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History of North Korea

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Title: History of North Korea  
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Subject: History of Korea, Korea, History of South Korea, History of North Korea, North Korea
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History of North Korea

The history of North Korea began with the partition of Korea at the end of World War II in 1945, and the creation of the Communist-aligned Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) headed by the former guerrilla leader, Kim Il-sung. In 1950 the Korean War broke out. After much destruction, the war ended with the status quo being restored. The DPRK had failed to unify Korea under its leadership, the US-led United Nations force had failed to conquer North Korea. The peninsula was divided by the Korean Demilitarized Zone, and a US military force remained in South Korea. Tension between the two sides continued. Kim Il-sung remained in power until his death in 1994. He developed a pervasive personality cult and steered the country on an independent course in accordance with the Juche idea. However, with natural disasters and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1991, North Korea went into a severe economic crisis. Kim Il-sung's son, Kim Jong-il succeeded him, and was in turn succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-un. Amid international alarm, North Korea developed nuclear missiles.


  • Division of Korea 1
  • The Korean War (1950-1953) 2
  • Postwar 3
  • Economic decline 4
  • Succession by Kim Jong-il 5
  • Current situation 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9
  • Further reading 10

Division of Korea

North Korea's history began with occupation of the Korean Peninsula north of the 38th parallel by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II in 1945, a division of Korea with the United States occupying the south. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established in 1948.

In the aftermath of partition of Korea, Kim Il-sung arrived in North Korea on August 22 after 26 years in exile in China and the Soviet Union. In September 1945, Kim was installed by the Soviets as head of the Provisional People’s Committee. He was not, at this time, the head of the Communist Party, whose headquarters were in Seoul in the U.S.-occupied south.

Kim established the Korean People's Army (KPA) aligned with the Communists, formed from a cadre of guerrillas and former soldiers who had gained combat experience in battles against the Japanese and later Nationalist Chinese troops. From their ranks, using Soviet advisers and equipment, Kim constructed a large army skilled in infiltration tactics and guerrilla warfare. Before the outbreak of the Korean War, Joseph Stalin equipped the KPA with modern medium tanks, trucks, artillery, and small arms. Kim also formed an air force, equipped at first with ex-Soviet propeller-driven fighter and attack aircraft. Later, North Korean pilot candidates were sent to the Soviet Union and China to train in MiG-15 jet aircraft at secret bases.[1]

Although original plans called for all-Korean elections sponsored by the United Nations in 1948, Kim persuaded the Soviets not to allow the UN north of the 38th parallel. As a result, a month after the South was granted independence as the Republic of Korea, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was proclaimed on September 9, with Kim as premier. On October 12, the Soviet Union declared that Kim's regime was the only lawful government on the peninsula. The Communist Party merged with the New People's Party to form the Workers Party of North Korea (of which Kim was vice-chairman). In 1949, the Workers Party of North Korea merged with its southern counterpart to become the Workers Party of Korea (WPK) with Kim as party chairman.

By 1949, North Korea was a full-fledged Communist state. All parties and mass organizations joined the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, ostensibly a popular front but in reality dominated by the Communists. The government moved rapidly to establish a political system that was partly styled on the Soviet system, with political power monopolised by the Worker's Party of Korea (WPK). The establishment of a command economy followed. Most of the country's productive assets had been owned by the Japanese or by Koreans who had been collaborators. The nationalization of these assets in 1946 placed 70% of industry under state control. By 1949 this percentage had risen to 90%. Since then, virtually all manufacturing, finance and internal and external trade has been conducted by the state.

In agriculture, the government moved more slowly towards a command economy. The "land to the tiller" reform of 1946 redistributed the bulk of agricultural land to the poor and landless peasant population, effectively breaking the power of the landed class.[2] In 1954, however, a partial collectivization was carried out, with peasants being urged, and often forced, into agricultural co-operatives. By 1958, virtually all farming was being carried out collectively, and the co-operatives were increasingly merged into larger productive units.

Although developmental debates took place within the Workers' Party of Korea in the 1950s, North Korea, like all the postwar communist states, undertook massive state investment in heavy industry, state infrastructure and military strength, neglecting the production of consumer goods.[3] By paying the collectivized peasants low state-controlled prices for their product, and using the surplus thus extracted to pay for industrial development, the state carried out a series of three-year plans, which brought industry's share of the economy from 47% in 1946 to 70% in 1959, despite the devastation of the Korean War. There were huge increases in electricity production, steel production and machine building. The large output of tractors and other agricultural machinery achieved a great increase in agricultural productivity.

