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North Korea - HISTORY

North Korea - HISTORY

North Korea

PRIOR TO THE NATIONAL DIVISION of the Korean Peninsula in 1945, Korea was home to a people with a unitary existence, ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, and a historic bond of exclusionism towards outsiders--a result of its history of invasion, influence, and fighting over its territory by larger and more powerful neighbors. This legacy continues to influence the contemporary Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea).

There are other parallels between Korea's past and presentday North Korea. The traditions of Confucianism and a bureaucracy administered from the top-down and from the center continue to hold sway. Further, just as there was relative stability for more than two millennia on the Korean Peninsula, there has been relative stability in North Korea since Kim Il Sung came to power in 1946. As Confucian doctrine perpetuated the authority of the family system and the importance of education, so too were these elements paramount in Kim Il Sung's North Korea. Politics remain personalistic, and Kim has surrounded himself with a core of revolutionary leaders (now aging), whose loyalty dates back to their days of guerrilla resistance against the Japanese in Manchuria. Kim's chuch'e ideology also has its roots in the self-reliant philosophy of the Hermit Kingdom (as Korea was called by Westerners), and Korea's history of exclusionism also held particular appeal to a people emerging from the period of Japanese colonial domination (1910-45).

North Korea came into being in 1945, in the midst of a prolonged confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. North Korea was, and in some ways remains, a classic Cold War state, driven by the demands of the long-standing conflict with the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea), and the United States and its allies. It emerged in the heyday of Stalinism, which influenced North Korea's decision to give priority to heavy industry in its economic program. North Korea was a state forged in warfare: by a civil struggle fought at the beginning of the regime and by a vicious fratricidal war fought while the system was still in infancy. All these influences combined to produce a hardened leadership that knew how to hold onto power. But North Korea also evolved as a rare synthesis between foreign models and native influences; the political system was deeply rooted in native soil, drawing on Korea's long history of unitary existence on a small peninsula surrounded by greater powers.

North Korea


North Korea

Koreans inhabit a mountainous peninsula protruding southward from the northeastern corner of the Asian continent and surrounded on three sides by water. Although Japan exercised decisive influence by the late sixteenth century, in ancient times the peoples and civilizations on the contiguous Asian continent were far more important. The peninsula is surrounded on three sides by other peoples: Chinese to the west; Japanese to the east; and an assortment of peoples to the north, including "barbarian" tribes, aggressive invaders, and, in the twentieth century, an expanding and deepening Russian presence. Koreans have emerged as a people influenced by the peninsula's internal and surrounding geography.

The northern border between Korea and China formed by the Yalu and Tumen rivers has been recognized for centuries. But these rivers did not always constitute Korea's northern limits; Koreans ranged far beyond this border well into northeastern China and Siberia, and neither Koreans nor the ancient tribes that occupied the plains of Manchuria (northeastern China) considered these riverine borders to be sacrosanct. The harsh winter climate also turned the rivers into frozen pathways for many months, facilitating the back-and-forth migration out of which the Korean people were formed.

Paleolithic excavations show that humans inhabited the Korean Peninsula half a million years ago, but most scholars assume that present-day Koreans are not descended from these early inhabitants. Neolithic age (from 4,000-3,000 B.C.) humans also inhabited the area, identified archaeologically by the ground and polished stone tools and pottery they left to posterity. Around 2,000 B.C., a new pottery culture spread into Korea from China. These people practiced agriculture in a settled communal life, and are widely supposed to have had consanguineous clans as their basic social grouping. Korean historians in modern times sometimes assume that the clan leadership systems characterized by councils of nobles (hwabaek) that emerged in the subsequent Silla period can be traced back to these neolithic peoples, and that a mythical "child of the sn," an original Korean, also was born then. There is no hard evidence, however, to support such beginnings for the Korean people.

By the fourth century B.C., a number of walled-town states on the peninsula had survived long enough to come to the attention of China. The most illustrious of these states was Old Chosn, which had established itself along the banks of the Liao and the Taedong rivers in southern Manchuria and northwestern Korea. Old Chosn prospered as a civilization based on bronze culture and a political federation of many walled towns; the federation, judging from Chinese accounts, was formidable to the point of arrogance. Riding horses and deploying bronze weapons, the Chosn people extended their influence to the north, taking most of the Liaodong Basin. But the rising power of the north China state of Yen (1122-255 B.C.) checked Chosn's growth and eventually pushed it back to territory south of the Ch'ngch'n River, located midway between the Yalu and Taedong rivers. As the Yen gave way in China to the Qin (221-207 B.C.) and the Han dynasties (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), Chosn declined, and refugee populations migrated eastward. Out of this milieu, emerged Wiman, a man who assumed the kingship of Chosn sometime between 194 and 180 B.C. The Kingdom of Wiman Chosn melded Chinese influence, and under the Old Chosn federated structure--apparently reinvigorated under Wiman--the state again expanded over hundreds of kilometers of territory. Its ambitions ran up against a Han invasion, however, and Wiman Chosn fell in 108 B.C.

These developments coincided with the beginnings of iron culture, enabling the rise of a sophisticated agriculture based on implements such as hoes, plowshares, and sickles. Cultivation of rice and other grains increased markedly. Although the peoples of the peninsula could not yet be called "Korean," there was an unquestioned continuity in agrarian society from this time until the emergence of a unified Korean state many centuries later.

Han Chinese built four commanderies, or local military units, to rule the peninsula as far south as the Han River, with a core area at Lolang (Nangnang in Korean), near present-day P'yongyang. It is illustrative of the relentlessly different historiography practiced in North Korea and South Korea, as well as the projection backward of Korean nationalism practiced by both sides, that North Korean historians deny that the Lolang Commandery was centered in Korea. They place it northwest of the peninsula, possibly near Beijing, in order to de-emphasize China's influence on ancient Korean history. They perhaps do so because Lolang was clearly a Chinese city, as attested by the many burial objects showing the affluent lives of Chinese overlords and merchants.

North Korea

North Korea - The Period of the Three Kingdoms

North Korea

From approximately 108 B.C. until 313, Lolang was a great center of Chinese statecraft, art, industry (including the mining of iron ore), and commerce. Lolang's influence was widespread; it attracted immigrants from China and exacted tribute from several states south of the Han River that patterned their civilization and government after Lolang. In the first three centuries A.D., a large number of walled-town states in southern Korea grouped into three federations known as Chinhan, Mahan, and Pynhan; during this period, rice agriculture had developed in the rich alluvial valleys and plains to such an extent that reservoirs had been built for irrigation.

Chinhan was situated in the middle part of the southern peninsula, Mahan in the southwest, and Pynhan in the southeast. The state of Paekche, which soon came to exercise great influence on Korean history, emerged first in the Mahan area; it is not certain when this happened, but Paekche certainly existed by 246 since Lolang mounted a large attack on it in that year. Paekche, a centralized, aristocratic state that melded Chinese and indigenous influence, was a growing power: within a hundred years Paekche had demolished Mahan and continued to expand northward into the area of present-day South Korea around Seoul. Contemporary historians believe that the common Korean custom of patrilineal royal succession began with King K n Ch'ogo (r. 346-75) of Paekche. His grandson, Ch'imnyu, inaugurated another long tradition by adopting Buddhism as the state religion in 384.

Meanwhile, in the first century A.D. two powerful states emerged north of the peninsula: Puy in the Sungari River Basin in Manchuria and Kogury, Puy's frequent enemy to its south, near the Yalu River. Kogury, which like Paekche also exercised a lasting influence on Korean history, developed in confrontation with the Chinese. Puy was weaker and sought alliances with China to counter Kogury, but eventually succumbed to it around 312. Kogury expanded in all directions, in particular toward the Liao River in the west and toward the Taedong River in the south. In 313 Kogury occupied the territory of the Lolang Commandery and came into conflict with Paekche.

Peninsular geography shaped the political space of Paekche, Kogury, and a third kingdom, Silla. In the central part of Korea, the main mountain range, the T'aebaek, runs north to south along the edge of the Sea of Japan. Approximately three-fourths of the way down the peninsula, however, roughly at the thirty-seventh parallel, the mountain range veers to the southwest, dividing the peninsula almost in the middle. This southwest extension, the Sobaek Range, shielded peoples to the east of it from the Chinese-occupied portion of the peninsula, but placed no serious barrier in the way of expansion into or out of the southwestern portion of the peninsula--Paekche's historical territory.

Kogury ranged over a wild region of northeastern Korea and eastern Manchuria that was subjected to extremes of temperature and structured by towering mountain ranges, broad plains, and life-giving rivers; the highest peak, known as Paektu-san (White Head Mountain), is on the contemporary Sino-Korean border and has a beautiful, crystal-pure lake at its summit. Kim Il Sung and his guerrilla band utilized associations with this mountain as part of the founding myth of North Korea, and Kim Jong Il was said to have been born on the slopes of the mountain in 1942. Not surprisingly, North Korea claimed the Kogury legacy as the main element in Korean history.

