North Korea, officially Democratic People's Republic of Korea, has a population of about 23 million and covers 120,538 square kilometers (46,540 square miles). It was founded on May 1, 1948 and has its capital at Pyongyang (Pyongyang), the largest city. North Korea is divided into nine provinces and three special cities. [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]

The Korean Peninsula, located at the juncture of the northeast Asian continent and the Japanese archipelago, has been home to a culturally and linguistically distinct people for more than two millennia. The ancestors of modern Koreans are believed to have come from northeast and Inner Asia. Like their Japanese neighbors, they have been deeply influenced by Chinese civilization. The elite culture and social structure of traditional Korea, especially during the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910) founded by General Yi Sng-gye, reflected neoConfucian norms. Despite centuries of Chinese cultural influence, an episode of Japanese colonialism (1910-45), division into United States and Soviet spheres after World War II (1939-45), and the Korean War (1950-53, known in North Korea as the Fatherland Liberation War), the Korean people have retained their ethnic and cultural distinctiveness. Indeed, cultural distinctiveness, autonomy, and creativity have become central themes in the North Korean regime's juche ideology. North Korea and South Korea are now vastly different. One is democratic and a member of the OECD group of developed countries. The other is an impoverished, hereditary one-party state isolated by its pursuit of becoming a nuclear power. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

According to the “Columbia Encyclopedia”:“North Korea, although nominally a republic governed by a representative assembly, is actually ruled by the Communist party (known in Korea as the Korea Workers' party). Until his death in 1994, all governmental institutions were controlled by Kim Il Sung (widely known as "The Great Leader" ), who had been premier and then president since the country's inception in 1948.

“A personality cult had glorified Kim, but by the mid-1990s the rapid economic growth of North Korea's early years had given way first to stagnation and then to hardship, and there was widespread dissatisfaction with the repressive totalitarian regime. Increasingly, Kim's son, Kim Jong Il, had assumed the day-to-day management of the government and, at Kim Il Sung's death in 1994, the son took over leadership of the country and, like his father, became the object of a personality cult. He was named secretary of the Communist party in 1997 and consolidated his power with the title of National Defense Commission chairman in 1998. Under Kim Jong Il, diplomatic relations were established with a number of Western nations.

Name for North Korea

The official name of North Korea is Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). The local long form is Choson-minjujuui-inmin-konghwaguk; the local short form is Choson. The official name of South Korea is the Republic of Korea (ROK) The local long form is Taehan-min'gukl; the local short form is Han'guk. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Korea describes both South Korea and North Korea and the peninsula on which they are located. Korean is the name of the people and the language and an adjective used to describe things from Korea. Term for citizens of North Korea is North Koreans (Chosun Inmin).

The word “Korea” is derived from the Chinese name for Goryeo, which was the Korean dynasty that united the peninsula in the 10th century A.D.; The North Korean name "Choson" means "[Land of the] Morning Calm" the South Korean name "Han'guk" derives from the long form, "Taehan-min'guk," which is itself a derivation from "Daehan-je'guk," which means "the Great Empire of the Han"; "Han" refers to the "Sam'han" or the "Three Han Kingdoms" (Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla from the Three Kingdoms Era, 1st-7th centuries A.D.)

Wang Kon, the first Koryo dynasty ruler, who came to power in A.D. 935, christened his empire Koryo, the source of the name Korea. The country was renamed Chosen ("Land of Morning Calm") after the Chosen rulers came to power in 1392. A new phonetic system, proclaimed by the South Korean government in 2000, resulting in spelling changes of a number of places. Cheju became Jeju and Pusan became Busan. At the World Cup in 2002, it suddenly became fashionable to spell Kore with a “C” (Corea). [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005]

Brief History of North Korea

An independent kingdom for much of its long history, Korea was occupied by Japan beginning in 1905 following the Russo-Japanese War. Five years later, Japan formally annexed the entire peninsula. Following World War II, Korea was split with the northern half coming under Soviet-sponsored communist control. After failing in the Korean War (1950-53) to conquer the US-backed Republic of Korea (ROK) in the southern portion by force, North Korea (DPRK), under its founder President KIM Il Sung, adopted a policy of ostensible diplomatic and economic "self-reliance" as a check against outside influence. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

The DPRK demonized the U.S. as the ultimate threat to its social system through state-funded propaganda, and molded political, economic, and military policies around the core ideological objective of eventual unification of Korea under Pyongyang's control. KIM Il Sung's son, KIM Jong Il, was officially designated as his father's successor in 1980, assuming a growing political and managerial role until the elder KIM's death in 1994. Under KIM Jong Il's rein, the DPRK continued developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. KIM Jong Un was publicly unveiled as his father's successor in 2010. Following KIM Jong Il's death in 2011, KIM Jong Un quickly assumed power and has since occupied the regime's highest political and military posts.

