History of North Korea

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For the history of Korea before its division, see History of 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.

Northern Korea before the division

From 1910 to the end of World War II, Korea was under Japanese rule. Most Koreans were peasants engaged in subsistence farming.[1] In the 1930s, Japan developed heavy industry in northern Korea and neighboring Manchuria, comprising mines, hydro-electric dams, steel mills, and manufacturing plants.[2] The Korean industrial working class expanded rapidly, and many Koreans went to work in Manchuria.[3] At the same time, a Korean guerrilla movement emerged in Manchuria harassing the Japanese. One of the most prominent guerrilla leaders was the Communist Kim Il-sung.[4]

The Japanese were not the only outside influence on Korea. Since the arrival of missionaries in the late nineteenth century, the northwest of Korea, and Pyongyang in particular, had been a stronghold of Christianity.[5]

Division of Korea

Main article: Division of Korea

At the Tehran Conference in November 1943 and the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the Soviet Union promised to join its allies in the Pacific War within three months of victory in Europe. On August 8, 1945, after three months to the day, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan.[6] Soviet troops advanced rapidly, and the US government became anxious that they would occupy the whole of Korea. On August 10, the US government decided to propose the 38th parallel as the dividing line between a Soviet occupation zone in the north and a US occupation zone in the south. The parallel was chosen as it would place the capital Seoul under American control.[7] The division placed sixteen million Koreans in the American zone and nine million in the Soviet zone.[8] To the surprise of the Americans, the Soviet Union immediately accepted the division. The agreement was incorporated into General Order No. 1 (approved on 17 August 1945) for the surrender of Japan.[9]

Soviet forces began amphibious landings in Korea by August 14 and rapidly took over the north-east of the country, and on August 16 they landed at Wonsan.[10] On August 24, the Red Army reached Pyongyang.[11] US forces did not arrive in the south until September 8.[8]

During August, People's Committees sprang up across Korea, affiliated with the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence, which in September founded the People's Republic of Korea. When Soviet troops entered Pyongyang, they found a local People's Committee established there, led by veteran Christian nationalist Cho Man-sik.[12] Unlike their American counterparts, the Soviet authorities recognized and worked with the People's Committees.[13][14] By some accounts, Cho Man-sik was the Soviet government's first choice to lead North Korea.[15][16]

On September 19, Kim Il-sung and 36 other Korean Red Army officers arrived in Wonsan. They had fought the Japanese in Manchuria in the 1930s but had lived in the USSR and trained in the Red Army since 1941.[17] On October 14, Soviet authorities introduced Kim to the North Korean public as a guerrilla hero.[17]

In December 1945, at the Moscow Conference, the Soviet Union agreed to a US proposal for a trusteeship over Korea for up to five years in the lead-up to independence. Most Koreans demanded independence immediately, but Kim and the other Communists supported the trusteeship under pressure from the Soviet government. Cho Man-sik opposed the proposal at a public meeting on January 4, 1946, and disappeared into house arrest.[18][19] On February 8, 1946, the People's Committees were reorganized as Interim People's Committees dominated by Communists.[20] The new regime instituted popular policies of land redistribution, industry nationalization, labor law reform, and equality for women.[21]

Meanwhile, existing Communist groups were reconstituted as a party under Kim Il-sung's leadership. On December 18, 1945, local Communist Party committees were combined into the North Korean Communist Party.[17] In August 1946, this party merged with the New People's Party to form the Workers' Party of North Korea. In December, a popular front led by the Workers Party dominated elections in the North.[20] In 1949, the Workers' Party of North Korea merged with its southern counterpart to become the Workers' Party of Korea with Kim as party chairman.[22]

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.[23]

File:1948 김일성과 김구.jpg
Kim Il-sung with Kim Koo in 1948

As negotiations with the Soviet Union on the future of Korea failed to make progress, the US took the issue to the United Nations in September 1947. In response, the UN established the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea to hold elections in Korea. The Soviet Union opposed this move. In the absence of Soviet co-operation, it was decided to hold UN-supervised elections in the south only.[24] In April 1948, a conference of organizations from the North and the South met in Pyongyang, but conference produced no results. The southern politicians Kim Koo and Kim Kyu-sik attended the conference and boycotted the elections in the South.[25] Both men were posthumously awarded the National Reunification Prize by North Korea.[26] The elections were held in South Korea on May 10, 1948. On August 15, the Republic of Korea formally came into existence.[27] A parallel process occurred in North Korea. A new Supreme People's Assembly was elected in August 1948, and on September 3 a new constitution was promulgated. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was proclaimed on September 9, with Kim as premier.[28] On October 12, the Soviet Union declared that Kim's regime was the only lawful government on the peninsula.[citation needed] On December 12, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly accepted the report of UNTCOK and declared the Republic of Korea to be the "only lawful government in Korea".[27]

