North Korea’s history begins after World War II, when Korea was divided into North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and South Korea (Republic of Korea), both proclaimed as separate states in 1948. Between 1950 and 1953, the Korean War between North and South continued. After the split, Kim Il Sung became leader of the Labor Party in the Communist North. Since then, power has been inherited, and his grandson Kim Jong-un is now the supreme leader. The border between North and South Korea is the world’s most militarized, and North Korea is an extremely closed and isolated country.
Kim Il Sung
Kim Il Sung held a strong but unquestioned leadership position when North Korea was proclaimed its own state in 1948. He removed rival persons and groups, and by the end of the 1950s all true opposition had been overcome. See abbreviationfinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of North Korea. After almost 25 years as prime minister (1948-1972) he became president in 1972.
From 1945 until his death in 1994, he was leader of the Communist Party with the official name of Korea’s Labor Party. The Korean variant of communism is based on Kim Il Sung’s juche ideology of “creating everything with your own powers”. The people’s total support for Kim Il Sung was strongly emphasized, and 30,000 statues were erected by “The Great Leader”, which was his official honorary title. The elections in North Korea have been portrayed as total victories with over 99 percent turnout and 100 percent yes votes for party candidates.
In 1980, Kim Jong-il was named first party secretary and ranked second in the hierarchy by father; later obvious preparations were made for him to inherit his father’s position of power. Kim Il Sung had been commander-in-chief of the armed forces since the Korean War, but on January 1, 1992, his son assumed this position with the rank of marshal. He was also given responsibility for the country’s nuclear power plants, and thus a central position in the conflict with the United States and the United Nations for inspection of the country’s nuclear facilities.
Kim Il Sung died on July 8, 1994. Kim Jong-il, who was consistently called “The Dear Leader,” gradually took over his father’s sovereign power and became the subject of the same extreme personal cult. He has been considered among the advocates of the hard line in Pyongyang, and had previously been accused by South Korea of being the brain behind a number of international terrorist attacks. In 1997, the takeover of power was formalized by Kim Jong-il becoming the party’s secretary general (party leader) and then head of state. At the same time, the party decided to introduce a new era, which was based on Kim Il Sung’s birth year 1912. The deceased was now proclaimed North Korea’s “forever president”.
While the national juche ideology was founded by Kim Il Sung, the so-called songun policy is linked to the heir Kim Jong-il. Songun puts the armed forces at the center of development as the “pillar of the revolution”; military needs and expenses should therefore be given the highest priority. The new line was launched in 1999 despite deep economic crisis and hunger.
The Great Famine
In the mid-1990s, North Korea was hit by a widespread, acute famine after a year of agriculture due to flood damage. A massive international relief effort was launched under the auspices of the UN and with the World Food Program (WFP) as the main player. In 1995–1998, WFP provided the necessary food to 7.9 million North Koreans from the most vulnerable part of the population. Ancient enemy countries such as the United States, Japan and South Korea were among the largest contributors. Norway contributed approximately NOK 30 million annually from the UD Disaster Fund. Since 1995, North Korea has been the world’s largest recipient of food aid.
Researchers from the World Food Program and UNICEF estimated in 1998 that 62 percent of children under seven years suffered from chronic malnutrition, which in many could lead to lasting loss. In 1999, UN personnel associated with relief efforts estimated the number of deaths due to starvation – directly or indirectly – to around two million. The figure is very uncertain, partly because large areas were closed to all external view.
With sustained food aid over a decade, the situation improved significantly, but in 2005 WPF still provided daily food rations to 6.5 million. Food shortages in the country were still described as precarious. Over the years, WFP and other organizations repeatedly complained that North Korea only allowed limited control of distribution and distribution; this led to speculation as to whether parts of aid ended up with the military or the political elite. During a sharp controversy in the fall of 2005, North Korea rejected new demands for control measures, threatening the expulsion of WFP representatives.
In 2006, the UN organization was declared undesirable in North Korea and expelled staff, after demanding better control of emergency aid distribution. WFP was allowed to return in 2007, but was also unable to monitor distribution north-east of the country, where food shortages were believed to be most precarious.
In June 2008, however, some restrictions were eased. WFP now gained access to 128 districts against only 50 previously, and could thus reach five to six million people in need more directly. In July 2008, WFP labeled the food shortage as perhaps the worst since the famine in the late 1990s, when over a million North Koreans are said to have died of starvation. The Food Fund in particular pointed out malnutrition among the youngest children.