After decades of economic mismanagement and resource misallocation, the DPRK since the mid-1990s has faced chronic food shortages. In recent years, the North's domestic agricultural production has increased, but still falls far short of producing sufficient food to provide for its entire population. The DPRK began to ease restrictions to allow semi-private markets, starting in 2002, but has made few other efforts to meet its goal of improving the overall standard of living. North Korea's history of regional military provocations; proliferation of military-related items; long-range missile development; WMD programs including tests of nuclear devices in 2006, 2009, 2013, 2016, and 2017; and massive conventional armed forces are of major concern to the international community and have limited the DPRK's international engagement, particularly economically. In 2013, the DPRK declared a policy of simultaneous development of its nuclear weapons program and economy. In late 2017, KIM Jong Un declared the North's nuclear weapons development complete. In 2018, KIM announced a pivot towards diplomacy, including a re-prioritization of economic development, a pause in missile testing beginning in late 2017, and a refrain from anti-US rhetoric starting in June 2018. Since 2018, KIM has participated in four meetings with Chinese President XI Jinping, three with ROK President MOON Jae-in, and three with US President TRUMP. Since July 2019, North Korea has restarted its short-range missile tests and issued statements condemning the US.


1910: Japan annexes Korea following wars on the Asian continent with China and Russia, ruling Korea as a colony until the end of World War II in 1945. [Source: BBC, Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

1945: Japan's colonial rule over Korea ends with its World War II surrender. At the end of World War II, Japan surrenders to the Western allies and ends its colonial rule of Korea, with Soviet troops occupying the north, and US troops the south. The Korean Peninsula is "temporarily" divided between the Soviet Union and the United States.

1946: North Korea's Communist Party, called the Korean Workers' Party, inaugurated. Soviet-backed leadership installed, including Red Army-trained Kim Il-sung.

1948: Democratic People's Republic of Korea proclaimed, with Kim Il-sung installed as leader. Soviet troops withdraw. The division between the Soviet-backed North and the US-backed South become more permanent.

1950: South declares independence, sparking North Korean invasion and the Korean War.

1950-53: The Korean War pits the communist North, backed by Russia and China, against the capitalist South, backed by the United States. The war is fought to a standstill.

1953: Armistice ends Korean War. The war with the two countries divided by a demilitarized zone along the 38th parallel.

1950s: Agriculture is collectivized .

1960s: Rapid industrial growth.

1968 January: North Korea captures USS Pueblo, a US naval intelligence ship. Korean War

1972: North and South Korea issue joint statement on peaceful reunification.

1974 February: Kim Il-sung designates eldest son, Kim Jong-il as his successor.

1980: Kim Il Sung's son, Kim Jong Il, is announced as his father's successor.

1985: North Korea joins the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, barring the country from producing nuclear weapons.

1986: Research nuclear reactor in Yongbyon becomes operational.

1991: North and South Korea join the United Nations. The Soviet Union collapses and the Russian government stops economic assistance to North Korea.

1993: In December, North Korea's government admits the failure of its 7-year economic plan. International Atomic Energy Agency accuses North Korea of violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and demands inspectors be given access to nuclear waste storage sites. North Korea threatens to quit Treaty. 1993: North Korea test-fires a medium-range Rodong ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan.

1994 July: Kim Il Sung dies and is succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il, as the country's supreme leader.

1994 October: North Korea and the U.S. sign an Agreed Framework under which Pyongyang commits to freezing its nuclear programme in return for heavy fuel oil and two light-water nuclear reactors.

1995: A flood devastates North Korea's agriculture, sparking widespread famine.

1996: Another flood further damages agriculture and mining.

1997: A drought paralyzes the North Korean agricultural sector and worsens the famine.

1998: North Korea amends its constitution to make room for the growth of a small private sector. North Korea fires its first long-range missile

2000: First-ever Inter-Korean summit. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright pay an official visit to Pyongyang, marking the end of North Korean isolation.

2002: US names North Korea as part of an "axis of evil"

2003: North Korea withdraws from Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

2006: North Korea conducts first underground nuclear test

2011: Kim Jong-il dies, succeeded by his youngest son Kim Jong-un

Sources of Information on North Korea

Ian Buruma wrote in The New Yorker: ““Since North Korea is such an isolated and secretive place—the Bhutan of Stalinism—hard facts are not easy to come by.” The information and propaganda that the North Koreans are fed is not just exaggerations and distorted truth but fantastic lies that have created a sort of a fantasy world that North Koreans believe is their reality.

North Korea is arguably the world’s most secretive place. Pyongyang is not very forthcoming with accurate information. Few foreign journalists have been allowed. The few that have been carefully watched by North Korean minders. Most of what is known comes from North Korean defectors. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993*]

Although Article 53 of the constitution states that North Korean citizens have freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, and demonstration, such activities are permitted only in support of government and KWP objectives. Other articles of the constitution require citizens to follow the socialist norms of life; for example, a collective spirit takes precedence over individual political or civil liberties. *

Domestic media censorship is strictly enforced, and deviation from the official government line is not tolerated. The regime prohibits listening to foreign media broadcasts, and violators are reportedly subject to severe punishment. Senior party cadres, however, have good access to the foreign media. No external media are allowed free access to North Korea, *

Themes in North Korean History

Prior to the national division of the Korean Peninsula in 1945, Korea was home to a people with a unitary existence, ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, and a historic bond of exclusionism towards outsiders — a result of its history of invasion, influence, and fighting over its territory by larger and more powerful neighbors. This legacy continues to influence the contemporary Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea). [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007**]

There are other parallels between Korea's past and presentday North Korea. The traditions of Confucianism and a bureaucracy administered from the top-down and from the center continue to hold sway. Further, just as there was relative stability for more than two millennia on the Korean Peninsula, there has been relative stability in North Korea since Kim Il Sung came to power in 1946. As Confucian doctrine perpetuated the authority of the family system and the importance of education, so too were these elements paramount in Kim Il Sung's North Korea. Politics remain personalistic, and Kim has surrounded himself with a core of revolutionary leaders (now aging), whose loyalty dates back to their days of guerrilla resistance against the Japanese in Manchuria. Kim's juche ideology also has its roots in the self-reliant philosophy of the Hermit Kingdom (as Korea was called by Westerners), and Korea's history of exclusionism also held particular appeal to a people emerging from the period of Japanese colonial domination (1910-45).

