North Korea has been making headlines a great deal lately, and not for good reasons.
In a move that must have warmed the hearts of millions of impoverished North Koreans scraping to find enough food to keep their families from starving, the nation’s leadership announced intentions to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States, calling the US the “sworn enemy of the Korean people.”
A few days later, North Korea confirmed it was ending the 60-year armistice connected to the 1950-53 Korean War.
On March 30, Pyongyang declared it was in “a state of war” with South Korea, and Kim Jong-un stated that rockets were ready to be fired at American bases in the Pacific in response to the US flying two nuclear-capable B2 stealth bombers over the Korean peninsula.
While US intelligence officials speculate that Kim Jong-un is using the bluster to assert control over his country, and his ultimate goal is recognition rather than getting involved in a devastating conflict, the general consensus seems to be that the baby-faced dictator is decidedly unpredictable, if not eight kinds of crazy.
Which is just what the people of North Korea don’t need at this point.
The past century has not been easy for the North Koreans.
The entire Korean peninsula was annexed by the Japanese from 1910 until the end of World War II, and tens of thousands of North Koreans were conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army and an estimated 200,000 women forced to serve as prostitutes for the Japanese Army during the Second World War.
The peninsula was partitioned at the conflict’s end, with Soviet Union establishing authority in the northern half.
Kim Il-sung took over in power in 1946 and introduced sweeping land reforms and began nationalizing important industries.
In June 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, beginning the Korean War, which would claim an estimated 2.5 million killed, wounded and missing, including more than 1.5 million North Koreans.
North Korea withdrew further into itself following the war, as a cult of personality developed around Kim Il-sung. Propped up by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, North Korea fell on hard times when the USSR collapsed.
More than 1 million North Koreans are believed to have died during a famine in the mid- to late-1990s alone.
But amid all the “Hermit Kingdom’s” problems, at least two industries appear to be thriving. One, not surprisingly, is the military.
North Korea has the fourth-largest army in the world, with an estimated 1.2 million armed personnel, or about 20 percent of its men ages 17–54 in the regular armed forces, according to the US Department of State.
North Korea has the highest percentage of military personnel per capita of any nation in the world, 49 out of every 1,000, according to The Economist.
The other industry that seems to be going gangbusters is military medal manufacturing.
Recently, a Chinese entertainment internet site 56ent.com posted a collection of North Korean soldiers that showed the latter covered in badges and medals, which drew a response from an online site called Daily NK, which is advertised as “Brightening the Future of Korea.”
Some of the images featured students from something called the “Revolutionary Academy” with multitudes of medals, which Chinese viewers found perplexing, given their young age.
The Daily DK explained that the majority of students from the Revolutionary Academy were offspring of parents who had performed meritorious deeds and died for North Korea, and the youngsters were wearing badges inherited from their parents.
Other photos posted on the Chinese site showed soldiers, both active and retired, with row upon row of medals, to the point that one wonders whether there is an action that the North Koreans don’t recognize with a decoration.
It’s all good for a laugh, one supposes, but it should also make those of us outside North Korea, especially those in the Western World, grateful to have been born anywhere besides the area along the Korean Peninsula north of the 38th Parallel.