In the spring of 2009, a large part of the population was still suffering from food shortages. Norwegian Torben Due, who heads the World Food Program in North Korea, in February 2009 described the situation as precarious. Lack of resources meant that the UN organization was able to provide food aid to just two million, while 8.7 million could need such assistance, according to Due. Large parts of the population live constantly on hunger. Still, widespread famine can only be kept out the door with the help of massive outside assistance.
Food and fuel should be the premium for stopping the nuclear weapons program. On the contrary, North Korea has stepped up its confrontation with the outside world. While the national economy is on the verge of bankruptcy, the regime is using large resources to develop nuclear weapons and long-range rockets.
North Korea’s own food production is estimated to reach just over two-thirds of the population of about 23 million. The dispute over the nuclear weapons program could lead to further aggravation of the crisis. South Korea stopped food aid after the second nuclear explosion in April 2009. It had been over half a million tonnes a year. In August 2009, WFP warned that food shortages had become even more precarious. The world’s willingness to help seemed to have been weakened after North Korea’s nuclear test in April of that year. Only about 15 percent of the food WFP had requested in its appeal to the UN member states was only given.
1958 is officially considered the year when total “socialization”, or state control of the economy, was implemented. Since then, all economic activity was run by the state. Since the mid-1970s, North Korea has had a crisis in its foreign economy. In the past, foreign trade was almost exclusively with other communist countries, but to keep up with South Korea, the capital imported Pyongyang technology and entire industrial plants from the West. North Korea later proved unable to pay the purchases, and in the 1990s was considered among the countries in the world with the lowest credit rating.
In the early 1990s, the country plunged deeper into economic crisis. A hard blow was that from 1991 both China and the Soviet Union (later Russia) demanded settlement for more of the hard currency trade and at market prices. Extensive assistance from Moscow, including in the form of cheap oil, stopped after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had accounted for half the foreign trade, but now trade with Moscow collapsed and foreign trade in total shrunk by 40 percent. The energy shortage was acute. Even before aid from the Eastern Bloc stopped, the economy was about to stall, partly as a result of disproportionate military spending. Compared to the population, North Korea is believed to have the world’s largest standing army.
Already in the 1980s malnutrition was widespread. After the support of Communist countries fell away, North Korea now became dependent on the world community to feed its citizens. During the hunger crisis, North Korea seemed to abandon some of its extreme isolationism, showing signs of a beginning opening to the West. In 1996, a special economic zone opened near the China border for foreign investors, which, however, was pending. In the propaganda, the juche ideology of self- preservation was still upheld. This was a major setback when one of the leading juche ideologues, Hwang Jang Yop, jumped off to South Korea in 1997.
North Korea’s economy has largely been darkened, with minimal information to the outside world. GDP, according to Western estimates, showed a declining trend throughout the 1990s. However, at the turn of the millennium, North Korea took cautious steps towards a mixed economy. Sensational “adjustments” were announced in July 2002 in the form of an economic decree. State aid should be cut back. Strict price and wage controls were softened, with the opening for industrial workers to receive bonus pay after efforts. Selected farmers were now allowed to sell self-produced goods in free markets; the framework for growing own vegetables was expanded. Previously, the state distributed matrations to 70 percent of the population through a strict coupon system, and at largely low prices.
After the temporary new arrangement, the goods were to be paid in cash. The transition to the new monetary economy was obviously problematic for many. According to diplomatic reports, there was a sharp rise in prices in the following years, and greater social inequalities emerged, including in the form of a partially starving subclass in the cities. It seemed that the regime would to some extent follow China’s example of the 1980s and gradually soften an extremely rigid planning economy while maintaining the political power monopoly. The economic decree in 2002 came just months after Kim Jong Il had been to China on his first foreign trip in 17 years. The visit should have aroused interest in the Chinese development model.
The new guidelines were seen as a first step to get out of economic disabilities and political isolation, but in 2005 the authorities tightened again. The reform line was tightened further in 2006. According to diplomatic reports, all men were then again prohibited from conducting private business. In 2007, the ban should have been extended to all women under the age of 50. The tightening since 2005 may indicate that the regime fears losing control if market forces are not kept in very tight bridges.
Lack of reliable data makes it difficult to assess North Korea’s economic situation. The government only states percentage changes in the state budget and foreign trade. Pyongyang’s own claims of good economic growth are questioned by international analysts. While the national economy seems to be on the verge of bankruptcy, the regime is using large resources to develop nuclear weapons and an advanced rocket arsenal.
North Korea was long under the strong Soviet influence, but in Khrushchev’s time struck a prokinesian line. From 1966, the country sought to mark itself as independent and avoid being dominated by some of the communist great powers, but received considerable financial assistance from both. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism in Western Europe in the early 1990s, aid fell in. Until the 1960s, North Korea only had links with other communist countries, but then led a diplomatic offensive in the Third World.