According to South Korean historiography, however, it was the glories of a third kingdom that were the most important elements. Silla eventually became the repository of a rich and cultured ruling elite, with its capital at Kyngju in the southeast, north of the port of Pusan. In fact, the men who ruled South Korea beginning in 1961 all came from this region. It has been the southwestern Paekche legacy that suffered in divided Korea, as Koreans of other regions and historians in both North Korea and South Korea have discriminated against the people of the present- day Chlla provinces. But taken together, all three kingdoms continue to influence Korean history and political culture. Koreans often assume that regional traits that they like or dislike go back to the Three Kingdoms period.

Silla evolved from a walled town called Saro. Silla historians are said to have traced its origins to 57 B.C., but contemporary historians regard King Naemul (r. 356-402) as the ruler who first consolidated a large confederated kingdom and established a hereditary kingship. His domain was east of the Naktong River in present-day North Kyngsang Province, South Korea. A small number of states located along the south central tip of the peninsula facing the Korea Strait did not join either Silla or Paekche, but instead formed a Kaya League that maintained close ties with states in Japan. Kaya's possible linkage to Japan remains an issue of debate among historians in Korea, Japan, and elsewhere. There is no convincing evidence to definitively resolve the debate, and circumstantial historical archaeological evidence is inconclusive. The debate is significant since its outcome could influence views on the origin of the Japanese imperial family. The Kaya states eventually were absorbed by their neighbors in spite of an attack against Silla in 399 by Wa forces from Japan, who had come to the aid of Kaya. Silla repelled the Wa with help from Kogury.

Centralized government probably emerged in Silla in the last half of the fifth century, when the capital became both an administrative and a marketing center. In the early sixth century, Silla's leaders introduced plowing by oxen and built extensive irrigation facilities. Increased agricultural output presumably ensued, allowing further political and cultural development that included an administrative code in 520, a class system of hereditary "bone-ranks" for choosing elites, and the adoption of Buddhism as the state religion around 535.

Militarily weaker than Kogury, Silla sought to fend the former off through an alliance with Paekche. By the beginning of the fifth century, however, Kogury had achieved undisputed control of all of Manchuria east of the Liao River as well as the northern and central regions of the Korean Peninsula. At this time, Kogury had a famous leader appropriately named King Kwanggaet'o (r. 391-412), a name that translates as "broad expander of territory." Reigning from the age of eighteen, he conquered sixty-five walled towns and 1,400 villages, in addition to assisting Silla when the Wa forces attacked. As Kogury's domain increased, it confronted China's Sui Dynasty (581-617) in the west and Silla and Paekche to the south.

Silla attacked Kogury in 551 in concert with King Sng (r. 523-54) of Paekche. After conquering the upper reaches of the Han River, Silla turned on the Paekche forces and drove them out of the lower Han area. While a tattered Paekche kingdom nursed its wounds in the southwest, Silla allied with Chinese forces of the Sui and the successor Tang Dynasty (618-907) in combined attacks against Kogury. The Sui emperor Yang Di launched an invasion of Kogury in 612, marshaling more than 1 million soldiers only to be lured by the revered Kogury commander lchi Mundk into a trap, where Sui forces virtually were destroyed. Perhaps as few as 3,000 Sui soldiers survived; the massacre contributed to the fall of the dynasty in 617. Newly risen Tang emperor Tai Zong launched another huge invasion in 645, but Kogury forces won another striking victory in the siege of the An Si Fortress in western Kogury, forcing Tai Zong's forces to withdraw.

Koreans have always viewed these victories as sterling examples of resistance to foreign aggression. Had Kogury not beaten back the invaders, all the states of the peninsula might have fallen under extended Chinese domination. Thus commanders like lchi Mundk later became models for emulation, especially during the Korean War (1950-53).

Paekche could not hold out under combined Silla and Tang attack, however. The latter landed an invasion fleet in 660, and Paekche quickly fell under their assaults. Tang pressure also had weakened Kogury, and after eight years of battle it gave way because of pressure from both external attack and internal strife exacerbated by several famines. Kogury forces retreated to the north, enabling Silla forces to advance and consolidate their control up to the Taedong River, which flows through P'yongyang.

Silla emerged victorious in 668. It is from this date that South Korean historians speak of a unified Korea. The period of the Three Kingdoms thus ended, but not before the kingdoms had come under the long-term sway of Chinese civilization and had been introduced to Chinese statecraft, Buddhist and Confucian philosophy, Confucian practices of educating the young, and the Chinese written language. (Koreans adapted Chinese characters to their own language through a system known as idu.) The Three Kingdoms also introduced Buddhism, the various rulers seeing a valuable political device for unity in the doctrine of a unified body of believers devoted to Buddha but serving one king. Artists from Kogury and Paekche also perfected a mural art found in the walls of tombs, and took it to Japan, where it deeply influenced Japan's temple and burial art. Indeed, many Korean historians believe that wall murals in Japanese royal tombs suggest that the imperial house lineage may have Korean origins.

North Korea

North Korea - Silla

North Korea

Silla and Paekche had sought to use Chinese power against Kogury, inaugurating another tradition of involving foreign powers in internal Korean disputes. But Silla's reliance on Tang forces to consolidate its control had its price. Because Silla had to resist encroaching Tang forces, its sway was limited to the area south of the Taedong River. Nevertheless, Silla's military power, bolstered by an ideal of the youthful warrior (hwarang), was formidable. It seized Tang-occupied Paekche territories by 671, pushed Kogury still further northward, and drove the Tang commanderies off the peninsula by 676, thereby guaranteeing that the Korean people would develop independently, without outside influences.

The broad territories of Kogury, however, were not conquered, and in 698 a Kogury general named Tae Cho-yng established a successor state called Parhae above and below the Yalu and Tumen boundaries. Parhae forced Silla to build a northern wall in 721, and kept Silla forces below a line running from present-day P'yongyang to Wnsan. By the eighth century, Parhae controlled the northern part of Korea, all of northeastern Manchuria, and the Liaodong Peninsula. Both Silla and Parhae continued to be heavily influenced by Tang Chinese civilization.

Silla and Tang China had a great deal of contact inasmuch as large numbers of students, officials, and monks traveled to China for study and observation. In 682 Silla set up a national Confucian academy to train high officials and later instituted a civil-service examination system modeled on that of the Tang. Parhae modeled its central government even more directly on Tang systems than did Silla and sent many students to Tang schools. Parhae's culture melded indigenous and Tang influences, and its level of civilization was high enough to merit the Chinese designation "flourishing land in the East."

Silla in particular, however, developed a flourishing indigenous civilization that was among the most advanced in the world. Its capital at Kyngju in present-day South Korea was renowned as the "city of gold," where the aristocracy pursued a high culture and extravagant pleasures. Tang dynasty historians wrote that elite officials possessed thousands of slaves, with like numbers of horses, cattle, and pigs. Officials' wives wore gold tiaras and earrings of delicate and intricate filigree. Scholars studied the Confucian and Buddhist classics, built up state administration, and developed advanced methods for astronomy and calendrical science. The Dharani sutra, recovered in Kyngju, dates as far back as 751 and is the oldest example of woodblock printing yet found in the world. Pure Land Buddhism (Buddhism for the Masses) united the common people, who could become adherents through the repetition of simple chants. The crowning glories of this "city of gold" continue to be the Pulguksa temple in the city and the nearby Skkuram Grotto, both built around 750. Both are home to some of the finest Buddhist sculpture in the world. The grotto, atop a coastal bluff near Kyngju, houses the historic great stone Sakyamuni Buddha in its inner sanctum; the figure is situated so that the rising sun over the Sea of Japan strikes it in the middle of the forehead.

Ethnic differences between Kogury and the Malgal people native to Manchuria weakened Parhae by the early tenth century, just as Silla's power had begun to dissipate a century earlier when regional castle lords splintered central power and rebellions shook Silla's foundations. Parhae, coming under severe pressure from the Kitan warriors who ruled parts of northern China, Manchuria, and Mongolia, eventually fell in 926. Silla's decline encouraged a restorationist named Kynhwn to found Later Paekche at Chnju in 892 and another restorationist, named Kungye, to found Later Kogury at Kaesng in central Korea. Wang Kn, the son of Kungye who succeeded to the throne in 918, shortened the dynastic name to Kory and became the founder of a new dynasty by that name, from which came the modern term Korea.

North Korea

North Korea - Kory

North Korea

Wang Kn's army fought ceaselessly with Later Paekche for the next decade, with Silla in retreat. After a crushing victory in 930 over Paekche forces at present-day Andong, South Korea, Kory obtained a formal surrender from Silla and proceeded to conquer Later Paekche by 935--amazingly, with troops led by former Paekche king Kynhwn, whose son had treacherously cast him aside. After this accomplishment, Wang Kn became a magnanimous unifier. Regarding himself as the proper successor to Kogury, he embraced survivors of the Kogury lineage who were fleeing the dying Parhae state, which had been conquered by Kitan warriors in 926. He then took a Silla princess as his wife and treated the Silla aristocracy with great generosity. Wang Kn established a regime embodying the remnants of the Later Three Kingdoms--what was left after the almost fifty years of struggle between the forces of Kynhwn and Kungye--and accomplished a true unification of the peninsula.

