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North Korea - History

Go Joseon 2333 BC
Three Kingdoms
Silla57 BC AD 935
Goguryeo37 BC AD 668
Baekje18 BC AD 660
Gaya 42562
Unified Silla Kingdom 676935
Balhae Kingdom 668928
Goryeo Dynasty 9181392
Joseon Dynasty 13921910

Confucian social structures and the oppression suffered during the Japanese colonial occupation have informed the political structures and attitudes prevailing in the DPRK today. The imposed division of the Korean peninsula, the massive destruction that occurred during the Korean War and the impact of the Cold War have engendered an isolationist mind-set and a deep aversion to outside powers.

The DPRK is often referred to as the Hermit Kingdom suggesting that the insularity of the North has been characteristic since its beginnings. The largely self-imposed relative isolation of the DPRK today is not, however, an extension of the earlier experiences of pre-modern Korea. It is believed that humans inhabited the Korean peninsula since Neolithic times, with the eventual emergence of settled communities based on agricultural production that led to enough surplus for horses, weapons and armies to sustain centuries of legends of epic battles among various indigenous kingdoms and against outside forces from modern-day China, Japan and Mongolia.

Over the course of pre-modern history, Korea established a class-based system whereby a small aristocratic elite, combining elements of a landed gentry and scholar-officials, eventually to be known as the yangban, ruled over peasants and lower classes that included merchants and labourers. Slavery and indentured servitude were also practised. This class-based system is sometimes characterized as feudal and perhaps more accurately as agrarian-bureaucratic.

In theory, this system conferred elite status on men who had passed a rigorous civil service exam and were awarded high-level bureaucratic positions, somewhat analogous to the mandarin system in China. Over time, the yangban became, in practice, a hereditary institution through the family registry system that passed on elite status through the generations, with its self-perpetuating privileges including the right to participate in local councils.

The yangban class system speaks to the deep-rooted Confucian underpinnings of Korean society. Confucianism is essentially an ethical and philosophical system that regards adherence to strict hierarchies as important to social harmony and personal fulfilment. Five key relationships set out these hierarchies: sovereign and subject, husband and wife, parent and child, elder brother and younger brother, and friend and friend. The most important of those is the parent and child relationship. In fact, respect for elders and social hierarchy based on age remain key features of Korean culture both in the North and South today. Likewise, the position of women remains adversely affected by traditional attitudes of inequality.

Korea developed from walled-town states and larger kingdoms and became united in the 7th century. When Western powers focused "gunboat" diplomacy on Korea in the mid-19th century, Korea's rulers adopted a closed-door policy, earning Korea the title of "Hermit Kingdom." Although the Choson dynasty recognized China's hegemony in East Asia, Korea was independent until the late 19th century. At that time, China sought to block growing Japanese influence on the Korean Peninsula and Russian pressure for commercial gains there. The competition produced the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.

Japan emerged victorious from both wars and in 1910 annexed Korea as part of the growing Japanese empire. Japanese colonial administration was characterized by tight control from Tokyo and ruthless efforts to supplant Korean language and culture. Organized Korean resistance during the colonial era was generally unsuccessful, and Japan remained firmly in control of the Peninsula until the end of World War II in 1945. The surrender of Japan in August 1945 led to the immediate division of Korea into two occupation zones, with the United States administering the area south of the 38th parallel, and the Soviet Union administering the area to the north of the 38th parallel. This division was meant to be temporary until the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and China could arrange a trusteeship administration.

In December 1945, a conference was convened in Moscow to discuss the future of Korea. A 5-year trusteeship was discussed, and a joint Soviet-American commission was established. The commission met intermittently in Seoul but deadlocked over the issue of establishing a national government. In September 1947, with no solution in sight, the United States submitted the Korean question to the UN General Assembly.

Initial hopes for a unified, independent Korea quickly evaporated as the politics of the Cold War and domestic opposition to the trusteeship plan resulted in the 1948 establishment of two separate nations with diametrically opposed political, economic, and social systems. Elections were held in the South under UN observation, and on August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea (R.O.K.) was established in the South. Syngman Rhee, a nationalist leader, became the Republic's first president. On September 9, 1948, the North established the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) headed by then-Premier Kim Il-sung, who had been cultivated and supported by the Soviet Union.

Almost immediately after the establishment of the DPRK, guerrilla warfare, border clashes, and naval battles erupted between the two Koreas. North Korean forces launched a massive surprise attack and invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. The United Nations, in accordance with the terms of its charter, engaged in its first collective action and established the UN Command (UNC), to which 16 member nations sent troops and assistance. Next to South Korea, the United States contributed the largest contingent of forces to this international effort. The battle line fluctuated north and south, and after large numbers of Chinese "People's Volunteers" intervened to assist the North, the battle line stabilized north of Seoul near the 38th parallel.

Armistice negotiations began in July 1951, but hostilities continued until July 27, 1953. On that date, at Panmunjom, the military commanders of the North Korean People's Army, the Chinese People's Volunteers, and the UNC signed an armistice agreement. Neither the United States nor South Korea was a signatory to the armistice per se, although both adhere to it through the UNC. No comprehensive peace agreement has replaced the 1953 armistice pact.