North Korea came into being in 1945, in the midst of a prolonged confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. North Korea was, and in some ways remains, a classic Cold War state, driven by the demands of the long-standing conflict with the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea), and the United States and its allies. It emerged in the heyday of Stalinism, which influenced North Korea's decision to give priority to heavy industry in its economic program. North Korea was a state forged in warfare: by a civil struggle fought at the beginning of the regime and by a vicious fratricidal war fought while the system was still in infancy. All these influences combined to produce a hardened leadership that knew how to hold onto power. But North Korea also evolved as a rare synthesis between foreign models and native influences; the political system was deeply rooted in native soil, drawing on Korea's long history of unitary existence on a small peninsula surrounded by greater powers.

Charm and Tyranny of the Dictators of North Korea

Ian Buruma wrote in The New Yorker: “The charm of dictators has been known to reduce the hardest men to jelly. I remember a tough-minded Japanese photographer returning from Pyongyang in the nineteen-seventies still aglow from the experience of Kim Il Sung's “warm handshake.” Similar reports have come from some of those allowed into Hitler's mesmerizing presence: warm handshakes and piercing eyes appear to go with the position. [Source: Ian Buruma, The New Yorker, August 22, 2005]

“Bradley K. Martin, whose “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty” (St. Martin's; US$29.95) is the heaviest tome to appear in English on the subject, has spent decades penetrating the mysteries of North Korea. He paints a grim picture in exhaustive detail, backed by many first-person accounts. But, though he is no apologist, he is perhaps fair to a fault. “There might be two sides to the story,” he cautions. Kim Il Sung possessed “considerable personal charm that only increased with age and experience.” The same goes for his son: “I would describe him as an often insensitive and brutal despot who had another side that was generous and—increasingly as he matured—charming.”

“Even if we follow Martin's advice and refrain from demonizing the Kims, we might be excused for dismissing their moments of charm as an irrelevance. Martin's notion that “people could still muster loyalty for the elder Kim” because “he came across as an engaging figure” is politically naïve. A warm handshake will not explain why an entire people submitted to his whims.

“All tyrants are alike, no doubt, but tyranny comes in different forms, and the North Korean variety is an extraordinarily vicious blend of Western and East Asian influences. On such matters, Martin provides far more detail, including long transcripts of interviews with refugees and defectors, but, again, Becker is more incisive. The political component, a mixture of Stalinism and strict neo-Confucianism (with its stress on obedience to authority), is perhaps less complicated than the religious aspects. The Kims' behavior recalls that of such Roman despots as Nero and Caligula, who revelled in their power. In Pyongyang, this often involves a sinister form of practical joking: turning top officials against one another and watching the results on hidden television monitors; or taking other men's wives as mistresses and, when finished with them, forcing the women to remarry men picked on a whim. As Auden ventured in a discussion of Iago, practical joking is always a way of playing God.

“Becker, undistracted by the charms of tyrants or the cheerful comradeship of their subjects, adopts a more serious tone. He argues that the world must agree about “benchmarks for identifying a rogue state's behaviour just as there is a definition of the crime of genocide.” Then, with the right “political will, the world could quickly agree on remedies to disarm a criminal state clearly unable to feed its own population.” But who is “the world”? The United Nations? And what remedies would this world have at its disposal? Dealing with Kim Jong Il is like negotiating with a man who holds millions of hostages. One has to be flexible and opportunistic, and use every means at hand, from seduction to the threat of violent force. What the Kims have done to their country is so appalling, though, that almost anything is better than its continuation. The challenge is to bring Kim down without taking millions with him.”

Cult of Personality as a Religion in North Korea

“The religious cult around the Kims goes further, however; they really are worshipped as divinities, in a peculiarly Korean mixture of native animism and pseudo-Christianity. Martin writes about the Party congress of 1980, when Kim Jong Il, then still the young dauphin, was elected to the five-person presidium of the politburo. The Party newspaper, in a pre-Christmas editorial, offered the Kims as a replacement for the Father and Son in the Holy Trinity. “People of the world, if you are looking for miracles, come to Korea!” it went on. “Christians, do not go to Jerusalem. Come rather to Korea! Do not believe in God. Believe in the great man.” After the son's ascent to the presidium, the newspaper reported, there was “an explosion of our people's joy, looking up at the star of guidance shining together with the benevolent sun.” [Source: Ian Buruma, The New Yorker, August 22, 2005]

“Even though Kim Il Sung had stamped out all independent religious activity in North Korea, the Christian influence is visible in the Kim cult. Apart from the Philippines, Korea has long been the most Christianized country in Asia. In the South, about thirty per cent still belong to various Christian denominations, not including all the followers of pseudo-Christian evangelists, of whom there is a rich variety. Unlike Filipinos, however, the Koreans were originally converted not by Western conquerors but by missionaries, many of whom were Korean themselves. The attraction of Christianity may have been partly political, a means of resisting both the Korean gentry and alien oppressors, especially the Japanese, who ruled Korea between 1910 and 1945. Like the Poles and the Irish, many Koreans believed that the church would help deliver their country from foreign domination.