In 1973, the Nordic countries became the first in the Western world to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea. In 1976, all North Korean diplomats in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland were expelled for extensive smuggling and illegal sales of spirits and cigarettes. In 1996, three diplomats, who were also later accredited to Norway, were expelled from Sweden following a new smuggling affair.
In 1993, North Korea clashed with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over its nuclear energy program. The North Koreans then began replacing fuel rods from their five megawatt large reactor in Yongbyon without mandatory control. North Korea had signed the non-proliferation agreement, but for years, despite the agreement’s provisions to allow IAEA inspectors to release. This was particularly true of two plants in which the West suspected that the North Koreans had transformed spent nuclear fuel into plutonium for nuclear weapons.
Former US President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) negotiated an agreement in Pyongyang in 1994 in which North Korea pledged to halt a nuclear weapons program, including failing to enrich 8,000 burnt fuel rods, which could have given plutonium to four or five nuclear bombs. In 1999, North Korea continued to freeze its long-range ballistic missile program, and the United States pledged to ease financial sanctions.
Following the historic summit in the summer of 2000 between the heads of state of Korea, Pyongyang seemed to have embarked on a more conciliatory line. What had long been called the world’s last Stalinist state was recognized in 2001 and diplomatic relations were established with the EU and 13 of the EU’s 15 member states. Until then, Sweden was the only western country to have an embassy in Pyongyang. A more active dialogue with the United States and other countries was initiated in the shadow of the famine disaster with its continuing need for outside assistance. Relations with the United States are renewed when President George W. Bush in January 2002 described North Korea as part of the ” axis of evil “.
After an apparent breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations in 2007, the US and North Korea for the first time agreed on cultural exchange. In February 2008, the New York Philharmonic joined Pyongyang on guest appearances. The concert began with both national anthems. There were now hopes that the “symphony diplomacy” would also usher in a political hesitancy here where the Cold War has not yet ended.
However, North Korea still has its fierce disputes against the United States even after Barack Obama took over the presidential post in Washington. In advance of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to South Korea in February 2009, North Korea accused the United States of making active preparations for nuclear war. Pyongyang also declared war on South Korea. Clinton responded by warning North Korea against provocation, and called for respect for agreements made.
Obama reacted sharply when North Korea conducted a trial launch in April that the US government believed was a test of the long-range missile Taepodong-2. The US fears that, after further development, Taepodong-2 will be able to reach US territory with nuclear warheads. Hopes for diplomatic thugs were raised in August when former President Bill Clinton (1993–2001) made a surprising “private” visit to try to get two US journalists imprisoned. Clinton was received by Kim Jong Il. The meeting led Kim to pardon the two, who were allowed to travel with Clinton back to the United States. After the visit, North Korea appeared to be more reconciled, and willingly agreed to talks with the United States.
Relations with Japan have been tense after North Korea, at its own discretion, fired rockets over Japanese territory. With its medium-range missiles, North Korea should be able to reach all cities in Japan. Serial kidnappings of Japanese citizens to North Korea have been a different theme for many years. In 2008, Pyongyang said he was willing to accept new investigations into the case of an unknown number of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. Pyongyang has admitted to abducting 13 Japanese citizens and allowing five of them, allegedly the only survivors, to visit Japan in 2002. However, Japan claims at least 37 have been abducted to North Korea and some are still alive. North Korea’s lack of cooperation in this matter has long hampered the normalization of relations with Japan.
North Korea’s nuclear history
It sparked international dismay when, in October 2002, North Korea quite openly admitted to leading the world: The regime had kept a secret nuclear weapons program going for years, contravening the 1994 agreement. The North Koreans now even claimed that they had already manufactured nuclear weapons. However, the world was in the wild as to whether this was a bluff aimed at making use of the nuclear threat as political and economic pressure. Internationally, the alarm went serious when, in January 2003, Pyongyang threw out inspectors from the United Nations Atomic Energy Agency IAEA and wrecked the treaty against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Following constant pressure from the outside world, Kim Jong Il agreed in August 2003 on multinational discussions about the weapons program. At the negotiating table in Beijing besides the host country China also included the US, South Korea, Japan and Russia. During the negotiation game, in March 2005, North Korea officially declared itself a nuclear power with purportedly developed nuclear weapons. After six difficult rounds of negotiations, an agreement was signed in September 2005 in which North Korea in principle promises to end the weapons program against various objections. However, the parties immediately disagreed on how the agreement should be interpreted, implemented and monitored. North Korea declared that the country would still not run the nuclear program until clear benefits were put on the table. Thus, the tug of war continued without a final solution. Skeptics have pointed to North Korea’s tradition of surprising play and breach of contract, with the 1994 agreement on the scrapping of the weapons program as one example.