The conflict was far from forgotten in the DPRK where the war sacrifices were used to bolster the narrative of Kim Il-sungs forging of the nation. In the DPRK, the authorized history remains that the Fatherland Liberation War was started by the United States, and that Kim Il-sung not only defended the nation but wrought devastation on the American military. This rhetoric continued for decades. For example, food aid from the United States provided during the mass starvation in the 1990s was reportedly explained to the population as war reparations.

With the Korean War having been so bitterly fought, tension between DPRK and ROK remained high after 1953. There were numerous armed clashes but the national dream of Korean reunification remained. In 1960, Kim Il Sung proposed pursuing reunification through confederation between equals, similar to China's much later 'one country, two systems' policy, and, with minor refinements, this formula remains in place.

In the 1960s, after Kim Il-sung had eliminated his potential rivals who were largely affiliated with the Chinese and Soviet factions, he actively distanced himself from the Soviet Union and China. China by 1966 was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution which caused great human suffering and disruptions that threatened to spill over into the DPRK. As Kim Il-sung also reduced contact with the Soviet Union and East European socialist states, economic assistance from these countries, which had been substantial, likewise began to dwindle. At the same time, he expanded his cult of personality and set out a policy of self-reliance and extreme nationalism known as Juche.

In the early 1970s, the Koreas opened a Red Cross dialogue followed by political talks that produced the Joint Communiqu of July 1972 in which the DPRK and ROK agreed to work for peaceful reunification. Following secret negotiations between Kim Il-sungs brother Kim Yong-ju and the ROKs chief intelligence officer Yi Hu-rak, the ROK and DPRK released a joint statement on achieving reunification peacefully without the use of military force or external forces.

Despite these developments, the DPRK sponsored a number of terrorist acts against civilian targets of the ROK. These included: the 1983 attempted assassination of the ROK President Chun Doo-hwan in Yangon through a bombing that killed 21 people including four Myanmar nationals; the 1986 Gimpo Airport bombing that killed five people; and the 1987 Korean Airlines bombing that killed 115 people. These actions contributed to the increasing international isolation of the DPRK.

North Koreas economy received a severe jolt with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the cut-off of Soviet exports of oil and food at friendship (subsidized) prices. This shock led to the closing of factories and coal mines and resulted in power shortages. Then there was a decrease in Chinese exports of food, fertilizer, oil, and coking coal because of Chinas economic reforms.

Kim Jong-il spent 20 years preparing for his succession to power. According to reports, it had actually been his uncle, Kim Yong-chu, his fathers younger brother, who had been the original presumptive heir to Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-il was eventually able to side-line his uncle and win the confidence of his father particularly through his efforts to expand the cult of personality of Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-il shifted decision-making on all policies and personnel appointments from the Politburo to the Party Secretariat Office, his base of power. In 1991, he was appointed as supreme commander of the armed forces.

Kim Il-sung died in 1994 at the age of 82. Following a three-year mourning period, Kim Jong-il was formally elected leader by the Supreme Peoples Assembly in 1998. The constitution was again revised in 1998, and Kim Il-sung was designated Eternal President. The revised constitution elevated the National Defence Commission to be the highest organ of the state, and thus its chairman, Kim Jong-il, to the highest position in the government.

Lacking the war hero credentials of his father, Kim Jong-il shifted the fundamental orientation of the state in his effort to win the support of the military by bestowing on it policy influence and prestige, as well as a large share of the national budget, through the Songun, or Military First, doctrine. In keeping with the Songun orientation, the DPRK embarked on a quest to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

The 1994 Agreed Framework freezing North Koreas nuclear facilities opened up eight years of wide-ranging diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula. Four-Power Talks (the two Koreas, the United States, and China) sought to bring a final conclusion to the Korean War.

A major change in North Korean society can be traced to the tragic events of the mid-1990s. People, already worn out and weakened, became seriously demoralized, traumatized by having to decide which children to feed over others, and depressed over so many deaths in a family and in the country at large. Regime propaganda was replaced by a new brutality over the population associated in the peoples minds with the ascent to power in 1994 of Kim Jong Il.

President Kim Dae Jungs Sunshine Policy of engagement opened the way to many joint ventures with the North, including a project in Kaesong that envisions operating hundreds of factories in which South Korean firms would employ North Korean labor, and reconnecting roads and railroad lines across the DMZ. In June 2000, Kim Dae Jung traveled to Pyongyang for a summit to meet Kim Jong Il, the first time that the two heads of state shook hands since the country was divided in 1945.

The 2007 election of President Lee Myung-bak in the ROK reversed the Sunshine Policy approach and focused on reciprocity and denuclearization. Unhappy with the change in tone, the DPRK made personalized attacks against him and escalated military tensions.

Following a stroke in 2008, Kim Jong-il began to focus more explicitly on the issue of his succession. In early 2009, the official propaganda organs started mentioning the New Star General. Formal evidence of the selection of Kim Jong-un as Kim Jong-ils heir apparent only emerged in 2010.

On 19 December 2011, the government announced that Kim Jong-il had died two days earlier. Dynastic succession promptly moved to the third generation of Kim Il-sungs family. In the weeks after Kim Jong-ils death in 2011, Kim Jong-un was given the title of Supreme Commander of the major military organizations. Official statements from various state organs referred to him as the nations sole national leader.

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Page last modified: 20-03-2016 11:11:20 ZULU