“A model for this mixture of nationalism, social protest, and Christianity was the Taiping Rebellion, in mid-nineteenth-century China. A young scholar named Hong Xiuquan believed that he was Christ's younger brother, whose God-given mission was to destroy the demonic Manchu rulers and establish a heavenly kingdom on earth. His failure, after fourteen years of struggle, cost more than twenty million lives. In Korea, at about the same time, the Eastern Learning (Donghak) school was founded by a Korean mystic named Choe Che-u, who believed he had received divine instruction to deliver the world from evil; his followers rebelled against the government, and later against “Japanese dwarfs and Western barbarians.” This uprising, too, ended in a costly defeat, but the vision of Korea as the cradle of a new utopia remained.

“Kim Il Sung, the son of pious Christians, was a great admirer of the Eastern Learning school. Like Hong Xiuquan, Choe Che-u, and, indeed, Chairman Mao, Kim Il Sung wanted to be seen as a messiah and not just a Stalinist dictator. Becker convincingly places the Kim cult in a Sino-Korean tradition of millenarian priest-kings, autocratic sages, and holy saviors. It's a tradition in which the source of power is also the source of virtue, spiritual wisdom, and truth—hence the total intolerance of any heterodoxy or dissent. The same idea prevails, in a milder form, in South Korean, and Japanese, corporate life, where workers must learn the “philosophies” of their company founders. It has also spawned such cults as the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.

“Animism is perhaps an even more important ingredient than Christianity in the spiritual and ideological mélange of Kim worship. Kim Jong Il was born in 1941 or 1942 in Siberia, where his father served in the Soviet Army. But the myth is very different: in North Korea's official histories he was born in a log cabin on Mt. Paektu, the country's most sacred mountain, the place where the Korean people's divine ancestor, the son of a sky god and a bear, was born, more than four thousand years ago. Kim Jong Il, the reincarnation of the divine bear-man, as it were, could not have come into this world on a more auspicious spot. Before his sacred birth, a double rainbow was seen and the sky was lit up by a shining star.

“Myths and legends are scarcely unique to North Korean politics. What makes the Kim cult especially disturbing—but also appealing to many Korean nationalists, even some of those living in the South—is its xenophobia. Koreans, having endured centuries of foreign domination, often use two phrases to describe their “national character”: han, impotent rage that can be relieved only by collective action, and sadaechuui, the habit of pandering to foreigners. The Korean élites have tended to fall into warring factions, often allied to different foreign powers. To cover up the fact that Kim Il Sung served in both Chinese and Soviet armies during the Second World War, and was put in charge of North Korea by his Soviet minders, the Kim cult is quick to denounce its enemies, especially in South Korea, as “flunkies.” And han—directed at Americans, Japanese, and South Koreans, as well as all “class enemies” or “factionalists” at home—is the abiding sentiment in North Korean propaganda.”

On the feeling of being betrayed by the lies North Korean cult of personality, Philip Gourevitch wrote in the Observer: Kim Chol is a university student, “recalled his parents' sense that they had been betrayed by their god in the early 90s, when, as party loyalists, they were granted permission to visit relatives in an ethnic Korean enclave just across the frontier in northeast China. They returned in 'total shock', with news that the North had started the Korean War, was to blame for Korea's division and that 'Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il governed for themselves and not for the good of the country and its people'.” [Source: Philip Gourevitch, Observer Magazine, The Guardian, November 2, 2003]

How to Deal with the North Korean Regime

Ian Buruma wrote in The New Yorker: “What to do about Kim Jong Il and his murderous regime? Direct military confrontation is not an appealing option. Kim, although bound to lose a war against better-fed, better-led, and better-equipped American and South Korean troops, has enough artillery, missiles, chemical weapons, and, quite possibly, nuclear bombs to carry out the threat of turning the South Korean capital, Seoul, into a “sea of flames.” He has up to a million men in uniform, a dozen chemical-weapons factories, and about a hundred thousand special-operations forces ready to be unleashed. Nor is he likely to get rid of these weapons, for the threat of mass killing is all that he has to bargain with, and is probably the only means of insuring his personal survival. Richard Perle, quoted in Becker's book, maintains that the threat of U.S. military force will push the Chinese to “bring the North Koreans to heel.” It's true that China supplies the state with most of its fuel and food. But it benefits from having a Communist buffer state, and fears the consequences of North Korea's collapse—not least a stampede of refugees. Indeed, in the two years since the regime served notice of its nuclear-weapons program, trade between China and Korea has doubled, to US$1.4 billion. [Source: Ian Buruma, The New Yorker, August 22, 2005]

“The usual alternative to military action is “engagement.” This was the favored tactic of the Clinton Administration and of South Korea's last two Presidents, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun. During the eighties, South Korea's expanding and increasingly prosperous middle class had broken the back of military authoritarianism. Kim Dae Jung, a longtime dissident, was a key figure in this democratic transformation, and he might have hoped to achieve the same in the North. His so-called Sunshine Policy was designed to winkle the North out of its failed autarky by offering business opportunities, a railway link, and large amounts of cash. Kim Jong Il himself pocketed a secret gift of five hundred million dollars from the Hyundai corporation just before agreeing to grant Kim Dae Jung an audience in Pyongyang. (Hyundai was allowed to build a fortified holiday resort just across the border for South Korean tourists, who are prevented from meeting any locals.) Much else was promised at the meeting of the two Kims in 2000; little so far has materialized. But then the South Koreans, like the Chinese, are essentially committed to sustaining and stabilizing their neighbor; they fear the chaos and the expense if the North should implode (let alone explode). Accordingly, Seoul dramatically increased its trade with the North this year, even after diplomatic talks with Kim Jong Il faltered. In one recent poll, forty per cent of South Koreans named the United States as the country that posed the biggest threat to them; only a third named North Korea.

