By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner
Geography in the NewsTM and Maps.com
North Korea’s Threats
At the end of March, 2010, North Korea launched a torpedo that sank a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, killing 46 service members. More recently throughout the spring of 2013, North Korea’s youthful leader launched a tirade against South Korea and the United States, threatening a nuclear assault, closed a cooperative manufacturing venture and cut off a communications hot line to South Korea. As a result, relations between the two countries that share the Korean peninsula have deteriorated further.
After the incident involving the Cheonan, South Korea called for a formal apology and a halt to all trade with its northern neighbor. South Korea’s government moved to deny North Korean merchant ships use of South Korean sea-lanes. It also sought action from the U.N. Security Council. In response, North Korea severed its few remaining ties with the South and warned that it would wage “all out war” if it were punished. This latest 2013 conflict further deadlocked any hope for a reunited Korean peninsula.
This pattern of belligerency followed by slightly warming rhetoric, only to be repeated again and again, now appears to be a “norm” for the North Korean government through three generations of leaders. The most recent event, however, of moving rockets to the east side of the peninsula and threatening nuclear launches on U.S. forces stationed in Japan and Guam takes the belligerency to a new high.
Rugged mountains form the Korean peninsula, limiting the arable land to only 37 percent of its 84,770 square miles (219,554 sq. km). The climate is similar to the U.S. East Coast from Virginia northward to Maine. One dramatic difference is brutally cold winters that the Siberian high-pressure area brings to the peninsula.
The Korean peninsula historically provided a geographic and cultural buffer between the Chinese to the west and the Japanese to the east. Unfortunately, it was also the stage where opposing military giants China and Japan periodically dominated the Korean people.
Japan annexed Korea as a Japanese colony in 1910. The Japanese conscripted many Koreans as forced laborers to work in Japan and its territories. When Japan surrendered to the Allies at the end of World War II, the Soviet Union gained control of North Korea and South Korea was controlled by the United States. The peninsula was divided arbitrarily along the 38th parallel.
At that time, North Korea contained the best mineral resources and the most industry, while South Korea possessed the stronger agricultural base. The United States attempted to unify the north and south as a capitalistic economy and a democracy, but the Soviets installed a communist government in the north.
On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel in a surprise attack on the South. In just three months, they conquered all of South Korea except a small area around Busan, formerly spelled Pusan.
U.S.-dominated U.N. forces under Gen. Douglas MacArthur made a surprise landing at Inchon on Sept. 15, 1950, under extremely difficult tidal conditions. Simultaneously, American military units broke out of the Pusan Perimeter and together they drove the North Koreans to the Yalu River and occupied most of North Korea.
China warned MacArthur against further advances northward, but MacArthur underestimated Chinese resolve and pushed further. He believed the war would be won by Christmas.
During October, 300,000 Chinese troops entered North Korea and by November had pushed quickly southward. By Christmas, U.N. and South Korean troops were in retreat across North Korea.
A truce line was drawn in 1953 between the armies and it became one of the most heavily fortified political boundaries in the world, known as the Demilitarized Zone.
North Korea became a closed society, with repressive President Kim Il-Sung at its head. After his death in 1994, his son, Kim Jong-Il, succeeded him. Again, at Kim Jong-Il’s death, his son youthful Kim Jong Un took over. Practicing a Stalinist form of communism, North Korea’s government imparts complete totalitarian rule on its citizens. North Korea is isolated, secretive, heavily militarized and desperately poor. It has one of the world’s worst human rights records and often suffers from famines that have killed millions. Its people have no access to outside world news and believe that North Korea is prospering in spite of widespread starvation.
In 2006, North Korea conducted an underground nuclear explosive test. Despite condemnation by the international community and especially the United States, North Korea is reportedly continuing its attempts to enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons.
Unlike its northern neighbor, South Korea has thrived under its capitalistic economy. In 2009, annual manufacturing exports were $355 billion, making it one of the Pacific Rim’s economic tigers.
In the 1990s, North Korea took steps to warm relations with South Korea and talk of reunification began in international circles. Numerous disputes have followed, continuing with the torpedo attack on the Cheonan and increasing threats of nuclear war.
The international community views the Korean conflict as dangerous to world peace because of North Korea’s belligerency, its nuclear capabilities, its unpredictability and its oppressive form of government. The world awaits any opportunities for peace on the Korean peninsula following the latest round of threats.
And that is Geography in the News™.
Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.
GITN #528, “Defrosting the Koreas,” July 14, 2000; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/asia_pacific/10160204.stm; and http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2800.htm.
This GITN has been revised and rewritten from GITN 1052 North Korea Making More Waves (July 20,2010). Nearly 900 of the 1200, full-length weekly Geography in the News articles (with Spanish translations) are available in the K-12 online education resource Maps101.com, including maps and other supporting materials and critical thinking questions.