In July 2006, North Korea conducted missiles with different-range missiles, including the long-range Taepodong-2. This is believed to be a fully developed three-stage rocket capable of reaching parts of the United States (Alaska, Hawaii, Guam). However, it crashed shortly after the US National Day shooting on July 4. The rocket tests were condemned by the UN Security Council.
September 4, 2009, North Korea with an announcement that the experiments with the enrichment of uranium was reached a “successful final phase.” The announcement is considered to be the clearest sign of Pyongyang’s dual nuclear weapons program going on for years. Unlike the official plutonium program, the uranium project has been kept secret. Now it was announced that North Korea is also preparing to manufacture nuclear weapons using uranium, having mastered the technological challenges associated with this fissile material.
Extreme for human rights
For decades, official propaganda has consistently drawn a picture of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as something of a paradise on earth, thanks to an “ingenious” and almost divine leadership. With strict control of all information, the propaganda image has been left without correction. All radio and television sets are locked and sealed at one official frequency; The seal is checked several times a year. People have been severely punished for listening to foreign radio broadcasts illegally.
Based on satellite observations and information from shoppers, humanitarian organizations claim that a network of prisons and labor camps houses an estimated 200,000 political prisoners. The prisoners are reportedly living on the verge of starvation and subjected to abuse. Organized political opposition is virtually unknown; most of them are allegedly penalized because during the hunger crisis they have tried to cross the border into China. Chinese authorities are criticized because starving North Koreans are being forced back as “economic immigrants” to an uncertain fate in the penal camps. Amnesty International has pointed out that universal human rights in North Korea are described as illegitimate and hostile.
In contrast, impressive mass patterns of dance and games stand on the regime’s feast days. Over 100,000 participated in the designs during the celebration of North Korea’s 60th anniversary in October 2005.
In October 2006, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution complaining of systematic, comprehensive and serious human rights violations in North Korea. Among the abuses that are common here are ” torture, extrajudicial and arbitrary detention and executions, absence of legal security, death penalty on political grounds, a large number of prison camps and extensive use of forced labor.”
The North Korean government commits “active crimes against humanity to its own people,” the UN resolution states. They allowed around a million people to die of starvation in the 1990s, while the authorities prioritized resources for the military and the nuclear weapons program. International food supplies have largely been used for their own political gain.
North Korea has detained some 200,000 people in political prison camps. Not only are alleged opposites imprisoned, but so are their family members. Both the elderly and the children are arrested under a special system for collective guilt in three generations, according to the UN resolution. Under the rule of guilt for several generations, children and parents of convicted persons have also been placed in forced labor camps. This practice was introduced by Kim Il Sung under the slogan: “Class enemies, no matter who they are, must be purged of punishment for three generations.”
The labor camps, which by critical voices are called “North Korea’s GUL “, have aroused little interest in the outside world. Despite disclosures in research reports and documentaries, South Korea failed to criticize human rights violations in the north for nearly a decade. The South Koreans refrained from voting on UN resolutions that criticized the regime, and did not mention the camps during the summits with North Korea in 2000 and 2007. Instead, the so-called sunshine policy was advocated in the name of reconciliation with large, unconditional donations of food and manure. However, under President Lee Myung Bak’s rule, South Korea has supported UN resolutions that punish the regime in the north.
The camps have also not been discussed during meetings between US diplomats and North Korean authorities. Under President Clinton, contacts were almost exclusively about preventing North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. President George W. Bush labeled North Korea as part of the “axis of evil” and met several survivors of the camps, but there was no contact with Washington-Pyongyang until North Korea in 2006 detonated its first nuclear explosion. Since then the negotiations were exclusively about disarmament. Even during the Obama administrations, the camps have been a non-issue.
When Kim Jong Il died in December 2011, the Kim dynasty was passed on to the third generation. His youngest official son, Kim Jong-un, was then designated as his successor and commander-in-chief of the Korean People’s Army.
Nobody outside the inner circles of power in North Korea knows very much about him. Born in 1984, he has been a student at an international school in Switzerland. Here he is said to have gone on to be the son of a North Korean embassy driver, and otherwise made himself known as a supporter of the basketball team and as an aggressive player out on the field. Before taking over his father’s office, he worked at the party’s propaganda department. Elder son Kim Jong Nam was originally said to have been the father’s chosen but “lost face” after an embarrassing episode: He was arrested by Japanese police as he tried to get into Japan with a false passport. The grounds were a strong desire to experience Tokyo Disneyland.