With an area of 120,410 square kilometers, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North
Korea, occupies slightly more than half of the northern part of the Korean Peninsula in northeast Asia. North Korea shares common borders with the Republic of Korea to the south, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to the north, and Russia to the northeast. A four-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone, which runs 238 kilometers across land and another three kilometers into the sea, marks the boundary between the two Koreas near the 38th parallel. The estimated population of DPRK in 2004 was 22,697,553. Pyongyang is the national capital. North Korea remained one of the most isolated states in the contemporary world.
North Korea is a communist state. Its leader, Kim Jong Il succeeded to the position of supreme leadership in 1994 after the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, although this was not formalized until four years later. Both father and son dominated the North Korean government since its inception. A newly amended constitution in 1998 conferred on the deceased Kim the title of president for life and abolished the office of the president. Kim Jong Il heads the National Defense Commission (NDC), which functions as the chief administrative authority in the country. He is also supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and general secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP).
The separate state of North Korea was created as a result of the military situation at the end of World War II. When Japan surrendered in August 1945, the northern part of the peninsula was occupied by Soviet forces, while the southern half came under U.S. military authority. The peninsula was consequently divided into two military occupation zones at the 38th parallel. The Soviet occupation authority turned to Kim Il Sung, who had fought the Japanese in Manchuria, to provide leadership in its zone. In September 1948 Kim launched the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with himself as the premier.
In early 1950 Kim Il Sung lobbied his communist allies in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to support a North Korean effort to reunite the two Koreas. On June 23, 1950, the commanders of seven combat divisions of the North Korean People’s Army amassed near the border and received orders to initiate the “war of liberation.” Crossing the 38th parallel, North Korean forces quickly overwhelmed South Korean forces before they themselves were stopped and then pushed back across the border by a United Nations (UN) force led by the United States. In November PRC sent “volunteers” to fight alongside the North Koreans when UN forces neared the Yalu River, North Korea’s border with China. An armistice was signed in 1953, establishing a demilitarized zone roughly at the 38th parallel.
The wartime situation gave Kim Il Sung the opportunity to consolidate his position and establish himself as the absolute power in North Korea. In a series of show trials and purges, potential rivals were eliminated. In 1956 members of rival factions were purged from the KWP. In fact, some were made to shoulder the blame for the failure of the unification effort. Two years later the KWP announced that it had ended intra-party dissent. Kim Il Sung was now the undisputed leader, controlling virtually all aspects of North Korean society.
A personality cult soon emerged around the person of Kim Il Sung, who was elevated to the status of “Great Leader,” and his past as a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese, his defiance of the United States, and his exploits in building the nation were mythologized in song and poetry. Institutions such as universities and museums bear his name, and important places in his life are national shrines. A similar personality cult developed around his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, with mythical events written into his biography. Revered as “Dear Leader,” the younger Kim is said to be imbued with extraordinary intellectual and artistic abilities.
North Korea adopted as its guiding ideology juch’e, or self-reliance. Occasionally dubbed Kim Il-Sungism, the concept, which emerged in the mid-1950s, is an amalgamation of Marxist-Leninist doctrines with Maoism, Confucianism, and Korean traditions. Juch’e in operational terms involves the creation of a self-sustaining national economy and a strong military that can provide self-defense.
After the Korean War, Kim Il Sung focused on economic development. With a centrally planned command economy, North Korea at first appeared to be making great strides. It recovered quickly from the devastation of the Korean War. In the spirit of juch’e, economic planners focused on industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture. Equally important for North Korean economic survival was Soviet economic assistance, although limited, and the preferential treatment that North Korean goods received in the Soviet Union, PRC, and the East European satellites through the late 1970s–80s.
The changing geopolitical situation reduced such outside assistance to almost nothing and exposed the vulnerabilities in the North Korean economy. The consequences of a decades-old inefficient economic system could no longer be kept hidden. Energy and food shortages plagued North Korea, a country with little arable land and no oil reserves. Cycles of natural disasters exacerbated the situation. From the late
1990s onward North Korea had to rely on food aid from other countries, including South Korea, to stave off widespread famine.
The relationship between the two Koreas continued a seesaw trend in the Kim Jong Il era. From the mid1990s onward there were intermittent talks between the two governments. In 1998 when South Korean president Kim Dae Jung initiated his Sunshine Policy, which held out hope for reconciliation between the two Koreas, he found a receptive audience in the north partly because North Korea saw this as a means of securing the necessary economic assistance.
In 2002 the North Korean government also began to abandon some features of its tightly controlled command economy. In addition, it adopted some market features, such as removing price and wage controls. The government also began to court foreign investment and foreign trade, including from the Republic of Korea.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, North Korea once again garnered attention because of its nuclear weapons program, weapons sales to Iran, and its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Six-party talks involving North Korea, South Korea, Japan, the PRC, Russia, and the United States did not yield definitive results. In 2005, North Korea tested a missile over the Sea of Japan. This approach increased the level of tension and raised the specter of a military confrontation in the Northeast Asia region. In October 2007, North Korea agreed to disable its nuclear facilities by late 2008 in exchange for economic aid.