ON SEPTEMBER 9, 2016, North Korea’s National Day, the country detonated a nuclear bomb at its Punggye-Ri nuclear test site. It was the country’s fifth nuclear test since 2006, and the second one this year. While South Korea and Japan estimated the energy released by the explosion was equivalent to about 10 kilotons of TNT (10 kt) that generated about a 5.3 magnitude of seismic shock, an expert at California’s Middlebury Institute of International Studies said it could be at least 20 to 30 kt, making it more powerful than the Little Boy atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 that killed 90,000 to 146,000 people. This despite the fact that for each nuclear test it did in the past, North Korea received sanctions from powerful nations that have had an effect on its economy and its world standing.
BBC NEWS gathered some of the harsher reactions to North Korea’s latest test, including condemnation from President Obama, who agreed with South Korea and Japan to work with the UN Security Council “to vigorously implement existing measures imposed in previous resolutions, and to take additional significant steps, including new sanctions.” Japan was quoted as calling the country “an outlaw nation in the neighborhood” while South Korea branded the test as a “…provocation that will further accelerate [North Korea’s] path to self-destruction.” Russia, on the other hand, insisted “that the North Korean side stop its dangerous escapades and unconditionally implement all resolutions of the United Nations Security Council.”
Expectedly, North Korea was angered by such negative reactions, calling them a “racket of threat and sanctions…kicked up by the U.S.-led hostile forces” to deny a “sovereign state’s exercise of the right to self-defense.” And herein, perhaps, lies the reason for this country’s outwardly belligerent stance—as far it is concerned, its independence is under a constant threat. Looking back at its history, one may find an explanation for the country’s attitude.
The father of North Korea, Kim Il-sung
In the 19th century, Korea, under the Joseon Dynasty, adopted an isolationist policy to protect itself from Western imperialism, earning the title “Hermit kingdom.” Despite this, it was forced to open trade. Its worst fear came true when, in 1910, it was occupied by Japan, which promptly suppressed Korean traditions and culture, including its language and history. World War II made matters even worse, leading to the rise of resistance groups that fought guerrilla warfare against the Japanese. Among these Korean fighters was Kim Il-sung.
When WWII ended in 1945, the Korean Peninsula was divided into two zones. The northern half went to the Soviet Union, with Kim Il-Sung being installed as chairman of the Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea, while the southern half went to the United States. As the Cold War intensified, the two halves saw themselves fighting a proxy war between the two superpowers, ending in an armistice in 1953, but not after more than one million civilians and soldiers had died.
Soviet forces left North Korea in 1948, followed by Chinese troops eight years later. It was also in 1956 that Kim Il-sung fought off the efforts of the two countries to depose him from power. And while he kept good relations with them, he promoted the ideology of “Juche,” which emphasized national and economic self-reliance. With the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Kim Il-sung began severing ties with China. North Korea was on its way to reacquiring its “Hermit kingdom” status.
The late 1990s saw the country attempting to normalize relations with the West, and renegotiating disarmament deals with U.S. officials in exchange for economic aid. It also began engaging with South Korea on a peaceful level in what is known as the Sunshine Policy. But then, in 2001, George W. Bush came to power, and his administration rejected South Korea’s Sunshine Policy as well as the Agreed Framework, the negotiation with former president Bill Clinton that halted North Korea’s manufacture of nuclear weapons. The country was also treated as a rogue nation.
Kim Jong-un is the current Supreme Leader of North Korea, a title he inherited from his father.
As a reaction, North Korea went back and intensified its efforts to build nuclear weapons, finally conducting its first test in October 2006. It has not looked back since, even after Kim Il-sung died and his son, Kim Jong-il took over, and then, when he died and was succeeded by his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. As Great Leader Kim Il-sung once set in stone, disarming unilaterally would amount to surrender, and surrender has never been a part of the North Korean vocabulary.
So in a way, this is the reason why a country the size of Mississippi has the fourth largest army in the world. And for all its sabre-rattling and war-mongering, it could be that all it ever wanted is to really be the Hermit kingdom. Maybe it just wants to be left alone.
The Guamanian is the premier business-lifestyle magazine in the region.
Follow us on Facebook for more exclusive content.