The Korean War (1950-1953)

2012 rehearsal in Pyongyang for Victory Day, marking the end of the war

The consolidation of Syngman Rhee's government in the South with American military support and the suppression of the October 1948 insurrection ended North Korean hopes that a Stalinist revolution in the South could reunify Korea, and from early 1949 Kim Il-sung sought Soviet and Chinese support for a military campaign to reunify the country by force. The withdrawal of most U.S. forces from South Korea in June 1949 left the southern government defended only by a weak and inexperienced South Korean army. The southern régime also had to deal with a citizenry of uncertain loyalty. The North Korean army, by contrast, had benefited from the Soviet Union's WWII-era equipment, and had a core of hardened veterans who had fought either as anti-Japanese guerrillas or alongside the Chinese Communists.[4]

Initially Joseph Stalin rejected Kim Il-sung's requests for permission to invade the South, but in late 1949 the Communist victory in China and the development of Soviet nuclear weapons made him re-consider Kim's proposal. In January 1950, after China's Mao Zedong indicated that the People's Republic of China would send troops and other support to Kim, Stalin approved an invasion.[5] The Soviets provided limited support in the form of advisors who helped the North Koreans as they planned the operation, and Soviet military instructors to train some of the Korean units. However, from the very beginning Stalin made it clear that the Soviet Union would avoid a direct confrontation with the U.S. over Korea and would not commit ground forces even in case of major military crisis. The stage was set for a civil war between two rival régimes on the Korean peninsula.[4]

For over a year before North Korean forces attacked the southern zone on June 25, 1950, the two sides had engaged in a series of bloody clashes along the 38th parallel, especially in the Ongjin area on the west coast. On June 25, 1950, the northern forces escalated the battles into a full-fledged offensive and crossed the parallel in large numbers. Due to a combination of surprise, superior military forces, and a poorly armed South Korean army, the Northern forces quickly captured Seoul, forcing Syngman Rhee and his government to flee further south. By mid-July North Korean troops had overwhelmed the South Korean and allied American units defending South Korea and forced them back to a defensive perimeter in south-east South Korea known as the Pusan Perimeter. However, the North Koreans failed to unify the peninsula when foreign troops entered the civil war. North Korean forces were defeated by September and driven northwards by United Nations forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. By October, the U.N. forces had retaken Seoul and captured Pyongyang, and it became Kim's turn to flee. But in late November Chinese forces entered the war and pushed the U.N. forces back, retaking Pyongyang in December 1950 and Seoul in January 1951. However, U.N. forces managed to retake Seoul for the South Koreans. The war essentially became a bloody stalemate for the next two years.


Arch of Reunification, North Korea

The whole of the Korean peninsula lay in ruins when the armistice was signed at Pammunjon on July 27, 1953. Despite the failure of his attempt at unifying the nation under his rule, Kim Il-sung considered the war a victory in the sense that he remained in power. As a result, the North Korean media made the most of it by focusing entirely on the defeats suffered by the US and UN forces during the failed invasion of North Korea in late 1950. The armistice was celebrated in Pyongyang with a military parade in which Kim declared: "Despite their best efforts, the imperialist invaders were defeated with great loss in men and material."

Reconstruction of the DPRK proceeded with extensive Chinese and Soviet assistance, a task that took the next few years.[6][7] Meanwhile, Kim began gradually consolidating his power. Up to this time, North Korean politics were represented by four factions: the Yan'an faction made up of returnees from China, the Soviet Koreans, native Korean communists, and Kim's own group, those who had fought guerrilla actions against Japan in the 1930s and 1940s.

When the Worker's Party Central Committee plenum opened on 30 August 1953 Choe Chang-ik made a speech attacking Kim for concentrating the power of the party and the state in his own hands as well as criticising the party line on industrialisation which ignored widespread starvation among the North Korean people. However, Kim neutralised the attack on him by promising to moderate the regime, promises which were never kept. The majority in the Central Committee voted to support Kim and also voted in favour of expelling Choe and Pak Hon-yong from the Central Committee. Eleven Kim's opponents were convicted in a show trial. It is believed that all were executed. A major purge of the KWP followed, with members originating from South Korea being expelled.[8]

Pak Hon-yong, party vice chairman and Foreign Minister of the DPRK, was blamed for the failure of the southern population to support North Korea during the war, was dismissed from his positions in 1953, and was executed after a show-trial in 1955.[9][10] Most of the South Korean leftists and communist sympathizers who defected to the North in 1945–1953 were also accused of espionage and other crimes, and subsequently killed, imprisoned, or exiled to remote agricultural and mining villages. Potential rivals from other groups such as Kim Tu-bong were also purged.

In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made a sweeping denunciation of Stalin, which sent shock waves throughout the communist world. North Korea, Albania, and China were among the loudest opponents of de-Stalinization. In addition, there was disagreement over Kim's decision to follow a rigid Stalinist model of economic development which promoted heavy industry and energy over light industry and consumer goods.[11] While Kim Il-sung was visiting Moscow to personally meet with Khrushchev that June, a group of his opponents tried to seize control of the government in Pyongyang. They denounced Kim as a tyrant who practiced arbitrary, one-man rule. When he hastily returned home, the brief attempt at political liberalization in North Korea was ended. Moreover, General O Chin-u dispatched troops to the streets of Pyongyang to prevent any protests in favor of reform from breaking out. Kim and his guerrilla faction had the advantage of appearing as national heroes due to their resistance against the Japanese and there was no question about their patriotism. By contrast, the Yan'an and Soviet Korean groups tended to appear as the representatives of other nations. A series of purges followed in 1956-1958, and by 1961 the last remaining opposition to Kim had disappeared.