Placing the regime's capital at Kaesng, the composite elite of the Kory Dynasty (918-1392) forged a tradition of aristocratic continuity that lasted to the modern era. The elite fused aristocratic privilege and political power through marriage alliances and control of land and central political office, and made class position hereditary. This practice established a pattern for Korea in which landed gentry mingled with a Confucian- or Buddhist-educated stratum of scholar-officials; often scholars and landlords were one and the same person. In any case, landed wealth and bureaucratic position were powerfully fused. This fusion occurred at the center, where a strong bureaucracy influenced by Confucian statecraft emerged. Thereafter, this bureaucracy sought to dominate local power and thus militated against Japanese or European feudal pattern of parcelized sovereignty, castle domains, and military tradition. By the thirteenth century, two dominant government groupings had emerged: the civil officials and the military officials, known thereafter as yangban.

The Kory elite admired the Chinese civilization that emerged during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Official delegations and ordinary merchants brought Kory gold, silver, and ginseng to China in exchange for Song silk, porcelain, and woodblock books. The treasured Song porcelain stimulated Kory artisans to produce an even finer type of inlaid celadon porcelain. Praised for the pristine clarity of its blue-green glaze--celadon glazes also were yellow green--and the delicate art of its inlaid portraits (usually of flowers or animals), Kory celadon displayed the refined taste of aristocrats and later had great influence on Japanese potters.

Buddhism coexisted with Confucianism throughout the Kory period; it deeply affected daily life and perhaps bequeathed to modern Korea its eclecticism of religious beliefs. Kory Buddhist priests systematized religious practice by rendering the Chinese version of the Buddhist canon into mammoth woodblock print editions, known as the Tripitaka. The first edition was completed in 1087, but was lost; another, completed in 1251 and still extant, is located at the Haeinsa temple near Taegu, South Korea. Its accuracy, combined with its exquisite calligraphic carvings, makes it the finest of some twenty Tripitaka in East Asia. By 1234, if not earlier, Kory had also invented moveable iron type, two centuries before its use in Europe.

This high point of Kory culture coincided with internal disorder and the rise of the Mongols, whose power swept most of Eurasia during the thirteenth century. Kory was not spared; Khubilai Khan's forces invaded and demolished Kory's army in 1231, forcing the Kory government to retreat to Kanghwa Island (off modern-day Inch'n). But after a more devastating invasion in 1254, in which countless people died and some 200,000 people were captured, Kory succumbed to Mongol domination and its kings intermarried with Mongol princesses. The Mongols then enlisted thousands of Koreans in ill-fated invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281, using Korean-made ships. Both invasions were repelled with aid, as legend has it, from opportune typhoons known as "divine wind," or kamikaze. The last period of Mongol influence was marked by the appearance of a strong bureaucratic stratum of scholar-officials, or literati (sadaebu in Korean). Many of them lived in exile outside the capital, and they used their superior knowledge of the Confucian classics to condemn the excesses of the ruling families, who were backed by Mongol power.

The overthrow of the Mongols by the founders of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in China gave a rising group of military men, steeled in battle against coastal pirates from Japan, the opportunity to contest for power. When the Ming claimed suzerainty over former Mongol domains in Korea, the Kory court was divided between pro-Mongol and pro-Ming forces. Two generals marshaled their forces for an assault on Ming armies on the Liaodong Peninsula. One of the generals, Yi Sng-gye, was pro-Ming. When he reached the Yalu River, he abruptly turned back and marched on the Kory capital, which he subdued quickly. He thus became the founder of Korea's longest dynasty, the Yi (1392-1910). The new state was named Chosn, harking back to the old Chosn kingdom fifteen centuries earlier; its capital was built at Seoul.

North Korea

North Korea - The Chosn Dynasty

North Korea

One of General Yi's first acts was to carry out a sweeping land reform long advocated by Confucian literati reformers. After a national cadastral survey, all extant land registers were destroyed. Except for land doled out to loyalists called merit subjects, Yi Sng-gye declared everything to be owned by the state, thus undercutting Buddhist temples, which held vast farm lands, and locally powerful clans. Both groups had exacted high rents from peasants, leading to social distress in the late Kory period. These reforms also greatly enhanced the taxation power of the central government.

Buddhist influence in and complicity with the old system made it easier for the Confucian literati to urge an extirpation of Buddhist economic and political influence, and exile in the mountains for monks and their disciples. Indeed, the literati accomplished a deep Confucianization of Chosn society, which particularly affected the position of women. Often prominent in Kory society, women were now relegated to domestic chores of child-rearing and housekeeping, as so-called inside people.

As neo-Confucian doctrines swept the old order away, Korea effectively developed a secular society. Common people, however, retained attachments to folk religions, shamanism, geomancy, and fortune-telling, influences condemned by both Confucianism and the world at that time. This Korean mass culture created remarkably lively and diverse art forms: uniquely colorful and unpretentiously naturalistic folk paintings of animals, popular novels in Korean vernacular, and characters like the mudang, shamans who summoned spirits and performed exorcisms in kt, or shamanistic, rituals.

For more than a century after its founding, Chosn flourished as an exemplary agrarian bureaucracy deeply influenced by a cadre of learned scholar-officials who were steeped in the doctrines of neo-Confucianism. Like Kory, the Chosn Dynasty lacked the typical features of a feudal society. It was instead a classic agrarian bureaucracy.

Chosn possessed an elaborate procedure for entry to the civil service, a highly articulated civil service, and a practice of administering the country from the top down and from the center. The system rested on an agrarian base, making it different from modern bureaucratic systems; the particular character of agrarian-bureaucratic interaction also provided one of Korea's departures from the typical Chinese experience.

James B. Palais, a widely respected historian of the Chosn Dynasty, has shown that conflict between bureaucrats seeking revenues for government coffers and landowners hoping to control tenants and harvests was a constant during the Chosn Dynasty, and that in this conflict over resources the landowners often won out. Controlling land theoretically owned by the state, private landed interests soon came to be stronger and more persistent in Korea than in China. Although Korea had a centralized administration, the ostensibly strong center was more often a fašade concealing the reality of aristocratic power.

One interpretation suggests that Korea's agrarian bureaucracy was superficially strong but actually rather weak at the center. A more conventional interpretation is that the Chosn Dynasty was ruled by a highly centralized monarchy served by a hereditary aristocracy that competed via civil and military service examinations for access to bureaucratic office. The state ostensibly dominated the society, but in fact landed aristocratic families kept the state at bay and perpetuated local power for centuries. This pattern persisted until the late 1940s, when landed dominance was obliterated in a northern revolution and attenuated in southern land reform; since then the balance has shifted toward strong central power and top-down administration of the whole country in both Koreas. The disruptions caused by the Korean War magnified the sociopolitical consequences of these developments.

The scientific Korean written alphabet han'gl was systematized in the fifteenth century under the greatest of Korean kings, Sejong (r. 1418-50), who also greatly increased the use of metal moveable type for book publications of all sorts. Korean is thought to be part of the Altaic group of languages, which includes Turkic, Mongol, Hungarian, Finnish, Tungusic (Manchu), and possibly Japanese. In spite of the long influence of written Chinese, Korean remains very different in lexicon, phonology, and grammar. The new han'g l alphabet did not come into general use until the twentieth century, however. Since 1948 North Koreans have used the Korean alphabet exclusively while South Koreans have retained usage of a mixed Sino-Korean script.

Confucianism is based on the family and an ideal model of relations between family members. It generalizes this family model to the state and to an international system--the Chinese world order. The principle is hierarchy within a reciprocal web of duties and obligations: the son obeys the father by following the dictates of filial piety; the father provides for and educates the son. Daughters obey mothers and mothers-in-law; younger siblings follow older siblings; wives are subordinate to husbands. The superior prestige and privileges of older adults make longevity a prime virtue. In the past, transgressors of these rules were regarded as uncultured beings unfit to be members of society. When generalized to politics, the principle mean that a village followed the leadership of venerated elders and citizens revered a king or emperor, who was thought of as the father of the state. Generalized to international affairs, the Chinese emperor was the big brother of the Korean king.

The glue holding the traditional nobility together was education, meaning socialization into Confucian norms and virtues that began in early childhood with the reading of the Confucian classics. The model figure was the so-called true gentleman, the virtuous and learned scholar-official who was equally adept at poetry and statecraft. In Korea education started very early because Korean students had to master the extraordinarily difficult classical Chinese language--tens of thousands of written ideographs and their many meanings typically learned through rote memorization. Throughout the Chosn Dynasty, all official records and formal education and most written discourse were in classical Chinese. With Chinese language and philosophy came a profound cultural penetration of Korea, such that most Chosn arts and literature came to use Chinese models.

