DPRK Briefing Book: DPRK Culture And People
Koreans trace the origins of their national identity to the northwestern kingdom of Choson, sometimes translated as “morning calm,” which remains the name of the country in North Korea. (South Koreans use the term Han’guk, a usage dating from the 1890s; the Western name Korea comes from the Koryo dynasty, 918-1392). According to a surviving text from the Koryo period, Choson was founded in the third millennium BC by a king name Tangun, the son of a she-bear and a deity, who is venerated as the legendary progenitor of the Korean people. Excavations at Paleolithic sites place the first Koreans much earlier, estimating that Korea was first settled about half a million years ago, , by roaming tribes people from central and northern Asia. Today, with the exception of a small Chinese community and a few ethnic Japanese, the population of Korea is homogenous, with no striking racial, ethnic, or linguistic differences.
According to 2002 CIA estimates, the population North Korea is slightly more than 22 million, with a projected annual growth rate of 1%. Twenty-five percent of the population was estimated to be below the age of 14 (males 2,888,478; females 2,747,133); 67% between the ages of 15 and 64 (males 7,380,183; females 7,612,275); and 7% aged 65 years and over (males 527,256; females 1,068,870). There is a high infant mortality rate of 23 deaths per 1000 live births, with a life expectancy at birth of 71 years (females 74 years; males 68 years). The sex ratio is 1.05 male/female from birth to age 15; 0.97 male/female for people aged 15-64; and 0.49 male/female for people aged 65 and over (the precipitous drop off resulting from excess male deaths during the Korean war).
The language of North and South Korea is Korean. The Korean written script is hangul, a phonetic writing system that was developed during the fifteenth-century reign of King Sejong. There is a high rate of literacy among the Korean populace; based on 1990 CIA estimates, 99% of North Koreans over the age of 15 can read and write Korean.
Koreans traditionally have tended to be eclectic in their religious practices, melding elements of Buddhist and Confucianism with aspects of shamanism and Chondogyo (“Religion of the Heavenly Way,” a native mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism). Christianity, which was introduced to Korea by missionaries in the late 19th-century, attracted a large following, particularly during the years of Japanese occupation. Christianity continues to be a major religious force in South Korea, with practicing Christians making up almost 50% of the population. In the North, by contrast, autonomous religious activities of any kind have been virtually non-existent since 1945, due to the government’s rejection of religion as contrary to Marxist beliefs. Although some Buddhist temples and Christian churches still exist, most of them seem to function primarily as showcases to support North Korean claims of religious freedom.
Although Buddhism and Christianity have been largely suppressed, Confucianism, a system of ethics that was developed in China around 500 BCE, has continued to play a major role. For more than 1200 years, Confucianism, with its core values of personal responsibility, obedience to authority, and political centralization, formed the philosophical foundation for imperial Korea’s traditional of strong centralized authority. Under Kim Il Song’s leadership, these same values were appropriated by the Pyongyang regime, contributing to the durability and popular acceptance of North Korea’s rigid, autocratic, and highly centralized governmental system.
Complementing these Confucian virtues is the principle of juche, an all-embracing concept of national autonomy and self-affirmation that Kim Il-Song elevated to the level of a national religion. The values of independence and self-reliance embodied in the ideology of juche were a product of Korea’s historical experience of repeated incursion and subjugation by foreign powers. To compensate for Korea’s traditional weakness, Kim asserted Korea’s will to national greatness by embracing the nationalist goals of juche, which historian Bruce Cumings has summarized as “putting Korea first in everything.” Inherent in the juche ideal is the belief that self-reliance and hard work, loyalty to the nation, and cooperative national struggle are the basis for Korean progress, survival, and strength.
The ethical and nationalist values found in Confucianism and the juche ideology were united in “Kim Il Sungism,” which elevated Kim, to the level of a North Korean deity. When Kim, popularly referred to as “Great Leader,” died in 1994, his son Kim Jong Il took on his nationalist mantle, but with questionable results. Despite his glorified title of “Dear Leader,” the younger Kim lacks his father’s charisma and personality cult. Nonetheless, as Sig Harrison has noted, the “holy trinity” in North Korea still consists of Kim Il Song the father, Kim Jong Il the son, and juche the holy spirit.