Kim Il-sung had initially been criticized by the Soviets during a previous 1955 visit to Moscow for practicing Stalinism and a cult of personality, which was already growing enormous. The Korean ambassador to the USSR, Li Sangjo, a member of the Yan'an faction, reported that it had become a criminal offense to so much as write on Kim's picture in a newspaper and that he had been elevated to the status of Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Stalin in the communist pantheon. He also charged Kim with rewriting history to appear as if his guerrilla faction had single handedly liberated Korea from the Japanese, completely ignoring the assistance of the Chinese Communist Party. In addition, Li stated that in the process of agricultural collectivization, grain was being forcibly confiscated from the peasants, leading to "at least 300 suicides" and that Kim made nearly all major policy decisions and appointments himself. Li reported that over 30,000 people were in prison for completely unjust and arbitrary reasons as trivial as not printing Kim Il-sung's portrait on sufficient quality paper or using newspapers with his picture to wrap parcels. Grain confiscation and tax collection were also conducted forcibly with violence, beatings, and imprisonment.[12] During Kim Il-sung's Moscow visit, the Soviets recommended that he discard the personality cult, adhere to the ideas of collective leadership, remove falsified history accounts from textbooks, and work towards improving the living standards of the Korean people, which remained poor and below prewar standards. Foodstuffs during the initial postwar period were rationed and extremely expensive, as were consumer items. By comparison, South Korea, which had less of an industrial base than the DPRK, had a better food supply and was also flooded with American goods although it should be noted that the overall destruction there during the war was smaller.

Relations with China also became acerbic in part due to the continued presence of PLA troops in North Korea following the 1953 armistice. The aftermath of the failed 1956 coup brought about a more nationalistic mood in Pyongyang and the occupation forces increasingly came to be seen as exactly that. While visiting Moscow in November 1957 for the 40th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution, Kim Il-Sung was again told by both Soviet leaders and Mao Zedong to adhere to collective leadership and not publish falsified history texts. An irate Kim responded by protesting the Chinese military presence in the DPRK, so Mao finally agreed to a troop withdrawal. The following February, the last Chinese forces departed from the country. Aside from that, the leadership in Beijing was nearly as unenthusiastic about Kim Il-sung as the Soviets, with Mao Zedong criticizing him for having started the whole "idiotic war" and for being an incompetent military commander who should have been removed from power. PLA commander Peng Dehuai was equally contemptuous of Kim's skills at waging war.

In the end however, Kim Il-sung remained in power partially because the Soviets turned their attention to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 that fall. The Soviets and Chinese were unable to stop the inevitable purge of Kim's domestic opponents or his move towards a one-man Stalinist autocracy and relations with both countries deteriorated in the former's case because of the elimination of the pro-Soviet Koreans and the latter because of the regime's refusal to acknowledge Chinese assistance in either liberation from the Japanese or the war in 1950-53.[13]

Stalin continued to be honored in North Korea long after his death in 1953, and a street in Pyongyang bore his name until 1980. By contrast, neighboring Chinese leader Mao Zedong was mostly ignored and Kim Il-sung rejected most of his policies such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign and (later) the Cultural Revolution. However, the Great Leap Forward led to a Korean imitation in 1958-1960 known as the Chollima (Flying Horse) Campaign.[14] Still, Kim himself remained the primary object of veneration in the DPRK. He had always had a personality cult from 1949 onward, and by the 1970s it would reach unprecedented dimensions.

The gradual rift between China and the USSR that developed in the early 1960s caused North Korea to pursue a delicate balancing act between the two communist giants. By 1963, this balance clearly tipped towards Beijing. North Korea joined the Chinese in criticizing Khrushchev for "revisionism" and for being too soft on the United States. Official proclamations stated that the DPRK and PRC were in "complete agreement" on all major issues. Racial, cultural, and historical ties also pulled North Korea closer to China. However, Kim Il-sung eventually decided that he was moving too far towards becoming a Chinese satellite. China was also comparatively un-industrialized and could not provide the technical and military assistance Pyongyang sought. Finally, the PRC exploded its first atomic bomb in October 1964 and subsequently refused to give, or even sell, North Korea any nuclear weapons of its own, apparently fearing that Kim was too likely to use them in his quest to reunify the peninsula. In 1965, the pro-Chinese stance of North Korea had noticeably diminished.

Stalin had viewed the DPRK as a strategic asset for the Soviet Union so that it would have access to warm-water ports and possibly a springboard in the event Japan would engage in renewed aggression in the future. However, its value declined after his death when Khrushchev began emphasizing nuclear power over conventional warfare and also normalized relations with Tokyo in 1956. Also Khrushchev's primary interest in Asia was relations with China, to the point where he viewed North Korea, North Vietnam, and Mongolia as unimportant. In addition, he saw the charismatic leaders of the Cuban revolution as far more appealing allies than Kim Il-sung's secretive Stalinist regime.

