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North Korea Travel Guide

North Korea — History and Culture

The history of North Korea spans the last 65 years, beginning just after the end of WWII when the Soviet Union took control of the northern half of the peninsula. Since that time, the North has been a closed, some say rogue state, committed to the reunification of the country under the rule of the Kim hereditary dynasty. The rich culture of the peninsula has been diluted by artistic propaganda about the revolution and the ruling family.

History

The ancient history of the Korean peninsula mirrors that of its dwarfing neighbor, China, in that the region was settled over 4,000 years ago and ruled by a succession of powerful dynasties. During much of the time, Korea was in conflict with China and 2,000 years ago, the region was divided into three separate kingdoms, Paekje, Silla and Koguryeo. By the 7th century AD, the three kingdoms were united under the Silla Dynasty and known as the Unified Silla. Buddhism, culture and the arts thrived, and relations with China were peaceful.

By the 10th century, internal political conflicts resulted in the downfall of the Silla Dynasty and its replacement was the Koryeo Dynasty in 936 AD. Another culturally-oriented state, Koryeo stayed in power until the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, although the dynasty continued to rule as a tributary to the Beijing-based Mongol Empire. In 1388, severe political strife resulted in a rebellion and the establishment of the Joseon Dynasty in Korea.

The first 200 years of Joseon rule were relatively peaceful until the arrival of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his Japanese army in the 1590's, intent on conquering China by way of Korea. The emperor of the Chinese Ming Dynasty sent troops to support Korea, and the Japanese forces were repelled in 1598 after six years of war. Peace, however, only lasted for 20 years as the Manchu invasions began and resulted in yet another dynastic change in China.

After the establishment of the Chinese Manchu Dynasty, Korea became an isolated, backwater country for about 200 years, ruled by the re-established Joseon Dynasty and encouraged by China to cut ties and Western influences. However, by the 19th century, the country had opened to Western trade and, following the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars, was again occupied by Japan from 1910 through 1945.

After WWII divided Korea, the United Nations began giving control of the northern region to the Soviet Union. The official history of North Korea was initiated by forming the Democratic Peoples’ Republic in 1948 after the Soviet Army-authorized the Soviet Civil Authority to set up a USSR-friendly regime led by Kim il Sung.

South Korea’s military support from the US prevented the reunification under the Soviet system, although the subsequent withdrawal of American forces led to an invasion backed by Stalin once the Soviet Union had developed nuclear weapons. In June of 1950, North Korea invaded the south and the Korean War began. The conflict ended in 1953 and is now considered the first of the Cold War confrontations in which a proxy war took place between the two superpowers in a third country.

Still to this day, tension between South and North Korea and the rest of the world have remained high, with hostile incidents instigated by the North a regular occurrence. The hereditary ruling dynasty created by Kim il Sung is firmly in place, with the country now controlled by his grandson, Kim Jong-un. In 2002, North Korea was labeled "an axis of evil" by US President George Bush, and the country continues with a uranium enrichment program and weapons testing. North Korea has one of the world’s largest, most well-equipped armies and continues to harass its southern neighbor.

Culture

While the contemporary culture of North Korea has roots in the rich, ancient culture of the peninsula, the country’s day-to-day ideology has been strongly influenced by Juche, introduced in 1948 with the Communist dictatorship. Juche culture is based on a belief in the productivity of the working class, an absolute commitment to cultural distinction and the almost deified personality cult of its leader.

Despite Korea’s magnificent heritage, art in the closed state's primary purpose is to preach the Juche ideology and the need for ongoing struggles to force a revolution to reunify the two Koreas under the North’s rule. The negative depiction of Western powers, the Japanese as imperialists, and the moral purity of revolutionary heroes martyred for the cause, are consistent themes in all forms of expression, as is the supposed political and literary genius of the ruling Kim Dynasty.

Pyongyang and other large, industrial cities offer the most examples of modern cultural expression, with events designed to suggest that nations the world over respects and loves Kim il Sung and his son, Kim Jong-il. Art propaganda groups travel to remote rural regions in order to inspire the agricultural workers to express their love for the great leader, and are at their busiest during the harvest season, encouraging workers’ collective consciousness. All artistic endeavors are controlled by the state, and traditional theater and folk tales must include a revolutionary theme preaching pro-North Korea.

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