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North Korea

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North Korea caught headlines at the very end of last year when Kim Jong-il, the supreme leader of the country since 1994, died suddenly but not unexpectedly. The older Kim had been grooming his son Kim Jong-un to take power since June 2010. Before Kim Jong-il came his father Kim Il-Sung (who, after his death, was proclaimed “Eternal President of the Republic”)—a Kim has been supreme leader of North Korea since the end of Japanese rule in 1945.

North Korea—officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—is one of the most repressive and authoritarian states in the world. Commonly referred to as a communist country, North Korea’s governing ideology is in fact difficult to define. Officially, the country adheres to the juche idea, which roughly translates to self-reliance. Western commentators have variously described North Korea as Stalinist, fascist, national socialist, neo-monarchist, and theocratic. The late Christopher Hitchens described Pyongyang as “rather worse” than the dystopic London of George Orwell’s 1984. B.R. Myers has argued that North Korea’s defining ideology today is not Marxism-Leninism but “an implacably xenophobic, race-based worldview derived largely from fascist Japanese myth.”

Power is centralized in the hands of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the military. Kim Jong-il initiated a “military-first” policy in the late 1990s that emphasized the pre-eminence of the military in North Korean life. One of the direct consequences of this military policy has been North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. North Korea unsuccessfully tested a nuclear weapon in late 2006 and successfully tested a small warhead (2-6 kilotons yield, approximately one-tenth the power of the Hiroshima bomb). In response, the United Nations imposed further sanctions.

The North Korean economy is moribund—per capita GDP is among the worst in the lowest in the world and private enterprise is officially illegal.  It’s been estimated that… North Korea, which has about 50 percent of the population of South Korea, has an economy only 3 percent as large. International trade, except on the black arms and drugs market, is almost nonexistent (partly due to U.N. sanctions), and what little above-the-board trade does occur goes overwhelmingly to China.

In short, there’s a reason why North Korea is colloquially known as “the hermit kingdom.”

With the death of Kim Jong-il, there has been renewed speculation that the country may undergo significant changes. Kim Jong-un is young and relatively inexperienced, and may therefore not enjoy the full support of the military. Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-il’s eldest son, half-brother of Kim Jong-nam and current resident of Macau, told a Japanese journalist that the regime needed to embrace reform based on the Chinese model, or face destruction.

North Korean refugees paint a portrait of an almost impossibly closed society, with almost no information from the rest of the world allowed. The regime permitted the use of cell phones in 2008 and even established a 3G wireless network, but the state controls almost all content and does not permit phone calls outside the country.

The collapse of the North Korean regime is desired neither by China or South Korea; the former fears the potential influx of huge numbers of refugees (since the Korean demilitarized zone is heavily mined, it’s most likely North Korean refugees would flee across the Chinese boarder, and indeed, most refugees and defectors from within North Korea use this route) and the latter fears the immense economic and social problems of integrating the populace of such a repressive and backward state into one of the most advanced economies on the globe.

Recommended Reading

  • B. R. Myers: Dynasty, North Korean-Style
  • HNN Hot Topics: North Korea
  • What the Left & Right Say

    North Korea has been a source of relative unanimity amongst American politicians, in that both Democrats and Republicans believe North Korea to be a hostile totalitarian dictatorship. (The North Koreans, for their part, view the United States as their most implacable enemy.) How exactly to deal with North Korea has, however, been a subject of contention between the two parties.

    The defining issue in U.S.-North Korean relations for the past twenty years has been North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The Clinton administration signed an agreement with North Korea in 1994 to freeze their weapons program over congressional Republican opposition (The GOP believed, correctly, that North Korea could not be trusted to keep its word). The Bush administration refused to negotiate bilaterally, preferring the six-party talk framework between the U.S., North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia. Despite President Bush’s famous declaration that North Korea was a member of the “Axis of Evil” alongside Iraq and Iran, relations gradually thawed until 2009, when, in relatively quick succession, North Korea successfully tested a small atomic bomb, arrested two American journalists, and, in May 2010, attacked and sunk a South Korean corvette.

    Historical Background

    Korea, from 1910-1945 a Japanese colony, was divided into American and Soviet occupation zones at the end of World War II; the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was officially established in 1948 under Kim Il-Sung. At the time, it was one of over half a dozen Soviet-backed republics in Europe and Asia. In 1950, with the support of the Soviet Union and the newly-established People’s Republic of China, North Korea launched an invasion of the South; only U.N. intervention stopped Kim from forcibly reunifying the country.

    A peace treaty was never signed between the belligerents, only an armistice agreement which established the still extant 2.5-mile wide demilitarized zone between North and South. After the war, Kim Il-Sung consolidated his power over the country, rejecting Soviet-style de-Stalinization—indeed, Kim intensified his personality cult to the point where it reached God-like dimensions—but navigating a political tightrope between China and the Soviet Union after the Sino-Soviet split. By the 1970s, though, North Korea had begun to embrace juche rather than Marxism-Leninism as its fundamental ideology, and by the 1991 the collapse of the Soviet Union left the already cash-strapped North Korean state without its major source of foreign aid. South Korea, on the other hand, enjoyed explosive economic growth throughout the latter half of the twentieth century and transitioned to democracy from an authoritarian anti-communist regime in 1987.

    In the 1990s, North Korea suffered a severe famine which killed upwards of 3 million people due to a combination of flooding, economic mismanagement, and loss of Soviet aid. The famine, combined with the death of Kim Il-Sung in 1994, was possibly the most serious challenge to the North Korean regime since the Korean War, but the regime survived, partly by virtue of Kim Jong-il’s military-first policy, which mollified one of the few potential power bases outside of the Kim family.


  • North Korean propaganda has a reputation in the West of making some rather … extravagant claims about the abilities of the Kim family. Kim Il-Sung was credited with defeating Japan and the United States almost single-handedly, while Kim Jong-il was credited with the ability to control the weather with his mind.
  • Kim Jong-il was the subject of much ridicule in the West for his tyranny and extravagant lifestyle. He was reported to be a huge fan of Western films, owning nearly 20,000 DVDs, even going so far as to kidnap a famous South Korean director and his actress wife to make movies in the North. He loved basketball and among his most prized possessions was a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan; he also reportedly based his trademark bouffant hairstyle on Elvis Presley.
  • In 2004-2005, North Korean state television aired a hybrid government announcement/reality show entitled Let’s trim our hair in accordance with the socialist lifestyle as part of a campaign against long hair (viewed as Western decadence). Hidden cameras were placed around Pyongyang and citizens who had long hair not in accordance with the socialist lifestyle were publicly shamed.
  • North Korea’s soccer coach during the 2010 World Cup claimed to received “regular tactical advice” during soccer matches from Kim Jong-il himself “using mobile phones that are not visible to the naked eye. The North Korean leader was reputed to have invented the device, along with, as ABC News dryly noted, the hamburger.
  • New North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reportedly underwent plastic surgery to make him more closely resemble his grandfather Kim Il-Sung before being introduced to the North Korean people in 2010.
  • Recommended Reading

  • To Sell a New Leader, North Korea Finds a Mirror is Handy
  • Questions:

  • How would you characterize the regime in North Korea? Is it communist, fascist, monarchist? All of the above? None?
  • How has the North Korean regime managed to survive?
  • Does North Korea pose a threat to its neighbors and/or the United States? Does the United States pose a threat to North Korea?
  • Why has the Kim family developed a personality cult of truly gargantuan proportions?
  • What is Historical Thinking?