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.[29] 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.[30] 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)

Main article: Korean War
File:Victory Day Rehearsal, Pyongyang, 2012.jpg
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.[31] In 1949 and 1950 Kim traveled to Moscow with the South Korean Communist leader Pak Hon-yong to raise support for a war of reunification.[32]

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.[33] 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.[34][need quotation to verify]

For over a year before the outbreak of war, 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. As a result, of UN bombing, almost every substantial building in North Korea was destroyed.[35][36]

Postwar developments

Internal politics

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."

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.[37]

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 of 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.[38]

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.[39][40] 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.

The Party Congress in 1956 indicated the transformation that the party had undergone. Most members of other factions had lost their positions of influence. More than half the delegates had joined after 1950, most were under 40 years old, and most had limited formal education.[41]

In February 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made a sweeping denunciation of Stalin, which sent shock waves throughout the Communist world. Encouraged by this, members of the party leadership in North Korea began to criticize Kim's dictatorial leadership, personality cult, and Stalinist economic policies. They were defeated by Kim at the August Plenum of the party.[42][43] By 1960, 70 per cent of the members of the 1956 Central Committee were no longer in politics.[44]

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.[45] 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.

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.[38]

International relations

Like Mao in China, Kim Il-sung refused to accept Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin and continued to model his regime on Stalinist norms.[46][47] At the same time, he increasingly stressed Korean independence, as embodied in the concept of Juche.[48] 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".[citation needed]

Relations with China became acerbic in part due to the continued presence of PLA troops in North Korea following the 1953 armistice. Kim's consolidation of power in 1956 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.[citation needed] 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.[49]

By some analysis, Kim Il-sung remained in power partially because the Soviets turned their attention to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 that fall.[50] 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.[51]

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. 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.

Tensions between North and South escalated in the late 1960s with a series of low-level armed clashes known as the Korean DMZ Conflict. In 1966, Kim declared "liberation of the south" to be a "national duty".[52] In 1968, North Korean commandos launched the Blue House Raid, an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the South Korean President Park Chung-hee. Shortly after, the US spy ship Pueblo was captured by the North Korean navy.[53] 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.[54] North Korean fighter pilots were also sent to assist North Vietnam (and conversely South Korea sent a contingent of troops to aid the government in Saigon).[citation needed] In April 1969 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.[55]

After Khrushchev was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev as Soviet Leader in 1964, and with the incentive of Soviet aid, North Korea strengthened its ties with the USSR. In 1967, Kim condemned China's Cultural Revolution. In turn, China labelled his government as "revisionists".[56][57] 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".

File:USS Pueblo, Pyongyang, 2012.jpg
The captured USS Pueblo being visited by tourists in Pyongyang

In 1972, the first formal summit meeting between Pyongyang and Seoul was held, but the cautious talks did not lead to a lasting change in the relationship.[58]

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.[59] 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.[60]

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."

Meanwhile, North Korea emphasized its independent orientation by joining the Non-Aligned Movement in 1975.[61] It promoted Juche as a model for developing countries to follow.[62]

Economic development

Reconstruction of the country after the war proceeded with extensive Chinese and Soviet assistance, a task that took the next few years.[63][64] Koreans with experience in Japanese industries also played a significant part.[65] The first Three Year Plan (1954–1956) introduced the concept of Juche or self-reliance.[66] The first Five Year Plan (1957-1961) consolidated the collectivization of agriculture and initiated mass mobilizations campaigns: the Chollima Movement, the Chongsan-ni system in agriculture and the Taean Work System in industry.[66][67] The Chollima Movement was influenced by China's Great Leap Forward, but did not have its disastrous results.[66] Industry was fully nationalized by 1959.[68]

North Korea was placed on a semi-war footing, with equal emphasis being given to the civilian and military economies. This was expressed in the 1962 Party Plenum by the slogan, "Arms in one hand and a hammer and sickle in the other!"[69] At a special party conference in 1966, members of the leadership who opposed the military build-up were removed.[70]