Confucianism is often thought to be a conservative philosophy, stressing tradition, veneration of a past golden age, careful attention to the performance of ritual, disdain for material goods, commerce, and the remaking of nature, combined with obedience to superiors and a preference for relatively frozen social hierarchies. Much commentary on contemporary Korea focuses on this legacy and, in particular, on its allegedly authoritarian, antidemocratic character. Emphasis on the legacy of Confucianism, however, does not explain the extraordinary commercial bustle of South Korea, the materialism and conspicuous consumption of new elites, or the determined struggles for democratization by Korean workers and students. At the same time, one cannot assume that communist North Korea broke completely with the past. The legacy of Confucianism includes the country's family-based politics, the succession to rule of the leader's son, and the extraordinary veneration of Kim Il Sung.

The Chosn Dynasty had a traditional class structure that departed from the Chinese Confucian example, providing an important legacy for the modern period. The governing elite continued to be known as yangban but the term no longer simply connoted two official orders. In the Chosn Dynasty, the yangban had a virtual monopoly on education, official position, and possession of land. Entry to yangban status required a hereditary lineage. Unlike in China, commoners could not sit for state-run examinations leading to official position. One had to prove membership in a yangban family, which in practice meant having a forebear who had sat for exams within the past four generations. In Korea as in China, the majority of peasant families could not spare a son to study for the exams, so upward social mobility was sharply limited. But because in Korea the limit also was specifically hereditary, people had even less mobility than in China and held attitudes toward class distinction that often seemed indistinguishable from the attitudes underlying the caste system.

Silla society's "bone-rank" system also underlined that one's status in society was determined by birth and lineage. For this reason, each family and clan maintained an extensive genealogical record, or chokpo, with meticulous care. Because only male offspring prolonged the family and clan lines and were the only names registered in the genealogical tables, the birth of a son was greeted with great felicitation.

The elite were most conscious of family pedigree. A major study of all those who passed examinations in the Chosn Dynasty (some 14,000) showed that the elite families were heavily represented; other studies have documented the persistence of this pattern into the early twentieth century. Even in 1945, this aristocracy was substantially intact, although it died out soon thereafter.

Korea's traditional class system also included a peasant majority and minorities of petty clerks, merchants, and so-called base classes (ch'ommin), that is, castelike hereditary groups (paekchng) such as butchers, leather tanners, and beggars. Although merchants ranked higher than members of low-born classes, Confucian elites frowned on commercial activity and up until the twentieth century squelched it as much as possible. Peasants or farmers ranked higher than merchants because they worked the land, but the life of the peasantry was almost always difficult during the dynasty, and became more so later on. Most peasants were tenants, were required to give up at least half their crop to landlords as tax, and were subject to various additional exactions. Those in the low-born classes were probably worse off, however, given very high rates of slavery for much of the Chosn period. One source reported more than 200,000 government slaves in Seoul alone in 1462, and recent scholarship has suggested that at one time as much as 60 percent of Seoul's population may have been slaves. In spite of slavery being hereditary, however, rates of escape from slavery and manumission also were unusually high. Class and status hierarchies also were built into the Korean language and have persisted into the contemporary period. Superiors and inferiors were addressed quite differently, and elaborate honorifics were used to address elders. Even verb endings and conjugations differed according to station.

Chosn Dynasty Confucian doctrines also included a foreign policy known as "serving the great" (sadae), in this case, China. Chosn lived within the Chinese world order, which radiated outward from China to associated states, of which Korea was the most important. Korea was China's little brother, a model tributary state, and in many ways the most important of China's allies. Koreans revered things Chinese, and China responded for the most part by being a good neighbor, giving more than it took away. China assumed that enlightened Koreans would follow it without being forced. Absolutely convinced of its own superiority, China indulged in a policy that might be called benign neglect, thereby allowing Korea substantive autonomy as a nation.

This sophisticated world order was broken up by Western and Japanese influence in the late nineteenth century. Important legacies for the twentieth century remained, however. As a small power, Korea had to learn to be shrewd in foreign policy. Since at least the seventh century, Koreans have cultivated the sophisticated art of "low determines high" diplomacy, a practice whereby a small country maneuvers between two larger countries and seeks to use foreign power for its own ends. Although both North Korea and South Korea have often struck foreign observers as rather dependent on big-power support, both have not only claimed but also strongly asserted their absolute autonomy and independence as nation-states, and both have been adept at manipulating their big-power clients. Until the mid-1980s, North Korea was masterful not only in getting big powers to fight its battles, but also in maneuvering between the Soviet Union and China to obtain something from each and to prevent either from domination. And just as in the traditional period, P'yongyang's heart was with Beijing.

Nonetheless, the main characteristic of Korea's traditional diplomacy was isolationism, even what scholar Kim Key-hyuk has called exclusionism. After the Japanese invasions of the 1590s, Korea isolated itself from Japan, although the Edo Shogunate and the Chosn Dynasty established diplomatic relations early in the seventeenth century and trade was conducted between the two countries. Korea dealt harshly with errant Westerners who came to the country and kept the Chinese at arm's length. Westerners called Korea the Hermit Kingdom, a term suggesting the pronounced hostility toward foreign power and the deep desire for independence that marked traditional Korea.

Data as of June 1993

North Korea

North Korea - Dynastic Decline

North Korea

A combination of literati purges in the early sixteenth century, Japanese invasions at the end of the century, and Manchu invasions in the middle of the seventeenth century severely debilitated the Chosn state, and it never regained the heights of the fifteenth century. This period also saw the Manchus sweep away the Ming Dynasty in China, ending a remarkable period when Korean society seemed to develop apace with China, while making many independent innovations.

The doctrinaire version of Confucianism that was dominant during the Chosn Dynasty made squabbles between elites particularly vicious. The literati based themselves in neo-Confucian metaphysics, which reached a level of abstraction virtually unmatched elsewhere in East Asia in the writings of Yi Hwang, also known as Yi T'oe-gye, who was regarded as Korea's Zhu Xi after the Chinese founder of the neo-Confucian school. For many other scholar-officials, however, the doctrine rewarded arid scholasticism and obstinate orthodoxy. First, one had to commit his mind to one or another side of abstruse philosophical debate, and only then could the practical affairs of state be put in order. This situation quickly led to so-called literati purges, a series of upheavals beginning in the mid-fifteenth century and lasting more than 100 years. The losers found their persons, their property, their families, and even their graves at risk from victors determined to extirpate their influence--always in the name of a higher morality. Later in the dynasty, the concern with ideological correctness exacerbated more mundane factional conflicts that debilitated central power. The emphasis on ideology also expressed the pronounced Korean concern with the power of ideas; this emphasis is still visible in Kim Il Sung's chuch'e doctrine, which assumes that rectification of one's thinking precedes correct action, even to the point of Marxist heresy in which ideas determine material reality. By the end of the sixteenth century, the ruling elite had so homogenized its ideology that there were few heterodox miscreants left: all were presumably united in one idea.

At the end of the sixteenth century, Korea suffered devastating foreign invasions. The first came shortly after Toyotomi Hideyoshi ended Japan's internal disorder and unified the territory; he launched an invasion that put huge numbers of Japanese soldiers in Pusan in 1592. His eventual goal, however, was to control China. The Chosn court responded to the invasion by fleeing to the Yalu River, an action that infuriated ordinary Koreans and led slaves to revolt and burn the registries. Japanese forces marched through the peninsula at will until they were routed by General Yi Sun-sin and his fleet of armor-clad ships, the first of their kind. These warships, the so-called turtle ships, were encased in thick plating with cannons sticking out at every point on their oval shape. The Japanese fleets were destroyed wherever they were found, Japan's supply routes were cut, and facing Ming forces and so-called righteous armies that rose up to fight a guerrilla war (even Buddhist monks participated), the Japanese were forced to retreat to a narrow redoubt near Pusan.

After desultory negotiations and delay, Hideyoshi launched a second invasion in 1597. The Korean and Ming armies were ready this time. General Yi returned with a mere dozen warships and demolished the Japanese forces in Yellow Sea battles near the port of Mokp'o. Back in Japan, Hideyoshi died of illness, and his forces withdrew to their home islands, where they nursed an isolationist policy for the next 250 years. In spite of the victory, the peninsula had been devastated. Refugees wandered its length, famine and disease were rampant, and even basic land relationships had been overturned by widespread destruction of registers.

Korea had barely recovered when the Manchus invaded from the north, fighting on all fronts to oust the Ming Dynasty. Invasions in 1627 and 1636 established tributary relations between Korea and the Manchu's Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The invasions, however, were less destructive than the Japanese invasions, except in the northwest where Manchu forces wreaked havoc. Thereafter, the dynasty had a period of revival that, had it continued, might have left Korea much better prepared for its encounter with the West.

The Confucian literati were particularly reinvigorated by an intellectual movement advocating that philosophy be geared to solving real problems of the society. Known as the Sirhak (Practical Learning) Movement, it spawned people like Yu Hyngwn (1622-73), from a small farming village, who poured over the classics seeking reform solutions to social problems. He developed a thorough, detailed critique of nearly all the institutional aspects of Chosn politics and society, and a set of concrete reforms to invigorate it. Chng Yag-yong (1762-1836) was thought to be the greatest of the Sirhak scholars, producing several books that offered his views on administration, justice, and the structure of politics. Still others like Yi Su-kwang (1563-1628) traveled to China and returned with the new Western learning then spreading in Beijing, while Yi Ik (1681-1763) wrote a treatise entitled Record of Concern for the Underprivileged.