While Kim Il-sung could not afford to alienate Moscow too much, he did nonetheless chafe under theirs and Beijing's thumb. He became agitated when the Chinese and Soviets forced him to reinstate some of his enemies into the Politburo following the August 1956 coup attempt (although as mentioned above, he did end up purging them in the next three years). The Sino-Soviet split proved an asset to North Korea since it allowed Kim a freer domestic hand. He also rejected North Korean participation in COMECON so as to not end up a Soviet economic colony. Trying to maintain favorable relations with Moscow, Pyongyang referred to the Soviet reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis as "a wise decision for the sake of world peace" while by comparison, the Chinese accused Khrushchev of cowardice in the face of imperialism.

However, North Korea ended up falling out with the Soviet Union when they flatly rejected a shopping list that was sent to them by Kim Il-sung including requests for SAM missiles, Mig-21 fighter jets, and submarines. Following the DPRK's shift to a pro-Chinese stance in 1963, Moscow dismissed them as the PRC's puppet and that Kim's juche philosophy was a cover for obedience to Beijing. Kim told Alexei Kosygin in 1965 that he was not anyone's puppet and "We implement the purest Marxism and condemn both the mistakes of the CPC and the CPSU".

Despite this, it was obvious that North Korea had more in common with China than the Soviet Union, including the above-mentioned racial, cultural, and historical connections. Kim Il-sung joined with Mao Zedong in supporting a hardline anti-US stance and in rejecting Khrushchev's de-Stalinization and criticism of personality cults, in addition to a dislike for COMECON and other attempts to promote economic integration among the communist bloc.

China however had been the imperial overlord of Korea in past centuries and Kim became concerned that that this kind of relationship would return, thus he decided to avoid moving too far into Beijing's arms. Also Kim Il-sung was eager to promote his own leadership in the Third World independent of the Chinese and Soviets.[15] The fall of Khrushchev from power in 1964 proved advantageous to North Korea as it allowed them to pull away from Chinese dominance. Much like Stalin, Khrushchev maintained direct, personal control of Soviet foreign policy and the new leadership of Brezhnev and Kosygin were virtual neophytes who knew little about world affairs except in simple ideological terms of "socialist world=good", "capitalist world=bad". Kim Il-sung thus easily convinced them to supply 150 million rubles worth of military assistance, 50% greater than his 1962 demands in exchange for which Brezhnev and Kosygin promised to purchase North Korean products even though the Soviet Union had no use for them and as Kim even admitted, were "too poor quality to sell abroad". North Korea also requested Soviet aid in several economic ventures, all of which the new leadership in Moscow readily agreed to despite their skepticism over Kim's domestic and foreign policies, as they believed it to be their duty to a fraternal socialist state and to keep Pyongyang out of the Chinese orbit. In this sense, Moscow could feel quite satisfied at North Korea's divorce from China after 1964 and Kim Il-sung's condemnation of the Cultural Revolution as "insanity". It was of course inevitable that Kim did not want to become a Soviet puppet any more than he wanted to become a Chinese puppet and so he hurried to restore ties with Beijing as soon as the chaos of the Cultural Revolution subsided.[16]

Meanwhile, the peninsula remained divided and relations with the ROK and the United States were bitterly hostile. But when the US became engaged in Vietnam around this time, Kim saw an opportunity. Inspired by the actions of the Vietcong, he began employing his own guerrilla squads to infiltrate South Korea, spread propaganda, and commit sabotage. North Korean agents came south in 1966-1969, creating disruption, but ultimately failing to win over the South Korean populace. Actions such as an attempted assassination of ROK president Park Chung-hee in Seoul failed, and Kim publicly disclaimed any responsibility for them. North Korean fighter pilots were also sent to Hanoi's assistance (and conversely South Korea sent a contingent of troops to aid the government in Saigon).

Relations with China collapsed when that country became engulfed in the Cultural Revolution. North Korea refused to condemn the campaign, stating that it was Beijing's internal affair. However, when visiting Moscow in 1966, Kim expressed to the new Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev his bewilderment at the Cultural Revolution in China. The Red Guards then denounced Kim as a "millionaire, a revisionist, and a capitalist" who lived in splendor and luxury while American imperialists made war on Vietnam (all the while ignoring Pyongyang's secret assistance to the DRV). In the end, North Korea could not condemn a neighbor that was easily capable of putting a million troops on its border poised to invade, and had no choice but to lie low until the Cultural Revolution ended. There were isolated clashes with Chinese troops along the border in 1968 as Chinese and North Korean troops exchanged small arms fire with each other. As a result, the Red Guards erected loudspeakers on the border facing North Korea where they denounced Kim Il-sung and read quotations from Mao's Little Red Book. North Korean troops responded by erecting their own loudspeakers towards the Chinese border and airing quotations from their leader's writings. But by 1970, most of the storm clouds of the Cultural Revolution had blown away and relations with China quickly returned to normal. Chinese premier Zhou Enlai visited Pyongyang that year and apologized for the attacks made on Kim by the Red Guards. At the same time, the Soviets were again criticized by both Chinese and North Korean officials for being too soft on the United States. The Cultural Revolution was now viewed in North Korea as an excellent idea and "completely correct".