“Meanwhile, there are enough carpetbaggers around the Korean Peninsula to encourage this notion of capitalist seduction. Among the more striking suggestions is one from Jean-Jacques Grauhar, the secretary-general of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in Seoul, who urged Club Med to open a resort in North Korea. He told Martin that changing the system “shouldn't be the objective of foreign investors.” The objective, it would seem, is to make money out of vacationing foreigners while Koreans starve.

“The problem with trade-and-aid engagement is that North Korea has no middle class to speak of and Kim Jong Il has no reason to allow one to emerge; genuine economic reforms are not in his interest. His people may be dying fast, but, as long as his troops are fed, Kim's absolute power is assured. Becker's assessment is both blunt and hard to dispute: “The past 15 years show that real change can come only when Kim Jong Il and his family are recognized as evil tyrants, removed from power, and put on trial.” But how? Neither Becker nor Martin has an entirely plausible solution. Martin ends his book with a bizarre open letter to the Dear Leader, in which, after wishing him all the best, he advises him to hand the country over to “competent and trusted officials,” turn his rule into a monarchy, retire to the South of France or to Hollywood, and thus insure that the Kim dynasty will continue, “perhaps even for thousands of years.” This does not strike me as a useful contribution.”



Despite Koreans’ aspiration for independence and unity, the end of World War II in the Pacific saw the division of the Korean Peninsula at the thirty- eighth parallel. Soviet troops, including Korean resistance fighters, occupied the northern half in August 1945, and U.S. troops occupied the southern half in September. The Cold War had arrived in Korea. Separate state institutions emerged on both sides of the thirty-eighth parallel. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007 **]

The Soviets gave their support to a group of former guerrilla fighters as national leaders. This included 32-year-old Kim Il Sung described as a legendary anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter. What seet Kim Il Sung from others, it was said, was that he was never caught by Japanese colonial authorities and their he possessed the qualities and credentials to be a strong leader. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

In February 1946 an Interim People’s Committee led by Kim Il Sung became the first central government. Land reform followed, and the KCP merged with other political forces to create the new and powerful Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) in August 1946. During the next two years, Kim and his allies consolidated their political power, and he became the preeminent figure in the North. **

The first congress of the Korean Workers’ Party was held in August 1946. Fyodor Tertitsky of NK News wrote: It was “ not the first meeting of North Korean communists, but it was considered first official get-together since it was here that the Communist Party of North Korea merged with the New People’s Party to form the group in power today – the Workers’ Party of North Korea... This was also the moment when the Rodong Sinmun newspaper was established as the Party’s official mouthpiece.” These landmarks “were largely cosmetic at the time: all the Korean communist organisations were still controlled by the Soviets. [Source: Fyodor Tertitsky for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, May 5, 2016]

North Korean Communism

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Kim Il Sung (1912-1994) government of the North considered itself the heir of the Communist anti-imperialist struggle against Japanese forces in Manchuria. As time passed, other ideological foci came to supplement or even supplant Marxism-Leninism as the central official state ideology. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, ^^^ ]

North Korea Communism has been influenced as much by traditional Korean-Confucian ideas about obedience and authority as by Marxist-Leninism. Perhaps its most important idea is that a powerful leader makes decisions that are implemented by a powerful bureaucracy that in turn are carried out by an obedient people just like in the Pyongyang-based Kokuryo dynasty (late first century B.C. to A.D. 668).

The North Korean version of a Marxist “classless society” is more like a caste system, with a rigid hierarchal system, and totalitarian obedience that is reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Those that are capable and smart are fearful of contradicting and criticizing decisions made from the top, regardless of how ludicrous or half-baked they may seem.

The basic philosophy underlying the relationship between the government and the party has not changed much since independence. Government organs are regarded as executors of the general line and policies of the party. They are expected to implement the policies and directives of the party by mobilizing the masses. All government officials or functionaries are exhorted to behave as servants of the people, rather than as overbearing "bureaucrats." The persistence in party literature of admonitory themes against formalism strongly suggests that authoritarian bureaucratic behavior remains a major source of concern to the party leadership. This concern may explain in part the party's intensified efforts since the early 1970s to wage an ideological struggle against the bureaucratic work style of officials. The general trend is toward tightened party control and supervision of all organs of administrative and economic policy implementation. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993*]

The party is the formulator of national purpose, priorities, and administrative hierarchy. It is the central coordinator of administrative and economic activities at the national and local levels. Through its own organizational channels, which permeate all government and economic agencies, the party continues to oversee administrative operations and enforce state discipline. Without exception, key government positions are filled by party loyalists, most of whom are trained in the North Korean system, which emphasizes ideology and practical expertise.

Creation of North Korea

On September 9, 1948, three weeks after the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was established in the South, Kim Il Sung declared the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) with its capital at Pyongyang. While balancing relations with both a newly unified and communist-led People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, Kim prepared for war with the South. South Korea, with U.S. help, had suppressed the guerrilla threat in the South, but Kim ordered his troops across the thirty-eighth parallel.

