X. North Korea
Geography of Korea: X. North Korea
X. North Korea
The official name of North Korea is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It was established as a socialist country on September 9, 1948, with its capital at Pyongyang (P’yongyang). While the constitution of South Korea recognizes its territory as including the entire peninsula, while the established state of North Korea likewise recognizes its territory as extending south to include the entire peninsula. In terms of territory, the area of North Korea is 123,000 sq. km., a little bit larger than South Korea. According to the CIA World Factbook, as of July 2012, the population of North Korea was 24.6 million and it average population density 200 persons/sq. km. The majority of its population is concentrated in the territory’s western plains and eastern coastal region.
To its south, North Korea shares a 250 km (155 miles) border with South Korea called the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), while to the north its territory borders China along the Amnok (or Yalu) River and Russia along the Duman (or Tumen) River. Mountain ranges extend from Mt. Baekdu (Paektu) on the border with China eastward nearly to the coast, while mountains also extend across the country’s western region to the sea, with the exception of river basins and coastal areas. North Korea’s major cities are situated along the Amnok (Yalu), Cheongcheon, Daedong (Taedong), and Yeseong (Yesong) Rivers and along its coast.
The North Korean capital of Pyongyang is situated along the Daedong River, much like the South Korean capital of Seoul is situated along the Han River. And just as Incheon at the mouth of the Han River serves as the gateway to Seoul, so does Jinnampo (Chinnampo) at the mouth of the Daedong River serve as the gateway to Pyongyang. In terms of administrative divisions, North Korea is divided into Pyongyang Directly Governed City (Pyongyang jikhalsi), Rason Special City, Nampo Special City, and the provinces of Pyeongannam-do, Pyeonganbuk-do, Hamgyeongnam-do, Hamgyeongbuk-do, Hwanghaenam-do, Hwanghaebuk-do, Jagang-do, Ryanggang-do, Gangwon-do, and then Sinuiji Special Administrative Region, Mt. Geumgang (Kumgang) Tourist Region, and the Gaeseong (Kaesong) Industrial District. The province of Jagang-do was formed in 1949 through an amalgamation of eastern portions of Pyeonganbuk-do as well as portions of Pyeongannam-do, while Ryanggang-do province was formed in 1954 through the reorganization of portions of Hamgyeongnam-do and Hamgyeongbuk-do, in this way ensuring that North Korea could have nine provinces just as in South Korea. Both North and South Korea have Gangwon-do province (Kangwon-do in North Korea), though the North Korean one has Wonsan as its capital.
Following the Korean War (1950–1953), Kim Il-sung (Kim Il-seong) consolidated his dictatorial rule in North Korea and in 1977 introduced Juche (or Chuche) as the official state ideology. This “Juche Thought” was an initiative aimed at consolidating power in the North Korean leadership as well as a response to the Yusin (“renewal”) program that had been launched in South Korea at this time. Following the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, in a hereditary transfer of power his son Kim Jong-il (Jeong-il) assumed the leadership. In 2000, General Secretary Kim Jong-il and then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung announced the first leadership summit between the two states since the 1945 division, a summit the resulted in the “June Fifteenth North-South Joint Declaration.” During his life time Kim Il-sung had never met with President Rhee Syngman (Yi Seung-man), much less with President Park Chung-hee (Bak Jeong-hui). Following this first summit, common industrial and commercial projects began to be actively pursued, such the development of tourism initiatives at Mt. Geumgang and the creation of the Gaeseong (Kaesong) Industrial Complex. However, following the Lee Myung-bak (Yi Myeong-bak) administration in South Korea (2008–2013) and the election of President Park Geun-hye, North-South relations have become frigid. With North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011 there was once more a transfer of power, this time to his son Kim Jong-un (Kim Jeong-eun), making North Korea the only post-twentieth-century “republic” with a hereditary system of succession.
Korea is the world’s last remaining divided nation. In a gesture towards reunification, both countries did simultaneously join the United Nations, and the two sides have come together several times at multilateral negotiations. The administration of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung (1998–2003) in particular stressed its “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with the North, making efforts to ease inter-Korean tensions and foster reform and opening in North Korea, and for his achievement in such regards Kim was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Pyongyang has many attractions for the visitor, including the Kumsusan (Geumsusan) Memorial Palace, built in commemoration of the sixty-fifth birthday of then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung in 1977, performances by the Mansudae Art Troupe, Moranbong Hill, Juche Tower, the Pyongyang subway system, and the Arirang Mass Games. As South Korean citizenship is not recognized in the North, South Koreans cannot visit that country, but those with other nationalities can easily arrange such a visit.
Pyongyang served as the capital of the ancient Korean kingdom of Goguryeo (ca. 37 BCE–668), while the city of Gaeseong (Kaesong) was important as the capital of the Goryeo dynasty (935–1392). Up through the Japanese colonial period (1910–1945), Gaeseong belonged to Gyeonggi-do and was only about an hour’s drive from Seoul. The truce ending hostilities in the Korean War was signed at a building erected at Panmunjeom at the center of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas. It is also here that prisoner exchanges have taken place and where Chung Ju-yung (Jeong Ju-yeong), then South Korea’s richest man, had a herd of cattle sent over into a starving North Korea in 1998.
Mt. Geumgang (Kumgang) is one of the most important tourist sites in North Korea. During the Joseon dynasty, Mt. Geumgang was a popular excursion destination among the yangban class (Confucian literati), and it continues to be recognized today as one of the most beautiful and scenic spots on the peninsula. In 1998, with the warming of North-South relations, evidenced in such events as the herding of cattle into the North, North Korea began to grant permission for average South Koreans to visit Mt. Geumgang. However, a decade later, in 2008, such visits were cancelled after at South Korean tourist was shot and killed by a North Korean soldier on the beach during a visit to the Mt. Geumgang region, and they have yet to be resumed. The Mt. Geumgang tourism initiative is perhaps the most representative product of the “Sunshine Policy” that was meant to foster reunification and is the venture that most effectively softened the mood between the two Koreas. Besides this, other important tourist sites in North Korea are the sacred mountains of Mt. Myohyang and Mt. Baekdu (both associated with Dangun, the legendary founder of the Korean race). Mt. Baekdu can be climbed from its Chinese side as far as the Heavenly Lake (Cheonji) on the summit, from where one can gaze down on North Korea.
North Korea is a country that clings to a hereditary power structure and whose society adheres to a sort of pre-modern system of thought. Nevertheless, in the 1990s, when socialist systems were collapsing in the West, North Korea’s socialist system held steadfast and even weathered two power successions without political turmoil, all evidence of a strong degree of stability. And even as its ineffectual dictatorial system has been unable to deal with the problem of starvation or human rights, North Korea is also a country with the world’s lowest crime and accident rates.
There are indications that South Koreans in their twenties and younger do not recognize national unification as a necessity. Though naturally the case of Germany teaches us that the social costs of reunification will be considerable, the majority of Koreans, North and South, remain deeply cognizant of their millennia of shared history, national territory, physical similarities, common language, and cultural affinities, and view reunification not as a “duty” but as a natural course.