The year of 1968 was mainly dominated by the capture of the USS Pueblo (AGER-2), a reconnaissance ship intercepted in the Sea of Japan that January.[17] The crew were held captive throughout the year despite American protests that the vessel was in international waters and finally released in December after a formal US apology was issued.

In late 1968, known military opponents of North Korea's Juche ideology such as Kim Chang-bong (minister of National Security), Huh Bong-hak (chief of the Division for Southern Intelligence) and Lee Young-ho (commander in chief of the DPRK Navy) were purged as anti-party/counter-revolutionary elements, despite their credentials as anti-Japanese guerrilla fighters in the past.[8]

In April 1969 by North Korea shot down an EC-121 aircraft, killing everyone on board. The Nixon administration found itself unable to react at all, since the US was heavily committed in Vietnam and had no troops to spare if the situation in Korea escalated. However, the Pueblo capture and EC-121 shootdown did not find approval in Moscow, as the Soviet Union did not want a second major war to erupt in Asia. China's response to the USS Pueblo crisis is less clear.[18]

The captured USS Pueblo being visited by tourists in Pyongyang

In 1972, the first formal summit meeting between Pyongyang and Seoul was held, but cautious talks did not lead much of anywhere and relations between the two Koreas continued down the path of hostility.[19]

North Korea's official reaction to the visit of President Richard Nixon to China in February 1972 was one of celebration on the grounds that the US could not diplomatically isolate China and had been forced to finally negotiate. Privately though, Kim Il-sung was worried about this development and paid a visit to Beijing a few months later in which Mao Zedong told him that China merely wished to acquire technology from the US and was not attempting to sell out to capitalism.

With the fall of South Vietnam to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975, Kim Il-sung began to feel that the US had shown its weakness and that reunification of Korea under his regime was finally possible. Kim visited Beijing in May 1975 in the hope of gaining political and military support for this plan to invade South Korea again, but Mao Zedong refused. Despite public proclamations of support, Mao privately told Kim that China would be unable to assist North Korea this time because of the lingering after-effects of the Cultural Revolution throughout China, and also because Mao had recently decided to restore diplomatic relations with the US. Afterwards, Kim went home empty-handed.[20]

Relations with China remained on an even course after Mao's death on September 9, 1976. China's new leaders, Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping, both visited North Korea in 1978, although they failed to reach a common understanding on relations with the Soviet Union (Beijing was not on friendly terms with Moscow during the 1970s, while Pyongyang continued its usual balancing act with both the Soviet Union and China). The Chinese establishment of formal diplomatic ties with the US in early 1979 was welcomed in Pyongyang and official proclamations congratulated "our brotherly neighbor for ending long-hostile relations and establishing diplomatic ties with the US."

Economic decline

North Korean village in the Yalu River delta

Due to a series of ill fortuned policy decisions concerning military expenditures and mining industries and the radical changes in international oil prices by the late 1970s, the North Korean economy began to slow down. These decisions eventually affected the whole economy, forcing the nation to acquire external debts. At the same time North Korea's policy of self-reliance and the antagonism of America and its allies made it difficult for them to expand foreign trade or secure credit.

In the 1970s, expansion of North Korea's economy, with the accompanying rise in living standards, came to an end and a few decades later went into reverse.[21] Compounding this was a decision to borrow foreign capital and invest heavily in military industries. North Korea's desire to lessen its dependence on aid from China and the Soviet Union prompted the expansion of its military power, which had begun in the second half of the 1960s. The government believed such expenditures could be covered by foreign borrowing and increased sales of its mineral wealth in the international market. North Korea invested heavily in its mining industries and purchased a large quantity of mineral extraction infrastructure from abroad. However, soon after making such investments, international prices for many of North Korea's native minerals fell, leaving the country with large debts and an inability to pay them off and still provide a high level of social welfare to its people.[22]

Worsening this already poor situation, the centrally planned economy, which emphasized heavy industry had reached the limits of its productive potential in North Korea. Juche repeated demands that North Koreans learn to build and innovate domestically had run its course as had the ability of North Koreans to keep technological pace with other industrialized nations. By the mid to late-1970s some parts of the capitalist world, including South Korea, were creating new industries based around computers, electronics, and other advanced technology in contrast to North Korea's Stalinist economy of mining and steel production.[23]