The North Korean state was three years after World War II ended and Korea was divided into north and south. The South Korean state was established with the sponsorship of the United Nations and the United States. North Korean state-building had already begun before 1948. With Soviet support, the northern leaders had carried out socioeconomic reforms including free distribution of land to the farmers, a gender equality law, and public ownership of key industries. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

The second congress of the Korean Workers’ Party was held in late March 1948 a few months before the DPRK was established. Fyodor Tertitsky of NK News wrote: “The second congress was conducted when the division of Korea was about to produce two independent states, so the speeches were mostly about North Korea being good and South Korea being bad. This was also the first to feature the party’s new emblem, consisting of hammer, sickle (a Korean one, which looks more like a scythe) and a brush. Since this date in March 1948, the emblem has remained unchanged. This congress was also the last to feature the old Korean flag of Great Extremes. Since this is now the national flag of South Korea, most early photos featuring it have since been edited by the DPRK.” [Source: Fyodor Tertitsky for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, May 5, 2016]

Kim Il Sung's Stalinist regime oriented itself towards exploiting North Korea's rich mineral resources. Industry was nationalized. Heavy industry and arms production greatly increased. Agriculture was collectivized and mechanized. [Source: World Encyclopedia, Oxford University Press, 2005]

Background Behind the Creation of North Korea

From the time of the tsars, Korea had been a concern of Russian security. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 was fought in part over the disposition of the Korean Peninsula. It was often surmised that the Russians saw Korea as a gateway to the Pacific, especially to warm-water ports. However, the Soviets did not get a warm-water port out of their involvement in Korea. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993*]

There was greater complexity than this in Soviet policy. Korea had one of Asia's oldest communist movements. Although it would appear that postwar Korea was of great concern to the Soviet Union, many have thought that its policy was a simple matter of Sovietizing northern Korea, setting up a puppet state, and then, in 1950, directing Kim Il Sung to unify Korea by force. However, the Soviets did not have an effective relationship with Korean communists; Joseph Stalin purged and even executed many of the Koreans who had functioned in the Communist International, and he did not help Kim Il Sung and other guerrillas in their struggle against Japan.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the main staging areas for Korean military groups whose aim was to end Japanese rule in Korea were in Nanjing, China; along the Korean border in Jilin and Liaoning provinces; and in Irkutsk in the Soviet Union. The Nanjing-based groups received military training from and supported Chiang Kaishek 's Kuomintang (KMT — the National People's Party, or Nationalist Party). [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Some Korean militants went into exile in China and the Soviet Union and founded early communist and nationalist resistance groups. A Korean Communist Party (KCP) was founded in Seoul in 1925; one of the organizers was Pak Hon-yong, who became the leader of Korean communism in southern Korea after 1945. Various nationalist groups also emerged during this period, including the exiled Korean Provisional Government (KPG) in Shanghai, which included Syngman Rhee and another famous nationalist, Kim Ku, among its members.

Police repression and internal factionalism made it impossible for radical groups to exist for any length of time. Many nationalist and communist leaders were jailed in the early 1930s (they reappeared in 1945). When Japan invaded and then annexed Manchuria in 193l, however, a strong guerrilla resistance embracing both Chinese and Koreans emerged. There were well over 200,000 guerrillas — all loosely connected, and including bandits and secret societies — fighting the Japanese in the early 1930s; after murderous but effective counterinsurgency campaigns, the numbers declined to a few thousand by the mid-1930s. It was from this milieu that Kim Il Sung (originally named Kim Sng-ju, born in 1912) emerged. By the mid-1930s, he had become a significant guerrilla leader whom the Japanese considered one of the most effective and dangerous of guerrillas. They formed a special counterinsurgent unit to track Kim down and put Koreans in it as part of their divide-and-rule tactics.

Korean Communist Parties

Nationalist and communist groups developed in the 1920s to set the scene for the future divisiveness on the Korean Peninsula. The Korean Communist Party (KCP) was founded in Seoul in 1925. At the same time, various nationalist groups emerged, including an exiled Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai. When Japan invaded neighboring Manchuria in 1931, Korean and Chinese guerrillas joined forces to fight the common enemy. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Korean Communist parties came into being very quickly after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and operated both inside Korea and among Korean exiles in China, Manchuria, Japan, and Russia itself. Away from the tightlycontrolled environment of the Korean peninsula, some took part in armed struggle against Japanese forces and interests and tended to regard more conservative nationalists who hoped for the gradual realization of independence from Japan with disdain. Kim Il Sung, the eventual ruler of the DPRK (North Korea), was a leader of one Manchurian group, and one cause of the eventual political division of Korea was the split between the Communist and non-Communist nationalist opposition to Japan during the colonial period. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University ^^^ ]

After the defeat of Japan in 1945, resistance to Japan became the main legitimating doctrine of North Korea; North Koreans trace the origin of their army, leadership, and ideology back to this resistance. For the next five decades, the top North Korean leadership would be dominated by a core group that had fought the Japanese in the old Manchu homeland, Manchuria. One of the guerrilla leaders was Kim Il Sung (1912–94).