A new vernacular fiction also developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, much of it taking the form of social criticism. The best known is The Tale of Ch'unhyang, which argues for the common human qualities of lowborn, commoners, and yangban alike. Often rendered as a play, it has been a favorite in both North Korea and South Korea. An older poetic form called sijo, which consists of short stanzas, became another vehicle for free expression of distaste for the castelike inequities of Korean society. Meanwhile, Pak Chi-wn journeyed to Beijing in 1780 and authored Jehol Diary, which compared Korean social conditions unfavorably with his observations of China.

The economy diversified as the transplant of rice seedlings boosted harvests and some peasants became enterprising small landlords. Commercial crops such as tobacco, ginseng, and cotton developed, and merchants proliferated at big markets like those in Seoul at East Gate and South Gate, at the gate to China at iju, and at the gate to Japan at Tongnae, near Pusan. The use of coins for commerce and for paying wages increased, and handicraft production increased outside government control. The old Kory capital at Kaesng became a strong center of merchant commerce and conspicuous wealth. Finally, throughout the seventeenth century, Western learning filtered into Korea, often through the auspices of a spreading Roman Catholic movement, which especially attracted commoners by its creed of equality.

North Korea


North Korea

The early nineteenth century witnessed a period of sharp decline in which most of these new developments were extinguished. Harsh persecution of Roman Catholics began in 1801, and agricultural production declined, forcing many peasants to pursue slash-and-burn agriculture in the mountains. Popular uprisings began in 1811 and continued sporadically throughout the rest of the century, culminating in the Tonghak (Eastern Learning) Movement of the 1860s, which spawned a major peasant rebellion in the 1890s.

Korean leaders were aware that China's position had been transformed by the arrival of powerful Western gunboats and traders, but they reacted to the Opium War (1839-42) between China and Britain by shutting Korea's doors even tighter. In 1853 United States Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry and his "black ships" entered Edo Bay, beginning the process of opening Japan to foreign trade. Korea, however, continued its isolationist policy. Japan's drastic reform of its institutions--the Meiji Restoration of 1868--and subsequent industrialization was attributed by Korean literati to Japan's alleged inferior grasp of Confucian doctrine. Through its successful rebuff of French and American attempts to "open" Korea, the regime was encouraged to think it could hold out indefinitely against external pressure. (The U.S.S. General Sherman steamed up the Taedong River in 1866 almost to P'yongyang, whereupon the natives burned the ship and killed all its crew; Kim Il Sung claimed that his great-grandfather was involved in this incident.)

Reforms from 1864 to 1873 under a powerful leader named the Taewn'gun, or Grand Prince (Yi Ha-ung, 1821-98), offered further evidence of Korean resilience; Yi Ha-ung was able to reform the bureaucracy, bring in new talent, extract new taxes from both the yangban and commoners, and keep the imperialists at bay. Korea's descent into the maelstrom of imperial rivalry was quick after this, however, as Japan succeeded in imposing a Western-style unequal treaty in February 1876, giving its nationals extraterritorial rights and opening three Korean ports to Japanese commerce. China sought to reassert its traditional position in Korea by playing the imperial powers off against each other, with the result that Korea entered into unequal treaties with the United States, Britain, Russia, Italy, and other countries. These events split the Korean court into pro-Chinese, pro-Japanese, pro-United States, and pro-Russian factions, each of which influenced policy until the final annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910. Meanwhile, various Korean reform movements sought to get underway, influenced by either Japanese or American progressives.

A small group of politically frustrated Korean aristocrats in the early 1880s came under the influence of the Japanese educator and student of Western knowledge, Fukuzawa Yukichi. This group of Koreans saw themselves as the vanguard of Korea's "enlightenment," a term that referred to their nation's release from its traditional subordination to China and its intellectual views and political institutions. The group, led by Kim Ok-kyun, included Kim Hong-jip, Yun Ch'i-ho, and Yu Kil-chun. Yun became an influential modernizer in the twentieth century, and Yu became the first Korean to study in the United States--at the Governor Drummer Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts. Kim Ok-kyun, impressed by the Meiji Restoration, sought to stage a coup d'Útat in 1884 with a handful of progressives, including Philip Jaisohn (S Chae-p'il, 1866-1948), and about 200 Japanese legation soldiers. Resident Chinese troops quickly suppressed it, however, and Kim fled to Japan. Philip Jaisohn, a Korean who had studied in the United States, was the first Korean to become a United States citizen. He had returned to Korea in 1896 to publish one of its first newspapers.

For a decade thereafter, China reasserted a rare direct influence when Yuan Shikai momentarily made China first among the foreign powers resident in Korea. He represented the scholar- general and governor of Tianjin, Li Hongzhang, as Director- General Resident in Korea of Diplomatic and Commercial Relations in Seoul in 1885. A reformer in China, Yuan had no use for Korean reformers and instead blocked the slightest sign of Korean nationalism.

Japan put a definitive end to Chinese influence during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, seizing on the reinvigorated Tonghak Movement, which spawned a large rebellion in 1894. Uniting peasants against Western pressure, growing Japanese economic penetration and their own corrupt and ineffectual government, the rebellion spread from the southwest into the center of the peninsula, thus threatening Seoul. The hapless court invited China to send troops to put the rebellion down, whereupon Japan had the pretext it needed to send troops to Korea. After defeating Chinese forces, Japan declared Korea independent, thus breaking its long tributary relationship with China. Thereafter, Japan pushed through epochal reforms that ended the old civil service examination system, abolished traditional class distinctions, ended slavery, and established modern fiscal and judicial mechanisms.

Korean reformers influenced by the West, such as Philip Jaisohn, launched an Independence Club (Tongnip Hyphoe) in 1896 to promote Westernization. They used the vernacular han'gl in their newspaper, the Tongnip simmun (The Independent), publishing alternate pages in English. The club included many Koreans who had studied Western learning in Protestant missionary schools, and for a while it influenced not only young reformers but also elements of the Korean court; one of the reformers was Yi Sng-man, otherwise known as Syngman Rhee (1875-1965), who later served as the first president of South Korea. The club was repressed, and it collapsed after two years.

The Korean people gradually became more hostile towards Japan. In 1897 King Kojong (r. 1864-1907), fleeing Japanese plots, ended up in the Russian legation; he conducted the nation's business from there for a year and shortly thereafter declared Korea to be the "Great Han [Korean] Empire," from which comes the name Taehan Min'guk, or Republic of Korea. It was a futile last gasp for the Chosn; the only question was which imperial power would colonize Korea.

By 1900 the Korean Peninsula was the focus of an intense rivalry between the powers then seeking to carve out spheres of influence in East Asia. Russia was expanding into Manchuria and Korea, and briefly enjoyed ascendancy on the peninsula when King Kojong sought its help in 1897. In alliance with France and Germany, Russia had forced Japan to return the Liaodong Peninsula, which it had acquired from China as a result of its victory in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95). Japan promptly leased the region from China and continued to develop it; shortly thereafter, in 1900, Japanese forces intervened with the other imperial powers to put down the Boxer Uprising, a xenophobic conflict in China against Christians and foreigners. Russia continued to develop the railroad system in Manchuria and to exploit forests and gold mines in the northern part of Korea. The United States, fearing complete exclusion from the region-- especially from China--had declared its open door policy in 1900, but lacked the means to assert its will. During this period, however, Americans also were given concessions for rail and trolley lines, waterworks, Seoul's new telephone network, and mines. Japan briefly pulled back from the peninsula, but its 1902 alliance with Britain emboldened Japan to reassert itself there.

Russia and Japan initially sought to divide their interests in Korea, suggesting at one point that the thirty-eighth parallel be the dividing line between their spheres of influence. The rivalry devolved into the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) when Japan launched a successful surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur (Dalian; or Japanese, Dairen). Japan electrified all of Asia by becoming the first nonwhite country to subdue one of the "great powers."

Under the peace treaty brokered by Theodore Roosevelt in a conference at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and signed in 1905, Russia recognized Japan's paramount rights in Korea. Japan would not question the rights of the United States in its colony, the Philippines, and the United States would not challenge Japan's new protectorate, established in 1905 to control Korea's foreign policy. Japan installed a resident-general and, two years later, deposed King Kojong. Significant Korean resistance followed this deposition, spreading through several provinces as local yangban organized militias for guerrilla warfare against Japan. In 1909, An Chung-gn, a Korean assassin, shot It Hirobumi, the former Japanese resident-general who had concluded the protectorate agreement; two expatriate Koreans in San Francisco also gunned down Durham Stevens, a foreign affairs adviser to the Japanese who had lauded their efforts in Korea. It was too little and too late. In 1910 Japan turned Korea into its colony, thus extinguishing Korea's hard-fought independence, which had first emerged with Silla and Kogury resistance to Chinese pressures.

