There's been a lot of talk about North Korea in the past couple of days, and it's well-warranted. Not since the days of the Cold War has the threat of nuclear war seemed, well, so imminent. Before you start building a Blast From the Past-style nuclear bunker, though, there are a few things you need to know about North Korea. Or, as they call it there, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or the DPRK.
North Korea is unique in the world for many reasons — its continued adherence to a form of communism long gone everywhere else, its record of human rights violations, its insanely high level of isolation from the rest of the planet. It's often referred to as a "rogue state," meaning that its actions seem irrational to the rest of the world. North Korea simply refuses to play by the rules that the rest of the world does. There's a lot of history behind that, and there are many ways in which the government and its ruling family keep the rest of the population in check. While we can't predict with absolute certainty what, if anything, North Korea will do to threaten the safety of the United States or of the rest of the world, it's still useful to delve into exactly what makes North Korea what it is.
1It's The Last Remaining Stalinist State
When Joseph Stalin came to power in the Soviet Union in 1929, he set out to bend an entire section of the globe to his will. By the beginning of the 1950s, numerous countries stretching from Czechoslovakia on the western border to North Korea in the east had a Stalinist system of government. On the one hand, these countries were heavily focused on modernization in terms of agriculture and technology. On the other, Stalin and his disciples were brutal toward their political enemies, executing many after sham "show trials" meant to scare citizens into submission and sending thousands to work camps in the middle of nowhere. Although Stalin was an ally during World War II, his drive for greatness likely killed around 20 million people in total between his political purges, executions, and man-made famines.
After Stalin died in 1953, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced his predecessor's system and Stalinism quickly fell out of favor, yielding to a more liberal and less harsh form of communism. Stalinism was gone from Europe by the end of the 1960s, let alone 1989 when the Iron Curtain fell. Today, there's only one place it exists: North Korea.
2A Unique Situation Had To Exist For That To Happen
When Stalin died, the cult of personality that he had cultivated died with him, and no later Soviet ruler tried to claim one. This wasn't the case in North Korea, where Kim Il-sung, who had Stalin's help in coming to power, maintained his rule until 1994.
Under the "Great Leader," the government kept running the same way as Stalin would have wanted it himself back in 1948, when Kim was first installed. While other countries certainly had revered revolutionary leaders like Che Guevara or Fidel Castro, nowhere else did any leader even attempt to maintain a hardline Stalinist system.
3How It's Different From The Rest Of The Former Communist World
The main difference, of course, is that it's still a fully-fledged Stalinist state, and that it didn't fall in the wave of democratization that began in 1989. It's also the only communist country where power passed through generations of the same family, from Kim Il-sung to his son Kim Jong-il and then to Kim Jong-un, the current leader. The country's communist party still uses propaganda and governance tactics that the European communist regimes had largely abandoned by the 1970s, and it hasn't moved to embrace certain parts of capitalism the way that the other pseudo-communist regimes like China have. North Korea, for so many reasons, is a singular state.
The Kim family is the backbone of the North Korean regime, and everything revolves around them. Kim Jong-un, his father, and his grandfather have cemented themselves in the North Korean psyche as almost God-like, and they've all acted harshly toward people they perceived as threatening. Even since taking power after his father died in 2011, Kim Jong-un has reportedly had supposed political rivals executed — including several members of his own family.
5Everyone's Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others
The old joke about communism appears to hold true in North Korea, where the Kim family is enormously wealthy and much of the rest of the nation has gone hungry at various times. Poor agricultural policies have led to numerous famines since 1948, and things got worse when they lost their main trading partner, the Soviet Union. Since then, the Kims have held onto their own power and riches at the expense of their people — all 25 million of them.
6The North Korean Propaganda Machine
Part of the way the government maintains control is through a very strong propaganda game. They rely on nationalist themes to build loyalty, portraying themselves as a far more advanced nation than the rest of the world sees them. North Korean propaganda also builds up the possibility of conflict with the United States, which is meant to create and maintain a feeling of patriotism. When the citizens of a country feel like they're under attack from an outside force, they're more likely to band together in support of their country.
The North Korean propaganda machine is also so effective with its citizens because of how isolated the country is. Remember the story about how the North Korean internet has only 28 websites? The average North Korean citizen simply doesn't know what the outside world is like. Tourism is restricted for people coming in, and North Koreans aren't allowed to leave. This was a typical strategy for the European communist regimes as well — as long as people can't leave, they're forced to believe what their own governments say about the outside world.
8Allies Are Few And Far Between
It would be false to say that North Korea is completely friendless in the world, but their list of allies is short. North Korea's main alliances are with China and Russia, although there are complexities even within those alliances, and both countries signed onto the latest U.N. sanctions levied toward the North Korean regime. They also are nominally allied with Bulgaria, a remnant of Bulgaria's own communist past, although Bulgaria has promised that it will support U.N. sanctions against the so-called hermit kingdom. North Korea also has a couple of allies in Africa: Benin, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Madagascar.
9But Enemies Are Common
Most nations are united against North Korea, simply because of the country's belligerent rhetoric and its history of human rights violations against its own citizens. North Korea especially hates the United States, a feeling that dates back to the Korean War in the 1950s. They also have a long-lasting dispute with South Korea over control of the Korean peninsula, and Seoul is thought to be a major potential target if North Korea were to launch an attack. The other nearby target is Japan, another American ally with territory lying well within the range of North Korea's existing missiles.
10Where The Money Comes From
With so many enemies, it might seem difficult for the hermit kingdom to build up a significant trading network. Unless, that is, they do it illegally. They have international smuggling networks capable of delivering them currency and nuclear material, front businesses in China to avoid sanctions, and a thriving illegal arms trade. All of this makes the regime stronger and the sanctions against it less effective.
11So, What About Those Nuclear Capabilities?
North Korea has long been trying to develop nuclear capabilities, and recent tests have shown that they have actually succeeded in acquiring the materials necessary and developing various types of missiles that could threaten the United States and other countries. It's unclear exactly how close they are to developing an intercontinental ballistic missile of the sort that could reach the U.S. mainland, but it's clear that they should be taken seriously and that what the situation needs right now is some very clever diplomacy.
12Why Things Are Getting Tense Now
Tensions have been rising between the United States and North Korea mostly for two reasons: Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. The two leaders are both prone to excessive talk of force and desirous of more respect on the international scene, so they've both been talking a big game lately when it comes to the nuclear threat on both sides.
There are no signs, however, that Trump's now-infamous "fire and fury" remark has any real military backing, and it's safe to assume that the North Korean government has no desire for a real nuclear war with the United States — after all, what firepower they have is still no match for the American arsenal.
13Should You Worry?
Short answer, no. Longer answer, almost certainly no. Hopped up on power though he may be, Kim Jong-un has spent enough time outside of the hermit kingdom that he surely realizes that his position of power would be severely threatened if he were to launch an attack on the United States. The Cold War stayed cold because of the threat of mutually assured destruction, and while that could go completely awry with nukes in the hands of two irrational leaders, it's worked this long and there's no sign besides the words of those two leaders that anything is going to change. And remember — how often has Trump failed to keep his promises? Chances are, fire and fury will only rain down on North Korea when Hillary Clinton is locked up and the big, beautiful wall has been built.
North Korea is undoubtedly creating a very sensitive situation, and there are a lot of ways that this latest escalation in tensions could pan out. For now, the best thing that you can do is educate yourself about what's created the problem so far and what the United States and its allies are doing to curb it now.