Manifesto of the Korean Communist Party in Shanghai (1921)

This document, written in 1921, issued from one early Korean Communist group based in Shanghai: “The fact that the Japanese annexation of Korea is unnatural and unreasonable is very clear. Since the annexation, Japan has deprived us of all freedom of assembly and speech. Japanese interference reached an extreme when they intervened in our industrial enterprises and by irrational laws prevented the growth of these industrial enterprises. The social progress of the Korean people and the cultural development of the masses have been virtually halted by these inhuman acts, which have brought hunger to the material life and impoverishment to the spirit of the masses. We are striving to overthrow the Japanese yoke for the prosperity of our people We have fought a hard fight during the past three years, since the declaration of war against Japan. Though our efforts have been weak, our sincerity and zeal have more than supplemented what we have lacked in our forces and we believe that ultimate victory will be ours. [Source: translated by Dae.Sook Suh, “Sources of Korean Tradition”, edited by Yong-ho Ch’oe, Peter H. Lee, and Wm. Theodore de Bary, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 356-357]

“Our national emancipation movement is merely a step toward the ultimate purpose of social revolution. We are striving for the complete elimination of all the classes of our present society. This is our belief and, at the same time, the common objective of all the toiling masses of the world. Thus, our enemy is all the exploiting classes of the world as well as the Japanese militarists and financiers. All the masses who share the common fate under the oppression of the ruling class must unite their efforts. Thus, our efforts may be meager, but we express heartfelt congratulations to the Russian working masses and await with great expectation their success. We also expect the success of the activities of the Chinese mass revolutionary organizations and trust in the success of the birth of the recent Japanese socialist organization and Japanese Communist Party. Thus, we shall together destroy and drove out the roots of all the crimes of the exploiting classes in East Asia, nay, in the entire world.

“The World War of 1914, which resulted in great bloodshed for the world’s masses, had its very roots in the purpose of filling the bottomless storehouses of the bourgeoisie of the capitalist countries. But it has been said that the war was a means to destroy imperialism and bring eternal peace, and also that the war was to emancipate the oppressed people of the whole world, thus deceiving the oppressed masses. Because of this deceptive propaganda, including such propaganda as Wilson’s Fourteen Points, some people placed great trust in the Peace Conference and the League of nations. But even though the bourgeoisie used cunning tactics and strenuous efforts to conceal its true intentions, its evil and tyrannical objectives were eventually exposed. The Versailles Peace Conference is nothing but a meeting of hungry wolves to divide the territories of the defeated and collect reparations from the defeated. The difficulties of the English and the French in Europe and the antagonism between the United states and Japan over Pacific problems are all the same kind of problem.

“The League of Nations is merely an organization to revive the already destroyed foundations of capitalism…and thus it is a peculiar and worthless organization. The weak are always attempting to hang onto the roots of anything nearby. Until today we have always expected the true revival of the League of Nations by appealing to the leaders of the world emancipation movement and by pointing to justice and humanity. It is not that we do not understand those who attempt to utilize the opportunities made available by the intense struggles of the United States and Japan in the Pacific, but look at the exploitation by the British in India, by the French in Annam, and by the United States in the Philippines. By observing these phenomena, it is not difficult to see who is truly our friend, and who is our foe. Our excitement over the Russian October Revolution is not without justification, because in carrying out the great task of the world revolutionary movement we feel that we are on the same footing with them. Thus, we share the same fate with the working masses of the world and their organizations. We must unite to fight against our enemies in the League of Nations, the hounds of world capitalism and imperialism, and its supporter, the Second International.

“The Third Communist International is truly the federation of the world’s toiling masses and the only headquarters of the world socialist revolution, at which the Koreans have already been represented in the name of the Korean Socialist Party, and it is with the Comintern that we can share our fate in the struggle against the capitalists. Our party is an independent Korean section of the Communist International.

“We strive to establish the Korean soviet government under the dictatorship of the proletariat so that it will be possible to carry out the fight to destroy all the existing systems and establish the great society for the ultimate happiness of all men. We trust that the ultimate victory is ours and that victory will be the victory of the working masses of Korea, which comprise seventy percent of the Korean population. All proletariats unite under the Communist banner.”

Meetings That Shaped the Creation of North and South Korea in World War II

The United States took the initiative in big power deliberations on Korea during World War II, suggesting a multilateral trusteeship for postwar Korea to the British in March 1943, and to the Soviet leaders at the end of the same year. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, concerned about the disposition of enemy-held colonial territories and aware of colonial demands for independence, sought a gradualist, tutelary policy of preparing former colonials — such as the Koreans — for self-government and independence. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

At the Cairo Conference in December 1943, the Allies, under United States urging, declared that after Japan was defeated Korea would become independent "in due course," a phrase consistent with Roosevelt's ideas. At about the same time, planners in the United States Department of State reversed the traditional United States policy of noninvolvement in Korea by defining the security of the peninsula as important to the security of the postwar Pacific, which was, in turn, very important to American security.

At a midnight meeting in Washington on August 10 and 11, 1945, War Department officials, including John J. McCloy and Dean Rusk, decided to make the thirty-eighth parallel the dividing line between the Soviet and United States zones in Korea. Neither the Soviet forces nor the Koreans were consulted. As a result, when 25,000 American soldiers occupied southern Korea in early September 1945, they found themselves up against a strong Korean impulse for independence and for thorough reform of colonial legacies. By and large, Koreans wished to solve their problems themselves and resented any inference that they were not ready for self-government.

