DPRK Briefing Book: DPRK History
The earliest Korean state was the kingdom of Choson, which covered a relatively small area of what is now northwestern Korea beginning at least five centuries before Christ and, according to legend, much earlier. With this regional exception, the Korean peninsula was composed of warring principalities, which were unified under the aegis of conquering Han Chinese armies over a period of 400 years beginning in the second century BC. The Han Chinese built four commanderies to rule the peninsula as far south as the Han River, which flows through Seoul. Chinese control over its Korean fiefdoms endured until the fall of the Han dynasty in last half of the second century AD, which resulted in the ouster of the Chinese invaders.
During the “Period of the Three Kingdoms” that followed the China’s expulsion from the peninsula, Korea was split along regional lines into the warring dynasties of Silla, Paekche, and Koguryo. Throughout most of this period Silla kingdom was dominant, controlling all the peninsula except for pockets in the southwest (Paekche) and northwest (Koguryo). However, it was a Koguryo general who eventually emerged as the unifier of Korea in the tenth century, establishing the Koryo dynasty, which ruled from 918 to 1392. The Koryo period was followed by the Yi dynasty (1392-1910), under which Korea enjoyed nearly six centuries of uninterrupted centralized rule.
Throughout this long time, Korea was active in the Asian sphere — with China and Japan. The Korean elite looked towards Ming China not only as a powerful neighbor to be placated, but also as a cultural mentor to be imitated. Influenced by the Chinese example, the Yi monarchs established a pyramidal administrative structure with the king at its apex, in which local governments were merely branch offices of the monarchy and cultural standards were ordained by Seoul. All government jobs were centrally controlled through a civil service examination system, similar to the one in China, which reached down to scoop up the best talent in every village. Although Chinese influence waned in the 19th century, Chinese culture continued to exercise enormous influence over Korean culture.
Not all of Korea’s interactions with foreigners were positive. Throughout Korea’s history, its geography and mineral resources made it a common focus on repeated attacks from foreign invaders. In the early 13th century the Mongols reached Korea and gave it their usual scorched earth treatment. In 1592, Japan invaded, followed by China. The Sino-Japanese war fought over Chinese and Japanese interests in Korea and in 1911 the peninsula was occupied by the Japanese.
The Japanese Occupation, 1911-1945
The Japanese occupation was unusually harsh. The Japanese assigned Koreans to an inferior status, establishing a virtually military dictatorship with army officers set up as local police chiefs. Koreas were required to adopt Japanese names, and were forbidden to speak Korean or sing Korean songs. Suspected anti-Japanese activists were imprisoned and tortured in a reign of terror that culminated in the bloody repression of a nationwide movement for independence on March 1919. The historical consensus is that some 7,500 Koreas were killed and 46,000 injured at this time.
International protests and a phase of political liberalization in Japan led to a moderation of the Japanese colonial administration during the next decade. However, when Japan embarked on its expansionist policy with the takeover of Manchuria in 1931, Korea became the forward logistical base for Japanese forces. Faced with a manpower shortage, Japan conscripted 208,000 Koreans into Japanese armed forces and some 2 million Koreans for hard labor in minds, factors, and construction projects. Some 50,000 Korean impressed laborers were killed by the nuclear bombings at Hiroshima, and about 25,000 returned to Korea of which about 20,000 went to the South and about 5,000 to the North. Recent disclosures concerning “comfort women,” who were forcibly recruited to travel with Japanese forces have rekindled Korean anger over the colonial period. The traumatic impact of the colonial decades continues to be a powerful shaping force in both Japanese and Korean attitudes and anti-Japanese sentiment is strong in both North and South Korea.
The Liberation and Partition of Korea
Korea was liberated from its Japanese colonizers with the end of World War II, only to become embroiled in a civil war that pitted Koreans of the north against their counterparts in the south. Three days after issuing the general order for Japanese surrender on August 11, 1945, President Truman authorized the US military to divide Korea, setting the 38th Parallel as the dividing line. The Soviet Union and the United States set up client regimes on the Korean peninsula, with northern half coming under Communist domination and the southern portion directed by authoritarian political and military regimes supported by the United States.
Immediately after the war, Stalin dispatched Kim Il-Sung, a young Korean officer from a specially trained unit of the Red Army, to take charge of communizing the north. In 1948, the authoritarian Syngman Rhee, who had established a provisional Korean government in exile in 1919, was elected South Korea’s first president with the support of the US government. Despite a United Nations plan for nationwide elections, the two Korean states thus created — the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the North, and the Republic of Korea in the South — were left politically and economically divided.
No one was satisfied with this arrangement, and immediately after the division, the leaders of the northern and southern regimes pressured their superpower patrons to help them reunify the peninsula militarily. In early 1950, Josef Stalin agreed to support a North Korean invasion of the South with the aid of an army of called Chinese “volunteers.” The United States sprang to the defense of its South Korean allies and, for the next three years, the war surged up and down the peninsula, reducing the culture to rubble and carrying with it millions of refugees.