Continuing a "self-reliance" ideology that had once been highly successful, Kim Il-Sung was unable to respond effectively to the challenge of an increasingly prosperous and well-armed South Korea, which undermined the legitimacy of his own regime. Having failed at their earlier attempt to conduct market-economy reforms such as those carried out in China by Deng Xiaoping, Kim opted for continued ideological purity. The DPRK by 1980 was faced with the choice of either repaying its international loans, or continuing its support of social welfare for its people. Given the ideals of Juche, North Korea chose to default on its loans and by the late 1980s its industrial output was declining.[23] A 1984 visit to Pyongyang by CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang was received politely, but failed to sell Kim on making any economic reforms. The previous year, Kim Jong-il had visited China on his first official trip abroad since being named his father's successor. The Chinese took him to see the Special Economic Zone in Guangdong Province, but an unimpressed Kim referred to the leadership in Beijing as "revisionists". Overall, North Korea during the 1980s became gradually more isolated from the rest of the communist bloc and the world in general. Tensions with the US and North Korea worsened due to President Ronald Reagan's strong anti-communist stance and more assertive foreign policy, and the number of American troops on the peninsula increased. During this period, North Korea began to acquire a reputation as a terrorist state thanks to events such as the planting of a bomb on a South Korean airliner in Burma during 1983 and kidnappings of Japanese and other foreign nationals.

That same year in 1984, North Korea again drifted towards the Soviet Union after Kim visited Moscow during a grand tour of the USSR (his first trip to Moscow since 1966) where he met Konstantin Chernenko (his first and only meeting with this Soviet leader). Kim also made public visits to East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. However, DPRK-USSR relations ran out of gas by 1986. The basic nature of Pyongyang's political system was very different from Moscow's. The Korean Workers Party still existed, but it was essentially ceremonial and had long since been subordinated to Kim's personal dictatorship. Moreover, his Juche philosophy had effectively replaced Marxism–Leninism as North Korea's official ideology (as outlined in the 1974 North Korean constitution). In addition, the personality cult of Kim had assumed proportions not seen anywhere else in the world. Most of this (as well as the Juche philosophy) was the work of his son Kim Jong-Il, who had been officially nominated as his father's successor in October 1980.

The elder Kim was unmoved by the social and economic reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev starting in 1985, and this contributed to the decline in relations with Moscow. Chinese economic reforms also had little effect in North Korea, as did the fall of communist states in Eastern Europe during 1989. The leadership in Pyongyang responded by proclaiming that this event demonstrated the correctness of juche on the grounds that Marxism–Leninism was an outdated idea and the failure of the Eastern European states to evolve from Marxism to juche ensured the return of capitalism to them. China endured a period of international isolation after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which caused it to embrace Pyongyang as one of the world's only surviving communist states. Even so, China alienated North Korea when they participated in the 1988 Summer Olympics in South Korea in defiance of the North Korean boycott. Relations with North Korea were further strained in 1990 when the Chinese agreed to recognize both Korean governments equally.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 deprived North Korea of its main source of economic aid, leaving China as the isolated regime's only major ally. Without Soviet aid, North Korea's economy went into a free-fall. By this time in the early 1990s, Kim Jong-il was already conducting most of the day-to-day activities of running of the state, and he apparently kept his aging father in the dark about the growing economic disaster happening throughout the country. Also at this time, North Korea was attracting the ire of the international community for its attempts at developing nuclear weapons. Former US president Jimmy Carter made a visit to Pyongyang in June 1994 in which he met with Kim and returned proclaiming that he had settled the nuclear question.

Succession by Kim Jong-il

Kim Il-sung died from a sudden heart attack on July 8, 1994, three weeks after the Carter visit. His son, de facto head of state. His succession had been decided as early as 1980, with the support of the military and party apparatus.

The fundamental cause of this decline is that the state, which runs the entire economy, cannot pay for the necessary imports of capital goods to undertake the desperately needed modernization of its industrial plants. The inefficiency of North Korea's Stalinist-style agricultural system also contributed to the disaster. In addition, North Korea spends about a quarter of its GDP on armaments, including the development of nuclear weapons, and establishes a military draft where it keeps nearly all able-bodied males aged 18–30 in uniform, while the basic infrastructure of the state is allowed to crumble.

Amid these growing problems, Kim Jong-il began reworking the DPRK's political system to accommodate his own style of governing. With the Cold War a thing of the past, the Korean Workers' Party (which was already largely powerless) was made even more ornamental. Instead, Kim adopted a new ideology known as "Songun". Translated as "Army First", it effectively transformed North Korea into a military dictatorship rather than a traditional communist state. The Korean Peoples Army would dictate policy from now on.

During the 2000s, Kim Jong-il made no serious effort to revive the Stalinist economic system his father had spent years building. During that time, several factories and mines all over the country were shuttered and abandoned. There was little functioning industry except that related to defense and tourism. Although the personality cult of the two Kims remained, as did the promotion of Juche, in effect North Korea by the start of 21st century had become a markedly different nation than it had been during the Cold War. Also, while still very much a totalitarian state, the DPRK had become somewhat less rigid than in Kim Il-sung's day. Strict labor discipline broke down with the economy, and people were no longer required to attend mandatory lectures on Juche. The country also achieved a cult following among international tourists, because there was nowhere else in the world like a closed-off and bizarre society and culture like North Korea. By comparison, during the Cold War, there were rarely any foreign visitors to the DPRK except from other communist nations. Although China remained as Pyongyang's main ally, the two communist countries no longer bore much resemblance to each other or to their own past in terms of appearance, the economy, and each other's society.