On the ruins left by the war, North Korea had built an industrialized command economy. Che Guevara, then a Cuban government minister, visited North Korea in 1960, and proclaimed it a model for Cuba to follow. In 1965, the British economist Joan Robinson described North Korea's economic development as a "miracle".[71] As late as the 1970s, its GDP per capita was estimated to be equivalent to South Korea's.[72][73][74][75] By 1968, all homes had electricity, though the supply was unreliable.[76] By the early 1970s, all children from age 5 to 16 were enrolled in school, and over 200 universities and specialized colleges had been established.[77]

Economic decline

File:North Korean village in Yalu River delta.jpg
North Korean village in the Yalu River delta

In the 1970s, expansion of North Korea's economy, with the accompanying rise in living standards, came to an end.[78] 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. It also purchased petrochemical, textile, concrete, steel, pulp and paper manufacturing plants from the West.[79] However, following the world 1973 oil crisis, 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. North Korea began to default in 1974 and halted almost all repayments in 1985. As a result, it was unable to pay for Western technology.[80]

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.[81] Migration to urban areas stalled.[82]

Despite the emerging economic problems, the regime invested heavily on prestigious projects, such as the Juche Tower, the Nampo Dam, and the Ryugyong Hotel. In 1989, as a response to the 1988 Seoul Olympics it held the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students in Pyongyang.[83][84]

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 in Burma during 1983 and kidnappings of Japanese and other foreign nationals.

In 1984 Kim visited Moscow during a grand tour of the USSR where he met Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko. Kim also made public visits to East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. Soviet involvement in the North Korean economy increased, until 1988 when bilateral trade peaked at US$2.8 billion.[85]

North Korea's isolation increased with the social and economic reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev starting in 1985, the Chinese economic reforms starting in 1979, and the fall of Communist states in Eastern Europe during 1989.[86] The leadership in Pyongyang responded by proclaiming that the collapse of the Eastern Bloc 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.[citation needed]

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, Kim Jong-il, who had already assumed key positions in the government, succeeded as General-Secretary of the Korean Workers' Party. At that time, North Korea had no secretary-general in the party nor a president. Minimal legal procedure that had been established was summarily ignored. Although a new constitution appeared to end the war-time political system, it did not completely terminate the transitional military rule. Rather it legitimized and institutionalized military rule by making the National Defense Commission (NDC) the most important state organ and its chairman the highest authority. After three years of consolidating his power, Kim Jong-il became Chairman of the NDC on October 8, 1997, a position described by the NDC as the nation's "highest administrative authority," and thus North Korea's de facto head of state. His succession had been foreshadowed in 1980, when he was introduced to the public at the Sixth Party Congress.[87] In 1982, Kim Jong-il had established himself as a leading theoretician with the publication of On the Juche Idea.[88]

Meanwhile, the economy was in steep decline. In 1990-1995, foreign trade was cut in half, with the loss of subsidized Soviet oil being particularly keenly felt. The crisis came to a head in 1995 with widespread flooding that destroyed crops and infrastructure, leading to a famine that lasted till 1998.[89]

In 1998 the government announced a new policy called "Songun", or "Military First". This suggested that the Korean Peoples Army was now more powerful than the Korean Workers Party.[90]

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.

As a result, North Korea is now dependent on international food aid to feed its population. According to Amnesty International, more than 13 million people, over half the population of the country, suffered from malnutrition in the DPRK in 2003. In 2001 the DPRK received nearly $300 million USD in food aid from the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and the European Union, plus much additional aid from the United Nations and non-governmental organizations.

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 on the border with China, but it failed to flourish.[91]

Current situation

File:Computer lab, Pyongyang, 2012.jpg
A computer lab classroom in the Grand People's Study House, Pyongyang, 2012

President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea actively attempted to reduce tensions between the two Koreas under the Sunshine Policy, but this produced few immediate results. Since the election of 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.[92] Conditions were reportedly extremely harsh."[93]

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.[94]

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.

North Korea declared on February 10, 2005 that it has nuclear weapons[95] 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[96] and was quickly succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-un. Tensions between North Korea and other countries have 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


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  14. Cumings, Bruce (2005). Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 227–228. ISBN 0-393-32702-7. 
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External links

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