Toe-to-Toe on the Korean Peninsula

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korea3For over a half-century the Korean Peninsula has existed in a state of limbo, neither at war, nor at peace. In the years since the Korean War, tensions between North Korea and South Korea have waxed and waned, though never dissipated. During the past month, tensions have been mounting again. As South Korea’s constant political and military ally, the United States plays an active role in the conflict, historically and today.

The current tit-for-tat began in February when North Korea conducted a third underground nuclear test. This was done despite United Nations sanctions for and condemnation of the first two tests. In response, the United Nations tightened sanctions against North Korea. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, placed the artillery on high alert and targeted U.S. sites in the Pacific. Last Thursday, March 28, 2013, the United States sent two B-2 bombers on a practice run over South Korea. The bombers carried two unspoken messages, one of support for South Korea, and one of warning for North Korea. In response, Kim Jong-un, ordered rockets put on stand-by.  According to reports on North Korean television, Jong-un declared, “The time has come to settle accounts with U.S. imperialists.” And that is where we stand: toe-to-toe on the Korean Peninsula.korea2

For generations, North Korean leaders have issued threats and insults against the United States and South Korea, and demonstrated their independence with unsanctioned nuclear tests and shows of military might. The Allies have responded with their own Cold-War style shows of force. To begin to understand what lies behind this age-old rivalry, one must know something about North Korea’s history, culture, and politics. Now is an appropriate time to learn more about North Korea and the differences that divide the Korean Peninsula.

A Glimpse Inside

North Korea is one of the world’s most closed societies. Few foreigners are granted permission to enter and none travel freely. Between three and four thousand Westerners visit North Korea each year. Visitors who travel there do not go it alone; travel in North Korea is limited to organized, state-owned tour companies and visits must be pre-approved and pre-arranged. Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder has visited North Korea. He shares his experiences and his photographs during a narrated slideshow. At the end, Guttenfelder says, “If you look at all of them [these photographs], together, the sum of the parts, I think something really interesting starts to come through.” What is your impression of the sum of the parts? What do they reveal to you about North Korea?

korea4Lisa Ling is another journalist who was granted special permission to visit North Korea as part of a medical envoy. She documented her trip for National Geographic. Watch the first twelve minutes for a glimpse into the country.

At the time of Ling’s trip, North Korea was led by Kim Jong-Il, the Dear Leader. His father, Kim Il-Song, is a national hero. No examination of North Korea would be complete without including Kim Il-Sung. Revisit Guttenfelder’s slideshow or Ling’s story and record how often and where you view Kim Il-Sung’s image. He is officially referred to as The Great Leader. He was the revolutionary leader who founded the DPRK and the first to rule an independent, communist North Korea after World War II. Kim Il-Sung’s leadership began what has become a Kim dynasty—his son (Kim Jong-Il) and now grandson (Kim Jong-un) each inherited the position of supreme leader. Others would describe Il-Sung as a repressive totalitarian and self-declared demi-God. Read an obituary of Kim Il-Sung.

Investigate the three generations of Kim leaders with several Associated Press interactives. Select the leadership tab and explore each section: leadership core, family, succession, the next leader, and the funeral of Kim Jong-Il. Kim Il-Song and Kim Jong-Il were called the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. Their images adorn most public spaces. They have been placed, literally and figuratively, on pedestals. Examine how this happens; open the slide titled ‘bloodline’ and then view all ten slides. How does this compare to the perception of leaders in your country? Visit another AP interactive for more information about the Kim family as well as other North Korean military and political leaders (slide 3).korea1

A History of Aggression

Like many countries, North Korea’s national identity is tied to its history. Ling introduces the history of the Korean Peninsula, including America’s role in the conflict, and the current demilitarized zone (DMZ); watch from 12:12 to 15:40. Examine a map of the area. Which countries are closest to the Korean Peninsula? Who colonized the Peninsula prior to and during World War II? What happened to the Peninsula at the conclusion of World War II? What does this history have to do with the current situation and North Korea’s relationships with Japan, South Korea, and the United States?

Historical conflicts are rarely simple or straight-forward affairs. There are multiple perspectives to consider. What to some is a war for freedom, may to others be a war against aggressors. To view history from the official North Korean perspective, visit the official site for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Read about their long struggle against aggression and feudalism. Read about two proud moments in North Korea’s modern history: the founding of their nation and the war against American imperialism. Peruse other features on the site and learn more about North Korean culture, politics, and life. What evidence of propaganda do you find on this site? Based on this site, what is your impression of North Korea? How would you describe North Korea’s national identity? What words are used to describe the United States and South Korea? What messages or attitudes do these words convey? How does their perspective differ from that of the United States?

korea5For a different perspective of North Korea’s ongoing conflict with South Korea and the United States, among other countries and agencies, visit a suite of interactive features from the Associated Press. For a historical perspective, view a timeline (slide 4) of the North-South tensions from September, 1948 through February, 2013. The issue that escalated the conflict this time was North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. View a timeline of North Korea’s nuclear program through October, 2009. View a map of North Korea’s nuclear facilities. Learn more about each location by clicking on the icon. What exactly are North Korea’s nuclear capabilities? Advance to slide 2 to see where their weapons can reach. What is the connection between nuclear facilities and food aid? Read about each in the tab titled About the North.


The world now waits to see if Kim Jong-un will, like his grandfather, defiantly lead North Korea toward another war, or if he will forge a new path and instead demonstrate restraint. Use the local newspaper to track how this story develops. Discuss this story with friends and classmates:

  • Use social media sites to share the articles you find most interesting along with your responses to them.
  • Create an editorial cartoon or op-ed piece on the issue (and submit it to the local newspaper.)
  • With classmates, debate what course of action you think the American and international community should take to North Korean threats, including sanctions, and the U.S. flyovers.
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