Under Japanese imperial pressure that began in earnest with Korea's opening in l876, the Chosn Dynasty faltered and then collapsed in a few decades. The dynasty had had an extraordinary five-century longevity, but although the traditional system could adapt to the changes necessary to forestall or accommodate domestic or internal conflict and change, it could not withstand the onslaught of technically advanced imperial powers with strong armies. The old agrarian bureaucracy had managed the interplay of different and competing interests by having a system of checks and balances that tended over time to equilibrate the interests of different parties. The king and the bureaucracy kept watch over each other, the royal clans watched both, scholars criticized or remonstrated from the moral position of Confucian doctrine, secret inspectors and censors went around the country to watch for rebellion and assure accurate reporting, landed aristocrats sent sons into the bureaucracy to protect family interests, and local potentates influenced the county magistrates sent down from the central administration. The Chosn Dynasty was not a system that modern Koreans would wish to restore, but it was a sophisticated political system, adaptable enough and persistent enough to have given unified rule to Korea for half a millennium.

North Korea


North Korea

Korea did not escape the Japanese grip until 1945, when Japan lay prostrate under the Allied victory that brought World War II to a close. The colonial experience that shaped postwar Korea was intense and bitter. It brought development and underdevelopment, agrarian growth and deepened tenancy, industrialization and extraordinary dislocation, and political mobilization and deactivation. It also spawned a new role for the central state, new sets of Korean political leaders, communism and nationalism, and armed resistance and treacherous collaboration. Above all, it left deep fissures and conflicts that have gnawed at the Korean national identity ever since.

Colonialism was often thought to have created new countries where none existed before, to have drawn national boundaries, brought diverse tribes and peoples together, tutored the natives in self-government, and prepared for the day when the colonialist power decided to grant independence. But all this had existed in Korea for centuries before 19l0. Furthermore, by virtue of their relative proximity to China, Koreans had always felt superior to Japan and blamed Japan's devastating sixteenth-century invasions for hindering Korean wealth and power in subsequent centuries.

Thus the Japanese engaged not in creation, but in substitution after 19l0: substituting a Japanese ruling elite for the Korean yangban scholar-officials, colonial imperative coordination for the old central state administration, Japanese modern education for Confucian classics, Japanese capital and expertise for the budding Korean versions, Japanese talent for Korean talent, and eventually the Japanese language for Korean. Koreans never thanked the Japanese for these substitutions, did not credit Japan with creations, and instead saw Japan as snatching away the ancient regime, Korea's sovereignty and independence, its indigenous if incipient modernization, and above all its national dignity. Koreans never saw Japanese rule as anything but illegitimate and humiliating. Furthermore, the very closeness of the two nations--in geography, in common Chinese cultural influences, and in levels of development until the nineteenth century--made Japanese dominance all the more galling to Koreans and gave a peculiar intensity to their love/hate relationship.

Japan built bureaucracies in Korea, all of them centralized and all of them big by colonial standards. Unlike the relatively small British colonial cadre in India, there were 700,000 Japanese in Korea by the 1940s, and the majority of colonizers worked in government service. For the first time in history, Korea had a national police, responsive to the center and possessing its own communications and transportation facilities. The huge Japanese Oriental Development Company organized and funded industrial and agricultural projects, and came to own more than 20 percent of Korea's arable land; it employed an army of officials who fanned out through the countryside to supervise agricultural production. The official Bank of Korea performed central banking functions such as regulating interest rates and provisioned credit to firms and entrepreneurs, almost all of them Japanese. Central judicial bodies wrote new laws establishing an extensive, "legalized" system of racial discrimination against Koreans, making them second-class citizens in their own country. Bureaucratic departments proliferated at the Seoul headquarters of Japan's Government-General of Korea, turning it into the nerve center of the country. Semiofficial companies and conglomerates, including the big zaibatsu (commercial conglomerates) such as Mitsubishi and Mitsui, laid railroads, built ports, installed modern factories, and ultimately remade the face of old Korea.

Japan held Korea tightly, watched it closely, and pursued an organized, architectonic colonialism in which the planner and administrator were the model, not the swashbuckling conqueror. The strong, highly centralized colonial state mimicked the role that the Japanese state had come to play in Japan--intervening in the economy, creating markets, spawning new industries, and suppressing dissent. Politically, Koreans could barely breathe, but economically there was significant, if unevenly distributed, growth. Agricultural output rose substantially in the 1920s, and a hothouse industrialization occupied the 1930s. Growth rates in the Korean economy often outstripped those in Japan itself; one estimate suggested an annual growth rate for Korea of 3.57 percent in the 1911-38 period and a rate of 3.36 percent for Japan itself.

Koreans have always thought that the benefits of this growth went entirely to Japan and that Korea would have developed rapidly without Japanese help. Nonetheless, the strong colonial state, the multiplicity of bureaucracies, the policy of administrative guidance of the economy, the use of the state to found new industries, and the repression of labor unions and dissidents provided a surreptitious model for both Koreas in the postwar period. Japan showed them an early version of the "bureaucratic-authoritarian" path to industrialization, and it was a lesson that seemed well learned by the 1970s.

North Korea


North Korea

The colonial period brought forth an entirely new set of Korean political leaders, spawned by both the resistance to and the opportunities of Japanese colonialism. In 1919 mass movements swept many colonial and semicolonial countries, including Korea. Drawing on Woodrow Wilson's promises of self-determination, on March 1, 1919, a group of thirty-three intellectuals petitioned for independence from Japan and touched off nationwide mass protests that continued for months. These protests were put down fiercely by the Japanese, causing many younger Koreans to become militant opponents of colonial rule. The year was a watershed for imperialism in Korea: the leaders of the movement, predominantly Christian and Western in outlook, were moderate intellectuals and students who sought independence through nonviolent means and support from progressive elements in the West. Their courageous witness and the nationwide demonstrations that they provoked remained a touchstone of Korean nationalism. The movement succeeded in provoking reforms in Japanese administration, but its failure to realize independence also stimulated radical forms of anticolonial resistance. In the 1930s, new groups of armed resisters, bureaucrats, and--for the first time--military leaders emerged. Both North Korea and South Korea were profoundly influenced by the political elites and the political conflicts generated during colonial rule.

The emergence of nationalist and communist groups dates back to the 1920s; it was in this period that the left-right splits of postwar Korea began. The transformation of the yangban aristocracy also began during the 1920s. Although the higher scholar-officials were pensioned off and replaced by Japanese, landlords were allowed to retain their holdings and encouraged to continue disciplining peasants and extracting rice. The traditional landholding system was put on a new basis through new legal measures and a full cadastral survey shortly after Japan took over, but tenancy continued and was systematically deepened throughout the colonial period. By 1945 Korea had an agricultural tenancy system with few parallels in the world. More traditional landlords were content to sit back and let Japanese officials increase output; by 1945 such people were widely viewed as treacherous collaborators with the Japanese, and strong demands emerged that they share out land to their tenants. During the l920s, however, another trend began: landlords became entrepreneurs.

Some Korean militants went into exile in China and the Soviet Union and founded early communist and nationalist resistance groups. A Korean Communist Party (KCP) was founded in Seoul in 1925; one of the organizers was Pak Hn-yng, who became the leader of Korean communism in southern Korea after 1945. Various nationalist groups also emerged during this period, including the exiled Korean Provisional Government (KPG) in Shanghai, which included Syngman Rhee and another famous nationalist, Kim Ku, among its members.

Police repression and internal factionalism made it impossible for radical groups to exist for any length of time. Many nationalist and communist leaders were jailed in the early 1930s (they reappeared in 1945). When Japan invaded and then annexed Manchuria in 193l, however, a strong guerrilla resistance embracing both Chinese and Koreans emerged. There were well over 200,000 guerrillas--all loosely connected, and including bandits and secret societies--fighting the Japanese in the early 1930s; after murderous but effective counterinsurgency campaigns, the numbers declined to a few thousand by the mid-1930s. It was from this milieu that Kim Il Sung (originally named Kim Sng-ju, born in 1912) emerged. By the mid-1930s, he had become a significant guerrilla leader whom the Japanese considered one of the most effective and dangerous of guerrillas. They formed a special counterinsurgent unit to track Kim down and put Koreans in it as part of their divide-and-rule tactics.

Both Koreas have spawned myths about the guerrilla resistance: North Korea claims that Kim single-handedly defeated the Japanese, and South Korea claims that the present-day ruler of North Korea is an imposter who stole the name of a revered patriot. Nonetheless, the resistance is important for understanding postwar Korea. Resistance to Japan became the main legitimating doctrine of North Korea: North Koreans trace the origin of their army, leadership, and ideology back to this resistance. For the next five decades, the top North Korean leadership was dominated by a core group that had fought the Japanese in Manchuria. (Kim Il Sung's tenure in a Russian reconnaissance brigade also would have had an influence.)

Japan declared war on China in 1937 and on the United States in 194l. As this war took on global dimensions, Koreans for the first time had military careers opened to them. Although most Koreans were conscripted foot soldiers, a small number achieved officer status and a few attained high rank. The officer corps of the South Korean army during the Rhee period was dominated by Koreans with experience in the Japanese army. At least in part, the Korean War became a matter of Japanese-trained military officers fighting Japanese-spawned resistance leaders.

