North Korea

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, center, inspects an Army unit with two unidentified officers at an undisclosed location in North Korea.

For more than half a century, the 38th parallel has been the line of demarcation between North and South Korea—a line on a map, hurriedly drawn by diplomats, that divides one people into two countries, and remains the symbol of a Cold War that has ended almost everywhere else but remains frozen solid on the Korean peninsula. What is extraordinary is that you can actually see the 38th parallel, though it is just a line on a map. Look at any of the satellite photographs taken from miles above the earth of the Korean peninsula at night. On one side, the southern side, there are lights—millions of them. They are the emblems of progress and prosperity. In the years since the Korean War, South Korea has become a rich, technologically advanced, democratic nation.

On the other side lies North Korea. Look again at the nighttime images from on high, and you can see what a satellite photograph would have looked like in the 19th century—before Edison invented the light bulb. It is dark.

North Korea was born out of the carnage of Word War II. An agreement signed after the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan in 1945 allowed Josef Stalin's army to occupy Korea down to the 38th parallel, with the U.S. controlling the area to the south. A buffer swathe of a little over a mile on either side of the parallel was declared a demilitarized zone (DMZ). At the time, the U.S. government thought this a temporary arrangement, but the Soviets, and their allies in what would become North Korea, had other ideas. Moscow installed Kim Il Sung, a former guerilla fighter against the Japanese (who occupied all of Korea from 1910 to 1945), as head of the government. In 1950, backed by Stalin, he attacked the South—leading to a war that ended three years later in a bloody stalemate.

Ever since, North Korea has been run as a dynastic dictatorship—one of the most repressive governments on earth, viciously authoritarian in its politics, criminally backward in its economics. Kim Il Sung, the so-called Great Leader, ruled until his death in 1994. He was succeeded by his son, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, now 65, who rules to this day. The governing philosophy of the North is Juche, a doctrine that North Koreans call self-reliance. Outside critics call it a formula for ironfisted, dictatorial paranoia. It tries to keep all traces of foreign influence from the 23 million North Korean citizens. It has succeeded, figuratively as well as literally, in keeping them in the dark.

The central question the outside world now deals with regarding North Korea is basic: Is it a threat, in particular to its prosperous neighbor to the South (Seoul lies just 35 miles south of the DMZ), but also to Japan, to the U.S.—even to its lone ostensible ally in the neighborhood, China? The question has become more urgent because of North Korea's test, in October 2006, of a nuclear bomb. The decade-long shell game surrounding the North's nuclear ambitions—it signed an agreement in 1994 with the U.S., called the "Agreed Framework," in which it swore off the pursuit of nukes in return for a variety of economic and diplomatic blandishments—culminated in the defiant blast last year. Even China, from whom Kim Jong Il gets vital economic assistance, including oil, had told the North to stand down, only to be ignored.

Most diplomats, whether in Washington, Beijing, Tokyo or Seoul, do not believe Kim Jong Il is crazy enough to start a war against South Korea, despite a million-man army and continued spending on both conventional arms and chemical and biological weaponry that the nation can't afford. They believe Kim's agenda is, at its core, all about perpetuating his regime. And the instant he started a conflict, his regime would be finished—the inevitable loser in a war that the U.S., by treaty, is compelled to enter. (The U.S. maintains about 30,000 troops in South Korea, with 45,000 more stationed in nearby Japan.)

This view holds further that Kim's pursuit of nuclear weapons probably only intensified when President Bush included North Korea in his famous "axis of evil" speech in 2002 and then proceeded to knock off Saddam Hussein in Iraq, another A-O-E member. "Kim wants to be a porcupine, someone you don't touch, and he has basically succeeded," is the way one senior American diplomat put it in 2005.

In 2005 the North, as part of the so-called six party talks, signed a Joint Statement that called for "verifiable denuclearization" of the Korean peninsula. The talks—which in addition to North Korea and the U.S. include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea—are continuing, but there is no sign yet of any significant progress toward that goal.

The other central question about North Korea is: Given how impoverished the nation is, and how repressed its population, how long can the regime last? The answer: probably longer than the benighted populace would like. The North's closest neighbors, South Korea and China, have no interest in seeing the regime collapse, fearing the turmoil that would ensue (massive economic dislocation, poor refugees pouring across borders, and so on). Both nations continue to funnel economic aid to the North, turning a blind eye to the regime's heinous human rights record. No doubt to Kim Jong Il's delight, there is nothing to suggest that such support will not continue indefinitely.

By Bill Powell