By 1947 Washington was willing to acknowledge formally that the Cold War had begun in Korea and abandoned attempts to negotiate with the Soviet government to form a unified, multilateral administration. Soviet leaders had also determined that the postwar world would be divided into two blocs, and they deepened their controls over North Korea. When President Harry S Truman announced the Truman Doctrine and the containment policy in the spring of 1947, Korea was very nearly included along with Greece and Turkey as a key containment country; Department of State planners foresaw an enormous US$600-million package of economic and military aid for southern Korea, and backed away only when the United States Congress and the Department of War balked at such a huge sum. Instead, the decision was made to seek United Nations (UN) backing for United States policy in Korea, and to hold a UN-supervised plebiscite in all of Korea if the Soviet Union would go along, in southern Korea alone if it did not. North Korea refused to cooperate with the UN. The plebiscite was held in May 1948 and resulted in the establishment of the Republic of Korea in August of the same year.

Korean Communist Guerillas in China and the Soviet Union

During World War II, Stalin was mostly silent in his discussions with Roosevelt about Korea. From 194l to 1945, Kim Il Sung and other guerrillas were given sanctuary in Sino-Soviet border towns, trained at a small school, and dispatched as agents into Japanese-held territory. Research suggests that Chinese, not Soviet, communists controlled the border camps. Although the United States suspected that as many as 30,000 Koreans were being trained as Soviet guerrilla agents, postwar North Korean documents captured by General Douglas A. MacArthur showed that there could not have been more than a few hundred guerrilla agents. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

When Soviet troops occupied Korea north of the thirty-eighth parallel in August 1945, they brought these Koreans, now in the Soviet army, with them. They were often termed Soviet-Koreans, even though most of them were not Soviet citizens. Although this group was not large, several of them became prominent in the regime, for example H Ka-i, an experienced party organizer, who was Soviet-born, and Nam Il, who became well known during the Korean War when he led the North Korean delegation in peace talks.

The Soviet side quietly acquiesced to the thirty-eighth parallel decision and then accepted the United States plan for a multilateral trusteeship at a foreign ministers' meeting in December 1945. Over the next two years, the two powers held so-called joint commission meetings trying to resolve their differences and establish a provisional government for Korea.

Efforts to Establish Communist Units in Both North and South Korea

The United States military command, along with emissaries dispatched from Washington, tended to interpret resistance to United States desires in the south as radical and pro-Soviet. When Korean resistance leaders set up an interim "people's republic" and people's committees throughout southern Korea in September 1945, the United States saw this fundamentally indigenous movement as part of a Soviet master plan to dominate all of Korea. Radical activity, such as the ousting of landlords and attacks on Koreans in the former colonial police force, usually was a matter of settling scores left over from the colonial period, or of demands by Koreans to run their own affairs. But it immediately became wrapped up with United States- Soviet rivalry, such that the Cold War arrived early in Korea — in the last months of 1945. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

From August 1945 until January 1946, Soviet forces worked with a coalition of communists and nationalists. The Soviets did not set up a central administration, nor did they establish an army. In retrospect their policy was more tentative and reactive than American policy in South Korea, which moved forward with plans for a separate administration and army. In general, Soviet power in the Asia-Pacific region was flexible and resulted in the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Manchuria in early 1946.

Since the 1940s, from 12 to 14 percent of the population has been enrolled in the communist party, compared with 1 to 3 percent for communist parties in most countries. The Korean Workers' Party (KWP) was formed by a merger of the communist parties in North Korea and South Korea in 1949. The vast majority of KWP members were poor peasants with no previous political experience. Membership in the party gave them status, privileges, and a rudimentary form of political participation.

Creation of Separate North Korean Institutions Under Soviet Pressure

Whether in response to United States initiatives or because most Koreans despised the trusteeship agreement that had been negotiated at the end of 1945, separate institutions began to emerge in North Korea in early 1946. In February 1946, an Interim People's Committee led by Kim Il Sung became the first central government. The next month, a revolutionary land reform took place, dispossessing landlords without compensation. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

In August 1946, a powerful political party, the North Korean Workers' Party, dominated politics as a result of a merger with the Korean Communist Party; in the fall the rudiments of a northern army appeared. Central agencies nationalized major industries that previously had been mostly owned by the Japanese and began a two-year economic program based on the Soviet model of central planning and priority for heavy industry. Nationalists and Christian leaders were ousted from all but pro forma participation in politics, and Cho Man-sik was placed under house arrest. Kim Il Sung and his allies dominated all the political parties, ousting resisters.

Within a year of the liberation from Japanese rule, North Korea had a powerful political party, a growing economy, and a single powerful leader. In the period 1946 to 1948, there was much evidence that the Soviet Union hoped to dominate North Korea. In particular, it sought to involve North Korea in a quasi-colonial relationship in which Korean raw materials, such as tungsten and gold, were exchanged for Soviet manufactured goods. The Soviet Union also sought to keep Chinese communist influence out of Korea; in the late 1940s, Maoist doctrine had to be infiltrated into North Korean newspapers and books. Soviet influence was especially strong in the media, where major organs were staffed by Koreans from the Soviet Union, and in the security bureaus.

Nonetheless, the Korean guerrillas who fought in Manchuria were not easily molded and dominated. They were tough, highly nationalistic, and determined to have Korea for themselves. This was especially so for the Korean People's Army (KPA), which was an important base for Kim Il Sung and which was led by Ch'oe Yng-gn, another Korean guerrilla who had fought in Manchuria. At the army's founding ceremony on February 8, 1948, Kim urged his soldiers to carry forward the tradition of the Koreans who had fought against the Japanese in Manchuria.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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