resolution, which gave control of the North to the Soviet Union, and control of the South to the United States. That, as it turned out, was not a good idea. Families were torn apart and the nation was divided by two opposing forces - capitalism and communism - as both sides became pawns in the cold war.
The cold war
The second world war was the deadliest in human history. Between 50 million and 70 million people were killed and millions more left maimed, widowed and orphaned. Cities had been bombed into rubble and infrastructure completely destroyed. But the damage was limited to Europe, Asia and a little of Northern Africa.
After the US bombed Japan with nuclear weapons, it seemed as if it would be the most powerful nation in the world, and peace would reign. But the world had entered the cold war. It would be a war where battles were fought indirectly between the West and the Communist Bloc.
The Soviet Union had been working on nuclear weapons, but it was limited in its supply of uranium. Once it had access to Eastern Europe, it was able to complete its research. The West thought the Soviets would only get a bomb around the mid-1950s, but the first Soviet nuclear bomb was detonated on August 29, 1949. A nuclear arms race had begun.
In a way, this helped keep the peace between the big powers; they knew if they went to war, they would be destroyed. So they tried to gain power by sponsoring leaders of other nations. This led to long, bloody conflicts, like the one in Korea.
A series of unfortunate events
An uneasy peace settled on the two countries who glared at each other across a heavily fortified border and a demilitarised zone (DMZ), a sort of forced gap between the armies. As is often the case when two groups hate each other, bad things happen:
There are several attempts at assassinating both sides' leaders
Axe murder incident in 1976, when two US officers were killed over a tree that was cut down
November 29, 1987 A South Korean passenger plane was bombed - all on board were killed. A North Korean agent confessed to the bombing
March 26, 2010 Forty-six sailors were killed when a South Korean warship sank near the North Korean border. International investigators later said it was sunk by a North Korean torpedo. The North denies this.
The Korean War
Between 1950 and 1953, Soviet and US troops left Korea. There is a lot of discussion about who started it, but on June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded the south and the Korean War erupted. This is considered to be the first of the cold war's proxy wars. It left fourmillion people dead. The war was never officially ended. No one won. And to this day the US maintains a big military presence in the South.
The West was able to pour money into South Korea to help it recover from the war, but the North was not as lucky. The USSR had its own recovery to worry about, and its own people to take care of. Its ability to help was limited. According to author Bruce Cumings, the US destroyed North Korea.
Cumings wrote: 'General Douglas MacArthur, in charge of American forces at the start of the war, ordered that a wasteland be created between the fighting front and the Chinese border, destroying from the air every 'installation, factory, city, and village' over thousands of square kilometres of North Korean territory.'
In the mid-1990s, the Soviet Union collapsed. This, along with two years of bad floods and several bad government decisions, led to a terrible food shortage in North Korea. Between 300,000 and 800,000 people died, probably more from hunger-related diseases than actual starvation. This famine has always been used by Western powers to show how North Korea preferred to build its military rather than feed its people.
North Korea joins nuclear arms race
One of the major 'issues' about North Korea is its obsession with developing nuclear weapons.
The West saw Kim Jong-il as a brutal, repressive and deluded leader, focused on military might at the expense of everything else, including the wellbeing of his people.
Yet other views back his actions - suggesting he had learned from history that, for a communist nation to survive, it needed a nuclear threat.
'North Korea's eagerness to develop its own bomb would not have turned to ... obsession had it not been for the economic embargo, clampdown on financial credits from international financial institutions, and efforts to isolate it from the international community,' Philippine author Rod Kapunan argues in the Manila Standard newspaper.
'Acquiring the bomb has become [most important] after the events in Serbia , Iraq [2003-11], Afghanistan [since 2001], and Libya, where the US and its Nato allies unleashed their ferocious savagery in levelling to the ground those countries, in looting their national treasures and putting on trial their leaders as war criminals. The same act of gangsterism now looms over Syria and Iran.
'For North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programme would be [like] an open invitation for aggression. The US should blame itself for the [huge number] of nuclear weapons in Asia. Although its previous monopoly of the bomb, together with its arrogance of intimidating countries, has pushed humanity to the precipice of nuclear catastrophe, the consoling reality is every state now armed with nuclear weapons equates it as necessary for their own national survival.'
Here is a timeline of the North's weapons and nuclear development:
1998 North Korea fires its first long-range ballistic missile.
2003 North Korea withdraws from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Six-way nuclear talks start in Beijing.
2005 For the first time, North Korea states that it has nuclear weapons.
2006 North Korea makes its first nuclear test on October 9, sparking global criticism and UN sanctions.
2007 North Korea agrees in February to scrap its nuclear facilities in return for economic aid and diplomatic benefits. In July, North Korea says it has closed down its main nuclear site.
2008 In June, North Korea blows up the cooling tower at Yongbyon to show commitment to nuclear disarmament.
In October, Washington removes North Korea from its terrorism blacklist.
April 5, 2009 The North launches a long-range rocket and says it will quit the six-party talks and restart its Yongbyon complex after UN criticism.
May 25: North conducts its second nuclear test, sparking UN sanctions.
Axis of Evil
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in the United States, then American president George W. Bush made his famous 'Axis of Evil' remarks during his State of the Union speech in January, 2002.