It’s been a week of threats and retaliatory barbs, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. President Donald Trump warned North Korea it would face “fire and fury” should the Hermit Kingdom continue to threaten America with nuclear attack. North Korea responded by claiming it would unleash “enveloping fire” around Guam, a tiny island in the western Pacific Ocean that is officially U.S. territory. No wonder officials in Hawaii recently kicked off an emergency preparedness education campaign about what to do if missiles head their way.
With all the uncertainty out there, Maclean’s asked Google to provide the 10 most common questions about North Korea that Canadians asked the search engine over the past week. Then we set out to find the answers.
1. Why does North Korea hate the U.S.?
Let’s go back to the Korean War, which started in 1950, when 135,000 North Korean soldiers invaded the south. They had plans to reunify the two Koreas by force. Within a week, U.S. President Harry Truman had ordered ground troops to assist the South Koreans, partially out of fear that not stopping the North Koreans would open the floodgates for the Soviet Union to spread communism in the region.
American planes dropped explosives and napalm, towns were burned (mostly in North Korea) and millions of Koreans died. The war never ended with a peace treaty, but rather with an armistice negotiated in 1953—meaning the North and South are still technically at war.
Then add to that six decades of North Korean isolation and propaganda. Kim Il-sung, the founder of the Kim family dynasty that remains in power today with Kim Jong-un at the helm, established a propaganda machine with anti-U.S.messaging as its main theme. North Koreans are taught that Americans are malevolent, imperialist aggressors who want to kill them, and that only the regime can protect the people from the Yankee hordes. For instance, the country celebrates an annual “Struggle Against U.S. Imperialism Month.” At the same time the regime completely restricts access to news from the outside world. This has enabled it to paint the U.S. as a perpetual enemy for decades, helping the Kim family consolidate and maintain power.
2. Will North Korea attack the US?
Trying to predict what North Korea’s erratic leader will do is obviously impossible. That said, the country does have nuclear weapons. New economic sanctions imposed on North Korea in the past week won’t make Kim any happier, though this time the measures may cut off enough of the resources he needs to expand the nuclear program as quickly as he’d like.
If North Korea indeed launches an attack on America, it’s unlikely any nukes will be advanced enough to reach major areas like New York or Washington D.C. A closer target would be the U.S. territory of Guam, a tiny island located relatively close by in the western Pacific Ocean.
3. What does North Korea export?
North Korea’s economy relies heavily on the export of coal briquettes (mostly to China), which account for more than one-third of its outflow of goods, totalling about $1 billion (U.S.) in revenue a year. And while China has put a stop to coal imports from North Korea—in accordance with the United Nations Security Council sanctions—China has reportedly been increasing its imports of iron ore from North Korea.
In addition to coal, North Korea also exports lead, iron ore as well as clothing—again, mostly to China.
4. Where is Guam in relation to North Korea?
The U.S. island territory of Guam is located 3,400 km south of North Korea. That’s a much closer target for North Korea than Alaska, which sits about 5,700 km away, or Hawaii, located approximately 7,500 km from North Korea. The tiny island of Guam, roughly 50 km in length with a population of 163,000, has been a U.S. territory since the late 1800s, except for a period during the Second World War when it was occupied by Japan. Residents of Guam are U.S. citizens, though they can’t vote for the president.
5. What does North Korea want?
Well, for starters they want long-range nuclear weapons. The reason, according to some experts, is as simple as survival. If North Korea has a bomb, the thinking goes, it will have more bargaining power when negotiating a peace treaty and an end to international sanctions.
6. What would happen if North Korea nuked the U.S.?
If a North Korean missile could reach the U.S. mainland on the west coast—say, San Francisco—it would take about 30 minutes from launch until the strike hit. The explosion would knock down most buildings within a kilometre of the blast point, and searing heat would incinerate any people exposed within the blast zone. Following that, deadly radiation could be carried more than 20 km depending on the wind. But ultimately the casualty rate would depend on whether the missile hit a corn field or major metropolitan centre.
Let’s pause for a moment to say this is extremely unlikely, given North Korea’s shaky nuclear missile technology, the distance the missile would need to travel, and America’s defences.
For starters, America has developed a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, better known as THAAD, designed to detect and intercept incoming ballistic missiles. The U.S. military said it completed successful tests of THAAD’s capabilities late last month.
Then the question becomes, how would America respond? If Donald Trump is taken at his word, the mere threat of nukes against the U.S. from North Korea will be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” That might prove complicated, though, considering how tiny North Korea is, and its proximity to several close U.S. allies like South Korea and Japan, let alone the uncertainty of how China would respond to a war erupting in its region.
But given how America has responded in the past when its territory was attacked, be it at Pearl Harbour or on 9/11, a U.S. retaliation of some sort would be all but certain. Hopefully the horrors of even a limited nuclear conflict would be obvious enough to both sides to serve as a deterrent.
7. What is the population of North Korea?
There are about 25.4 million people living in North Korea. By comparison, that’s slightly greater than the population of Australia, but only half the size of South Korea, which boasts more than 51 million people.
8. Why is North Korea so angry?
Given the fact that every aspect of life in North Korea has been controlled by Kim Jong-un, his father and grandfather, the question should be why is Kim so angry? Surely it’s not because Kim and his relatives have been a running joke in American cinema.
9. What are the sanctions on North Korea?
The latest United Nations security council sanctions, approved unanimously by all members, include bans on North Korea’s major exports—including coal, iron, iron ore and seafood. All told, the sanctions could zap $1 billion from the country’s economy. Meanwhile, assets of high-profile North Koreans will be frozen, and all countries are banned from joint ventures with North Korean companies.
Trump’s controversial travel ban also included North Korea, and that ban could reportedly take effect as early as next month.
The hope is that the sanctions will finally force Kim Jong-un to stop his nuclear tests and give up his arms program. However, the country has been under various sanctions for years, and that hasn’t stopped it from building up its arsenal.
10. Is North Korea communist?
This isn’t clear cut. The Soviets briefly occupied North Korea after the country’s liberation from Japan, and provided aid in the form of technology, weapons and funding that helped establish a communist regime. But since then North Korea has shed its communist trappings. Former leader Kim Jong-il removed all references to communism when North Korea revised its constitution in 2009. When Kim Jong-un took over as the nation’s leader from his father, he had the portraits of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin removed from the main square in the nation’s capital, Pyongyang. Though the regime maintains control of all aspects of the economy and its citizens’ lives, North Korea is even more secretive than the Soviet Union was at its peak. North Korea is called the Hermit Kingdom for a reason.