North Korea - a country never at peace
The state of North Korea was born out of the Cold War conflict between communism and capitalism, a history from which it has never been able to escape.
At the end of WWII, Korea was liberated from decades of Japanese occupation and looked set to regain its independence, with the wartime allies - the US, China, Britain and the Soviet Union all supporting that goal.
Soviet and US forces occupied the two ends of the country in what was seen as a transition period ahead of democratic elections. The US remained in the South, while the Soviet Union occupied the North.
Divided Korea's fragile peace
- Korea was occupied by the Allies after WWII ending decades of rule by Japan
- Soviets occupied the north and the US the south, but as allies became Cold War rivals, unification talks failed and separate regimes evolved
- In 1950, the Korean War saw Mao's China back communist North Korea, while the US helped South Korea, fearing Asia would turn communist
- A 1953 armistice created a fragile peace, and border tensions have lasted ever since
But as the wartime co-operation between the Soviet Union and the US deteriorated, two very different states emerged - the US-backed Republic of Korea in the south and the Communist Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the north with a leader, Kim Il-Sung who had been trained by the Red Army
North Korea was "born a monster", believes John Everard, the UK's former ambassador to North Korea. "It was created by Soviet Army officers who seemed to have had little idea of state creation."
"[They] built Kim Il-sung into a leader, but when they found that he commanded insufficient public respect, they built up around him a Stalinist cult of personality so that the country ended up being ruled by a god king - rather like the late kings of Korea [before the Japanese occupation]."
In 1950, South Korea declared independence. North Korea, supported by the Soviet Union and China, quickly invaded the south, sparking the three-year Korean War.
The United States intervened fearing a communist takeover of Korea could have wider implications, says Robert Kelly, of Pusan National University in South Korea. "If the US gave up the fight in South Korea, Washington worried about falling dominos (to communism) elsewhere in Asia. This was something they couldn't risk."
After fighting reached a stalemate, US presidents Harry S. Truman and then Dwight D. Eisenhower used the nuclear threat publicly as a means to try to end the war.
But it was also clear Truman did not want the conflict to spread or trigger another world war. In 1951 when General Douglas MacArthur - commander of US forces in the Far East - had publicly called for North Korea's backer China to be attacked - he was sacked for insubordination.
In 1953, The Korean Armistice Agreement was signed. It was supposed to be a temporary measure, setting up a demilitarised zone (DMZ) established along the 38th parallel. But a permanent peace was never signed. And tensions across the border have lasted ever since.
End Quote John Everard Former ambassador to North Korea
Its leaders came to regard the nuclear programme as a guarantee of North Korea's very existence as a state”
In its early years, North Korea prospered, supported by both China and the Soviet Union.
But the cross-border tensions increased with South Korea's rapid industrialisation and economic growth.
"South Korea became really wealthy in the 1970s, while North Korea remained a typical example of Stalinist policy. The country did well for a while but then began to falter", explains Kelly.
As the 1980s ended with the fall of the Soviet Union, the loss of Soviet aid was a major blow. When China recognised South Korea in 1992, North Korea felt betrayed and increasingly isolated.
"Its economy has been in freefall since the collapse of the Soviet bloc," said author and North Korea expert Paul French.
"The economy failed, industry shuddered to a halt. Eastern bloc export markets fell away."
"North Korean agriculture collapsed and the country descended into a famine in the mid-1990s."
The country's nuclear programme, probably begun in the 1960s according to former ambassador John Everard, became increasingly important. "As the international environment turned against North Korea, its leaders came to regard the nuclear programme as the guarantee of its existence as an independent state."
North Korea key clashes
- In 1976 two US Army officers were attacked in the border area while pruning a tree - reportedly planted by Kim Il-sung. They were killed with their own axes by North Korean soldiers. There was no apology but a North Korean message of regret stated: "Our side will never provoke first, but take self-defensive measures only when provocation occurs. This is our consistent stand."
- One of several failed assassination attempts on South Korean leaders took place in 1983 when President Chun Doo-hwan was visiting Burma. Twenty one people including three South Korean ministers were killed in the attack. China reprimanded North Korea and suspended contact for months.
"The "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung, followed by his son the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il and now his grandson and "Supreme Leader" Kim Jong-un have all held one massive trump card - the great nuclear bargaining chip," adds French.
But North Korea's nuclear programme also became the main source of tension with the West. Relations with the US and South Korea have approached breaking point a number of times.
In 1994 US President Clinton's administration was on the brink of war with North Korea because the latter kept violating international agreements over checks on its nuclear plans.
In 2002, tensions flared again as North Korea expelled international nuclear inspectors amid concerns, later confirmed, that it was secretly developing nuclear weapons.
"The Korean War has still not finally ended. The old enmities remain, at least in Pyongyang's eyes" says Paul French.
"Seoul has forged ahead economically and become a thriving democracy."
"The North has remained as if in aspic since the mid 1950s, positioning its historical narrative in terms of victimhood, only now with a nuclear capability that means everyone must pay attention."