Japan's far-flung war effort also caused a labor shortage throughout the empire. In Korea this situation meant that bureaucratic positions were more available to Koreans than at any previous time; thus a substantial cadre of Koreans received administrative experience in government, local administration, police and judicial work, economic planning agencies, banks, and the like. That this occurred in the last decade of colonialism created a divisive legacy, however, for this period also was the harshest period of Japanese rule, the time Koreans remember with the greatest bitterness. Korean culture was quashed, and Koreans were required to speak Japanese and take Japanese names. The majority suffered badly at the precise time that a minority was doing well. This minority was tainted by collaboration, and that stigma was never lost. Korea from 1937 to 1945 was much like Vichy France in the early 1940s: bitter experiences and memories continued to divide people, even within the same family. Because it was too painful to confront directly, the experience became buried history and continued to play on the national identity.

In the mid-1930s, Japan's colonial policy entered a phase of heavy industrialization that embraced all of Northeast Asia. Unlike most colonial powers, Japan located heavy industry in its colonies and brought the means of production to the labor and raw materials. Manchuria and northern Korea got steel mills, automotive plants, petrochemical complexes, and enormous hydroelectric facilities. The region was held exclusively by Japan and tied together with the home market to the point that national boundaries had became less important than the new transnational, integrated production. To facilitate this production, Japan also built railroads, highways, cities, ports, and other modern transportation and communication facilities. By 1945 Korea proportionally had more kilometers of railroads than any other Asian country save Japan, leaving only remote parts of the central east coast and the wild northeastern Sino-Korean border region untouched by modern means of conveyance. These changes were externally induced and served Japanese, not Korean interests. Thus they represented a kind of overdevelopment.

The same exogenous changes fostered underdevelopment in Korean society as a whole. The Korean upper and managerial classes did not develop; instead their development was retarded or swelled suddenly at Japanese behest. Among the majority peasant class, change was advanced. Koreans became the mobile human capital used to work the new factories in northern Korea and Manchuria, mines and other enterprises in Japan, and urban factories in southern Korea. From 1935 to 1945, Korea began its industrial revolution with many of the usual characteristics: uprooting of peasants from the land, the emergence of a working class, urbanization, and population mobility. In Korea the process was telescoped, giving rise to comparatively remarkable population movements. By 1945 about 11 percent of the entire Korean population was abroad (mostly in Japan and Manchuria), and 20 percent of all Koreans were either abroad or in a province other than that in which they were born, with most of the interprovincial movement being southern peasants moving into northern industry. This was, by and large, a forced or mobilized movement; by 1942 it often meant drafted, conscripted labor. Peasants lost land or rights to work land only to end up working in unfamiliar factory settings, doing the dirty work for a pittance.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of Korea's colonial experience was the manner in which it ended: the last decade of a four-decade imperium was a pressure cooker. The colonial situation built to a crescendo, abruptly collapsed, and left the Korean people and two opposing great powers to deal with the results.

When the colonial system was abruptly terminated in 1945, millions of Koreans sought to return to their native villages from these far-flung mobilization details. But they were no longer the same people: they had grievances against those who had remained secure at home, they had suffered material and status losses, they had often come into contact with new ideologies, and they had all seen a broader world beyond the villages. It was these circumstances that loosed upon postwar Korea a mass of changed and disgruntled people who deeply disordered the early postwar period and the plans of the United States and the Soviet Union.

North Korea


North Korea

The crux of the period of national division and opposing states in Korea was the decade from 1943 to 1953, and the politics of contemporary Korea cannot be understood without comprehending this decade. It was the breeding ground of the two Koreas, of war, and of a reordering of international politics in Northeast Asia.

From the time of the tsars, Korea had been a concern of Russian security. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 was fought in part over the disposition of the Korean Peninsula. It was often surmised that the Russians saw Korea as a gateway to the Pacific, especially to warm-water ports. However, the Soviets did not get a warm-water port out of their involvement in Korea.

There was greater complexity than this in Soviet policy. Korea had one of Asia's oldest communist movements. Although it would appear that postwar Korea was of great concern to the Soviet Union, many have thought that its policy was a simple matter of Sovietizing northern Korea, setting up a puppet state, and then, in 1950, directing Kim Il Sung to unify Korea by force. However, the Soviets did not have an effective relationship with Korean communists; Joseph Stalin purged and even executed many of the Koreans who had functioned in the Communist International, and he did not help Kim Il Sung and other guerrillas in their struggle against Japan.

The United States took the initiative in big power deliberations on Korea during World War II, suggesting a multilateral trusteeship for postwar Korea to the British in March 1943, and to the Soviet leaders at the end of the same year. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, concerned about the disposition of enemy-held colonial territories and aware of colonial demands for independence, sought a gradualist, tutelary policy of preparing former colonials--such as the Koreans--for self-government and independence. At the Cairo Conference in December 1943, the Allies, under United States urging, declared that after Japan was defeated Korea would become independent "in due course," a phrase consistent with Roosevelt's ideas. At about the same time, planners in the United States Department of State reversed the traditional United States policy of noninvolvement in Korea by defining the security of the peninsula as important to the security of the postwar Pacific, which was, in turn, very important to American security.

At a midnight meeting in Washington on August 10 and 11, 1945, War Department officials, including John J. McCloy and Dean Rusk, decided to make the thirty-eighth parallel the dividing line between the Soviet and United States zones in Korea. Neither the Soviet forces nor the Koreans were consulted. As a result, when 25,000 American soldiers occupied southern Korea in early September 1945, they found themselves up against a strong Korean impulse for independence and for thorough reform of colonial legacies. By and large, Koreans wished to solve their problems themselves and resented any inference that they were not ready for self-government.

During World War II, Stalin was mostly silent in his discussions with Roosevelt about Korea. From 194l to 1945, Kim Il Sung and other guerrillas were given sanctuary in Sino-Soviet border towns, trained at a small school, and dispatched as agents into Japanese-held territory. Recent research suggests that Chinese, not Soviet, communists controlled the border camps. Although the United States suspected that as many as 30,000 Koreans were being trained as Soviet guerrilla agents, postwar North Korean documents captured by General Douglas A. MacArthur showed that there could not have been more than a few hundred guerrilla agents. When Soviet troops occupied Korea north of the thirty-eighth parallel in August 1945, they brought these Koreans, now in the Soviet army, with them. They were often termed Soviet-Koreans, even though most of them were not Soviet citizens. Although this group was not large, several of them became prominent in the regime, for example H Ka-i, an experienced party organizer, who was Soviet-born, and Nam Il, who became well known during the Korean War when he led the North Korean delegation in peace talks. The Soviet side quietly acquiesced to the thirty-eighth parallel decision and then accepted the United States plan for a multilateral trusteeship at a foreign ministers' meeting in December 1945. Over the next two years, the two powers held so-called joint commission meetings trying to resolve their differences and establish a provisional government for Korea.

The United States military command, along with emissaries dispatched from Washington, tended to interpret resistance to United States desires in the south as radical and pro-Soviet. When Korean resistance leaders set up an interim "people's republic" and people's committees throughout southern Korea in September 1945, the United States saw this fundamentally indigenous movement as part of a Soviet master plan to dominate all of Korea. Radical activity, such as the ousting of landlords and attacks on Koreans in the former colonial police force, usually was a matter of settling scores left over from the colonial period, or of demands by Koreans to run their own affairs. But it immediately became wrapped up with United States- Soviet rivalry, such that the Cold War arrived early in Korea--in the last months of 1945.

Once the United States occupation force chose to bolster the status quo and resist radical reform of colonial legacies, it immediately ran into monumental opposition to its policies from the majority of South Koreans. The United States Army Military Government in Korea (1945-48) spent most of its first year suppressing the many people's committees that had emerged in the provinces. This action provoked a massive rebellion in the fall of 1946; after the rebellion was suppressed, radical activists developed a significant guerrilla movement in 1948 and 1949. Activists also touched off a major rebellion at the port of Ysu in South Korea in October 1948. Much of this disorder resulted from unresolved land problem caused by conservative landed factions who used their bureaucratic power to block redistribution of land to peasant tenants. North Koreans sought to take advantage of this discontent, but the best evidence shows that most of the dissidents and guerrillas were southerners upset about southern policies. Indeed, the strength of the left wing was in those provinces most removed from the thirty-eighth parallel--in the southwest, which had historically been rebellious (the Tonghaks came from there), and in the southeast, which had felt the greatest impact from Japanese colonialism.