As a result, North Korea is now dependent on international food aid to feed its population. According to non-governmental organizations. Unspecified (but apparently large) amounts of aid in the form of food, oil and coal are also provided by China every year. Despite this, North Korea maintained its hostile rhetoric against the U.S., South Korea and Japan. The supply of heating and electricity outside the capital is practically non-existent, and food and medical supplies are scarce. When there is a bad harvest, as has been persistently the case over recent years, the population faces actual famine: a situation never before seen in a peacetime industrial economy. Since 1997 there has been a steady stream of illegal emigration to China, despite the efforts of both countries to prevent it.

Kim Jong-il said that the solution to this crisis is earning hard currency, developing information technology, and attracting foreign aid, but very little progress has been made in these areas. So far the DPRK, not surprisingly given Juche and UN attempts to isolate them, has made little progress in attracting foreign capital.

In July 2002 some limited reforms were announced. The currency was devalued and food prices were allowed to rise in the hope of stimulating agricultural production. It was announced that food rationing systems as well as subsidized housing would be phased out. A "family-unit farming system" was introduced on a trial basis for the first time since collectivization in 1954. The government also set up a "special administrative zone" in Sinuiju, a town near the border with China. The local authority was given near-autonomy, especially in its economic affairs. This was an attempt to emulate the success of such free-trade zones in China, but it attracted little outside interest. Despite some optimistic talk in the foreign press the impetus of these reforms has not been followed with, for example, a large-scale decollectivization such as occurred in China under Deng.

Current situation

A computer lab classroom in the Grand People's Study House, Pyongyang, 2012

President George W. Bush as the President of the United States in 2000, North Korea has faced renewed external pressure over its nuclear program, reducing the prospect of international economic assistance.

North Korea remains a totalitarian Stalinist state. The lack of access to the foreign media and the tradition of secrecy in North Korea means that there is little news about political conditions, but Amnesty International's 2003 report on North Korea says that "there were reports of severe repression of people involved in public and private religious activities, including imprisonment, torture and executions. Unconfirmed reports suggested that torture and ill-treatment were widespread in North Korean prisons and labour camps.[24] Conditions were reportedly extremely harsh."[25]

There seems little immediate likelihood that North Korea will ever undergo an East German-style transition to open its borders and/or merge with South Korea peacefully: a prospect that both South Korea and China view with great trepidation because of the fear of a sudden and large exodus of North Korean refugees into their countries. There appears to be little significant internal opposition to the regime. Indeed, a great many of the North Korean refugees fleeing to China because of famine still showed significant support for the current government as well as pride in their homeland. Many of these food refugees reportedly return to North Korea after earning sufficient money.[26]

In 2002, Kim Jong-il declared that "money should be capable of measuring the worth of all commodities", followed by some small market-oriented measures, and the creation of the Kaesong Industrial Region with transport links to South Korea was announced. Experiments are under way to allow factory managers to fire underperforming workers and give bonuses. China’s investments increased to $200 million in 2004. China has counseled North Korea’s leaders to gradually open the economy to market forces, and it is possible this path will be successfully followed as well as China's policy of keeping political control firmly in the hands of the Communist Party.

China for its part has sought to preserve North Korea as a strategic buffer zone for itself, in part to prevent a mass influx of refugees into China, and also out of the desire to not have a unified, American-backed Korea on its border.

North Korea declared on February 10, 2005 that it has nuclear weapons[27] bringing widespread calls for the North to return to the six-party talks aimed at curbing its nuclear program. It was initially disputed by outside sources whether or not North Korea has nuclear weapons, and many Russian sources denied that North Korea has the technology necessary to build a nuclear weapon. On Monday, October 9, 2006, North Korea has announced that it had successfully detonated a nuclear device underground at 10:36 am local time without any radiation leak. An official at South Korea's seismic monitoring center confirmed a magnitude-3.6 tremor felt at the time North Korea said it conducted the test was not a natural occurrence. Associated Press

Additionally, North Korea has a very active missile development program. In 1998, North Korea tested a Taepondong-1 Space Launch Vehicle, which successfully launched but failed to reach orbit. On July 5, 2006, they tested a Taepodong-2 ICBM that reportedly could reach the west coast of the U.S. in the 2-stage version, or the entire U.S. with a third stage. However, the missile failed shortly after launch, so it is unknown what its exact capabilities are or how close North Korea is to perfecting the technology.

North Korea's advancements in weapons technology appear to give them leverage in ongoing negotiations with the United Nations and other countries. On February 13, 2007, North Korea signed an agreement with South Korea, the United States, Russia, China, and Japan, in which North Korea will shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor in exchange for economic and energy assistance. However, in 2009 the North continued its nuclear test program.

Further tensions between the north and south began in 2010 when a South Korean navy ship was sunk, later reports revealed a torpedo from North Korea was the cause.

