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What seems like part of an innocent peninsula in the Far East has been described as 'the closest you can get to Mars without leaving Earth'. It's a wannabe nuclear power and, according to one particular theory, its leader, Kim Il Jong, learned English by watching repeats of Star Trek. Welcome to North Korea.
A Brief History
Not much is known about the origins of Korea and its people. It is cut-off from the rest of the world by its remote location. In the 1800s its monarchs lead a policy of isolation, earning the country the nickname of 'the hermit kingdom'.
Dragons have played a strong role in early (and even relatively recent) Far Eastern culture, and they continue to do so in Korea. The Koreans say that every river and stream has its own resident dragon which guarded its home.
For centuries, female divers called haenyo have collected seaweed and sea cucumbers off the coast of Cheju Island. A haenyo can dive to 18 metres and hold her breath for up to four minutes and they still exist today, although general modernisation is threatening their ancient way of life.
The North/South Divide
North Korea separated itself from the south in 1948. In 1950 North Korean troops, armed with Russian weapons, invaded South Korea. The USA led a UN force to stop them. On the 29 August, 1950, 4,000 British soldiers joined many more Americans, and they occupied most of Korea (both countries) in less than six weeks.
Then the Chinese sent in troops to stop the Americans. By 6 December, 1950, 200,000 Chinese troops had swarmed across the border. For a year the war dragged on with little happening, until the city of Suam was levelled on the 8 May, 1952. The war eventually ended on 27 July, 1953. South Korea had been saved, after 2 million people had died.
The country's first communist dictator, Kim Il Sung, once gave his son a goldmine for his birthday. North Korean children are taught that Kim Il Sung invented the toaster and car, and was the first man on the moon. When he died in 1994 there was nation-wide mourning, which is surprising considering the immense stranglehold he and his son have had over North Korea.
North Korea is a communist state covering 46,541 square miles. It has a population of 22,600,000 people, with 487 people to each square mile. Its currency is the Won, and has no religions to call its own, as religions are discouraged by the state.
A lot of North Korea is mountainous, with copper and zinc being mined from the mountains. Other major reserves are iron ore, tungsten, magnesite and graphite. The highest mountain is Mount Paektu on the Chinese border, at 2744m. The country's population lives mainly on the west coast, where the land is flat. The plains are a bit infertile, and since the 1990s the country has been in a semi-continuous famine. Starving country-dwellers have been known to eat dogs, grass, acorns and wild plants to survive.
The capital of North Korea, Pyongyang, was the site of a Chinese colony in the 2nd Century BC. In Korean, p'hyon means 'plain'. Seeing as Pyongyang is sited in the north west of North Korea, the naming of the city becomes obvious. Average temperatures in the city (and most of Korea) are 24°C (76°F) in July, to approximately -10°C in winter. Temperatures in the south are a few degrees higher in winter.
Much of the west has been deforested, with forests now confined to the middle of the country. This puts species of leopards, tigers, bears, wolves and deer at risk. The species of trees in the forests are spruce, pine, larch, fir and cedar. Birdlife in the country is predominantly cranes, herons, eagles and snipes.
The majority of North Koreans are extremely patriotic. But seeing as there are only two state-owned TV channels and you have to register to read a book, you can forgive the people for being slightly ill-informed.