By the time the war ended in 1953, one in 10 Koreans — almost 2 million people –on both sides of the 38th parallel had lost their lives, and 3 in 10 were wounded, maimed, or missing. Nine hundred thousand Chinese “volunteers” also died, about half from combat wounds and about half from hypothermia. The North was virtually flattened after almost continual bombing by the US Air Force, far heavier than either Japan or Germany had endured during WWII. When the armistice was signed, the peninsula was officially divided just north of the 38th Parallel and the great powers drove white posts into the ground to mark the military demarcation line. Technically speaking, the state of war still exists on the Korean Peninsula and, nearly 5 decades after the armistice, the unfinished civil war still has the potential to erupt into a major conflagration.
Postwar Development, North and South
After the devastation of war, North Korea reconstructed its society under the leadership of Kim Il Song, who established a cult of personality that rivaled those of his Communist mentors in the Soviet Union and China. Under his watch, North Korea developed into a self-sufficient, industrial economy that first outperformed postwar South Korea. North Korea developed heavy industry on the foundations that the Japanese had laid, and North Koreans were offered some of their first schools, clinics, food reserves, and labor rights (Meanwhile, South Korea struggled with serious economic problems after the partition. Attempts to establish an adequate industrial base were hampered by limited resources, and the economy was afflicted by runaway inflation, unfavorable trade balances, mass unemployment, over-dependence on foreign aid, and a constant flood of refugees from the North.
Adding to South Korea’s economic woes was the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Syngman Rhee, whose administration was marked by widespread corruption and injustice, police brutality, and government fraud. Rhee’s forced resignation and exile in 1960 was followed by the short and unsuccessful interregnum of Chang Myun, who was forced out of office in 1961 by a military junta led by General Park Chung Hee. Park’s government established firm control over civil freedoms, the press, and the economy, somewhat relaxing restrictions as their power solidified. The regime was remarkably successful in fighting graft and corruption and in reviving the economy, albeit at a fearful cost to human rights and civil society.
Successive five-year economic development plans, first launched in 1962, brought dramatic improvements. Between 1962 and 1972, manufacturing was established as leading economic sector and exports increased at an average annual rate of 41%. There is a debate among historians as to whether Park’s government accelerated development or in fact slowed it relative to what was already in train before the coup; the conventional view is that Park’s authoritarian rule was necessary for fast accumulation; the revisionist (left) view is that he deposed a nascent democracy and slowed a centralized planning process that was already well underway and virtually halted accumulation for some years.
By the end of the 1970s, North Korea had fallen far behind the south in the economic race. The rapid economic growth of North Korea’s early years gave way to stagnation and hardship, exacerbated with long periods of famine. Today, North Korea is one of the world’s most centrally planned and isolated economies. Industrial capital stock is nearly beyond repair as a result of years of under investment and spare parts shortages. Moreover, the nation faces perennial food shortages because of the lack of arable land; collective farming; weather-related problems; and chronic shortages of fertilizer and fuel. Large-scale military spending eats up resources need for investment and civilian consumption.
The Rise of Kim Jong Il
After an early career as a film director and leading theorist of propaganda, Kim Jong Il began to take over the operational levers of power in the early 1980s. By the time that Kim Il Sung died, in 1994, he was well entrenched in power and even in the face of widespread famine, the North Korea regime endured under his leadership. For the next six years, Kim Jong Il led a reclusive and introverted lifestyle, refusing to meet heads of state or any other dignitaries.
Reports filtered back concerning strange predilections of the Dear Leader and the general feeling within the international community was that he was either unbalanced and dangerous. How much of this was rumor propagated by South Korean and other intelligence agencies and how true it was is indeterminate. Later information from South Korea’s presidential summit in 2000 and from Russia and China indicates that Kim Jong Il may be a more technocratic and “modern” leader than his media profile in the west would suggest.
Rapprochement and Retreat
Until recently, the division along the 38th parallel seemed frozen, until South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s momentous visit to North Korea in June 2000, the culmination of his so-called “Sunshine Policy.” In the aftermath of the summit, the two Koreas established a number of lines of communication. In addition to ministerial talks, the two Koreas set up three family reunion meetings in the year after the summit, for a total of about 500 families from each side. There was talk about establishing a permanent site for the reunions.
Although the summit was a historic breakthrough, recent events have called into question the likelihood of long-term improvements in the North-South relationship. “Virtually all Koreans support rapprochement at the level of rhetoric, but underneath there are divisions over the specifics of the Sunshine Policy. At present, the future of reunification is uncertain, affected not only by domestic concerns but global pressures.