Kim Jong-Il died on December 17, 2011[28] and was quickly succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-un. Tensions between North Korea and other democratic countries have since increased in 2012 and 2013 due to its recent rocket launches and nuclear weapons testing in defiance of international law, and UN sanctions have been tightened.

See also


  1. ^ Blair, Clay, The Forgotten War: America in Korea, Naval Institute Press (2003).
  2. ^ Charles K. Armstrong, The North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press), 71-86.
  3. ^ James F. Person (2008). "New Evidence on North Korea in 1956" (PDF). Cold War International History Project. Retrieved 3 May 2012. 
  4. ^ a b Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War, Vol. 1: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945–1947, Princeton University Press
  5. ^ Compare: Martin, Bradley K. (2007). Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. Macmillan. pp. 66–67.  
  6. ^ Charles K. Armstrong (2010). "The Destruction and Reconstruction of North Korea, 1950 - 1960". The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. Retrieved 3 May 2010. 
  7. ^ Shen, Zhihua; Yafeng Xia (May 2012). "China and the Post-War Reconstruction of North Korea, 1953-1961" (PDF). NKIDP Working Paper (4). Retrieved 5 March 2014. 
  8. ^ a b North Korean Purges - Kim Il-sung
  9. ^ Dae-Sook Suh, Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 133-136.
  10. ^ Hoare, James. "Pak Heon-yeong". Modern Korean History Portal. Woodrow Wilson Center. Retrieved 5 March 2014. 
  11. ^ Person, James (August 2006). We Need Help from Outside": The North Korean Opposition Movement of 1956""" (PDF). Cold War International History Project Working Paper (52). Retrieved 5 March 2014. 
  12. ^ Ri, Sang-jo. "Letter from Ri Sang-jo to the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party". Woodrow Wilson Center. Retrieved 5 March 2014. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ James F. Person (February 2009). "New Evidence on North Korea's Chollima Movement and First-Five-Year Plan (1957-1961)" (PDF). North Korea International Documentation Project. Retrieved 4 May 2010. 
  15. ^ Armstrong, Charles (April 2009). NKIDP Working Paper (PDF) (1) http://www.wilsoncenter.orgs/default/files/NKIDP_Working_Paper_1_Juche_and_North_Koreas_Global_Aspirations_web.pdf. 
  16. ^ Radchenko, Sergey. "The Soviet Union and the North Korean Seizure of the USS Pueblo: Evidence from Russian Archives" (PDF). Cold War International History Project Working Paper (47). 
  17. ^ Lerner, Mitchell (2002). The Pueblo Incident: A Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign Policy. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.  
  18. ^ "New Romanian Evidence on the Blue House Raid and the USS Pueblo Incident." NKIDP e-Dossier No. 5. Retrieved May 3, 2012.
  19. ^ Shin, Jong-Dae. "DPRK Perspectives on Korean Reunification after the July 4th Joint Communiqué". NKIDP e-Dossier no. 10. Woodrow Wilson Center. Retrieved 5 March 2014. 
  20. ^ Chae, Ria. "East German Documents on Kim Il Sung’s April 1975 Trip to Beijing". NKIDP e-Dossier no. 7. Woodrow Wilson Center. Retrieved 5 March 2014. 
  21. ^ Ostermann, Christian F. (2011). The Rise and Fall of Détente on the Korean Peninsula, 1970-1974. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center. pp. 18, 19, 26–33.  
  22. ^ Bruce Cumings, Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History, W. W. Norton & Co., 1998, ISBN 0-393-31681-5
  23. ^ a b Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country, New Press, 2004, ISBN 1-56584-940-X
  24. ^ "The Hidden Gulag – Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps" (PDF). The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Retrieved 2011-02-08. 
  25. ^ Amnesty International Report 2003: Korea (Democratic People's Republic of), Amnesty International
  26. ^ Kim Hong-min, "I'm not brave. I'm only pretending to be brave in coming here." Outsider, no. 15, September 2003. ISBN 89-90720-04-4
  27. ^ DPRK FM on Its Stand to Suspend Its Participation in Six-party Talks for Indefinite Period, KCNA, February 10, 2005
  28. ^ "N. Korean leader Kim dead: state TV". Retrieved 19 December 2011. 

External links

  • Speak Out About Human Rights In North Korea (a commentary from Human Rights Watch, published in The Asian Wall Street Journal, April 16, 2004)
  • On North Korea's streets, pink and tangerine buses, Christian Science Monitor, June 2, 2005
  • North Korea on the rebound, Global Beat Syndicate, June 27, 2005
  • The North Korea International Documentation Project (Primary source documents concerning DPRK history)
  • Time Line of North Korean History
  • North Korea: Secrets and Lies - slideshow by Life magazine

Further reading

  • O'Hanlon, Michael; Mochizuki, Mike. "Crisis on the Korean Peninsula." McGraw-Hill. 2003. ISBN 0-07-143155-1
  • Cumings, Bruce, et al.. "Inventing the Axis of Evil." The New Press. 2004. ISBN 1-56584-904-3
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