By 1947 Washington was willing to acknowledge formally that the Cold War had begun in Korea and abandoned attempts to negotiate with the Soviet government to form a unified, multilateral administration. Soviet leaders had also determined that the postwar world would be divided into two blocs, and they deepened their controls over North Korea. When President Harry S Truman announced the Truman Doctrine and the containment policy in the spring of 1947, Korea was very nearly included along with Greece and Turkey as a key containment country; Department of State planners foresaw an enormous US$600-million package of economic and military aid for southern Korea, and backed away only when the United States Congress and the Department of War balked at such a huge sum. Instead, the decision was made to seek United Nations (UN) backing for United States policy in Korea, and to hold a UN-supervised plebiscite in all of Korea if the Soviet Union would go along, in southern Korea alone if it did not. North Korea refused to cooperate with the UN. The plebiscite was held in May 1948 and resulted in the establishment of the Republic of Korea in August of the same year.

From August 1945 until January 1946, Soviet forces worked with a coalition of communists and nationalists led by a Christian educator named Cho Man-sik. Kim Il Sung did not appear in North Korea until October 1945; what he did in the two months after the Japanese surrender is not known. When he reappeared, Soviet leaders presented Kim to the Korean people as a guerrilla hero. The Soviets did not set up a central administration, nor did they establish an army. In retrospect their policy was more tentative and reactive than American policy in South Korea, which moved forward with plans for a separate administration and army. In general, Soviet power in the Asia-Pacific region was flexible and resulted in the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Manchuria in early 1946.

Whether in response to United States initiatives or because most Koreans despised the trusteeship agreement that had been negotiated at the end of 1945, separate institutions began to emerge in North Korea in early 1946. In February 1946, an Interim People's Committee led by Kim Il Sung became the first central government. The next month, a revolutionary land reform took place, dispossessing landlords without compensation. In August 1946, a powerful political party, the North Korean Workers' Party, dominated politics as a result of a merger with the Korean Communist Party; in the fall the rudiments of a northern army appeared. Central agencies nationalized major industries that previously had been mostly owned by the Japanese and began a two-year economic program based on the Soviet model of central planning and priority for heavy industry. Nationalists and Christian leaders were ousted from all but pro forma participation in politics, and Cho Man-sik was placed under house arrest. Kim Il Sung and his allies dominated all the political parties, ousting resisters.

Within a year of the liberation from Japanese rule, North Korea had a powerful political party, a growing economy, and a single powerful leader, Kim Il Sung. Kim's emergence and that of the Kim system dated from mid-1946, by which time he had placed close, loyal allies at the heart of power. His prime assets were his background, his skills at organization, and his ideology. Only thirty-four years old when he came to power, Kim was fortunate to emerge in the last decade of a forty-year resistance that had killed off many leaders of the older generation. North Korea claimed that Kim was the leader of all Korean resisters, when, in fact, there were many other leaders. But Kim won the support and firm loyalty of several hundred people like him: young, tough, nationalistic guerrillas who had fought in Manchuria. Because the prime test of legitimacy in postwar Korea was one's record under the hated Japanese regime, Kim and his core allies possessed nationalist credentials superior to those of the South Korean leadership. Furthermore, Kim's backers had military force at their disposal and used it to their advantage against rivals with no military experience.

Kim's organizational skills probably came from experience gained in the Chinese Communist Party in the 1930s. He was also a dynamic leader. Unlike traditional Korean leaders and intellectual or theoretical communists such as Pak Hn-yng, he pursued a style of mass leadership that involved using his considerable charisma and getting close to the people. He often visited a factory or a farm for so-called "on-the-spot guidance" and encouraged his allies to do the same. Led by Kim, the North Koreans went against Soviet orthodoxy by including masses of poor peasants in the party; indeed, they termed the party a "mass" rather than a vanguard party.

Since the 1940s, from 12 to 14 percent of the population has been enrolled in the communist party, compared with 1 to 3 percent for communist parties in most countries. The Korean Workers' Party (KWP) was formed by a merger of the communist parties in North Korea and South Korea in 1949. The vast majority of KWP members were poor peasants with no previous political experience. Membership in the party gave them status, privileges, and a rudimentary form of political participation.

Kim's ideology in the 1940s tended to be revolutionary- nationalist rather than communist. The chuch'e ideology had its beginnings in the late 1940s, although the term chuch'e was not used until a 1955 speech in which Kim castigated some of his comrades for being too pro-Soviet. The concept of chuch'e, which means placing all foreigners at arm's length, has resonated deeply with Korea's Hermit Kingdom past. Chuch'e doctrine stresses self-reliance and independence, but also draws on neo-Confucian emphasis on rectification of one's thinking before action in the real world. Soon after Kim took power, virtually all North Koreans were required to participate in study groups and re-education meetings, where regime ideology was inculcated.

In the 1940s, Kim faced factional power struggles among his group. Factions included communists who had remained in Korea during the colonial period, called the domestic faction; Koreans associated with Chinese communism, the Yan'an faction; Kim's Manchurian partisans, the Kapsan faction; Soviet Union loyalists, the Soviet faction. In the aftermath of the Korean War, amid much false scapegoating for the disasters of the war, Kim purged the domestic faction, many of whose leaders were from southern Korea; Pak Hn-yng and twelve of his associates were pilloried in show trials under ridiculous charges that they were American spies, and ten of them subsequently were executed. In the mid-1950s, Kim eliminated key leaders of the Soviet faction, including H Ka-i, and overcame an apparent coup attempt by members of the Yan'an faction, after which he purged many of them. Some, such as the guerrilla hero Mu Chng, a Yan'an faction member, reportedly escaped to China. These power struggles took place only during the first decade of the regime. Later, there were conflicts within the leadership, but they were relatively minor and did not successfully challenge Kim's power.

In the period 1946 to 1948, there was much evidence that the Soviet Union hoped to dominate North Korea. In particular, it sought to involve North Korea in a quasi-colonial relationship in which Korean raw materials, such as tungsten and gold, were exchanged for Soviet manufactured goods. The Soviet Union also sought to keep Chinese communist influence out of Korea; in the late 1940s, Maoist doctrine had to be infiltrated into North Korean newspapers and books. Soviet influence was especially strong in the media, where major organs were staffed by Koreans from the Soviet Union, and in the security bureaus. Nonetheless, the Korean guerrillas who fought in Manchuria were not easily molded and dominated. They were tough, highly nationalistic, and determined to have Korea for themselves. This was especially so for the Korean People's Army (KPA), which was an important base for Kim Il Sung and which was led by Ch'oe Yng-gn, another Korean guerrilla who had fought in Manchuria. At the army's founding ceremony on February 8, 1948, Kim urged his soldiers to carry forward the tradition of the Koreans who had fought against the Japanese in Manchuria.

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established on September 9, 1948, three weeks after the Republic of Korea had been formed in Seoul. Kim Il Sung was named premier, a title he retained until 1972, when, under a new constitution, he was named president. At the end of 1948, Soviet occupation forces were withdrawn from North Korea. This decision contrasted strongly with Soviet policies in Eastern Europe. Tens of thousands of Korean soldiers who fought in the Chinese civil war from 1945 to 1949 also filtered back to Korea. All through 1949, tough crack troops with Chinese, not Soviet, experience returned to be integrated with the KPA; the return of these Korean troops inevitably moved North Korea toward China. It enhanced Kim's bargaining power and enabled him to maneuver between the two communist giants. Soviet advisers remained in the Korean government and military, although far fewer than the thousands claimed by South Korean sources. There probably were 300 to 400 advisers posted to North Korea, but many of those were experienced military and security people. Both countries continued to trade, and the Soviet Union sold World War II-vintage weaponry to North Korea.

In 1949 Kim Il Sung had himself named suryng, an old Kogury term for "leader" that the Koreans always modified by the adjective "great"--as in "great leader" (Widaehan chidoja). The KPA was built up through recruiting campaigns for soldiers and bond drives to purchase Soviet tanks. The tradition of the Manchurian guerrillas was burnished in the party newspaper, Nodong simmun (Workers' Daily), perhaps to offset the influence of powerful Korean officers, who like Mu Chng and Pang Ho-san, had fought with the Chinese communists.

North Korea

North Korea - THE KOREAN WAR

North Korea

In early 1949, North Korea seemed to be on a war footing. Kim's New Year's speech was bellicose and excoriated South Korea as a puppet state. The army expanded rapidly, soldiers drilled in war maneuvers, and bond drives began to amass the necessary funds to purchase Soviet weaponry. The thirty-eighth parallel was fortified, and border incidents began breaking out. Neither Seoul nor P'yongyang recognized the parallel as a permanent legitimate boundary.

Although many aspects of the Korean War remained murky, it seemed that the beginning of conventional war in June 1950 was mainly Kim's decision, and that the key enabling factor was the existence of as many as 100,000 troops with battle experience in China. When the Rhee regime, with help from United States military advisers, severely reduced the guerrilla threat in the winter of 1949-50, the civil war moved into a conventional phase. Kim sought Stalin's backing for his assault, but documents from Soviet and Chinese sources suggested that he got more support from China.

Beginning on June 25, 1950, North Korean forces fought their way south through Seoul. South Korean resistance collapsed as the roads south of Seoul became blocked with refugees, who were fleeing North Korean columns spearheaded with tanks supplied by the Soviet Union. Task Force Smith, the first United States troops to enter the war, made a futile stand at Suwn, a town some thirty miles south of Seoul. Within a month of the start of the invasion, North Korean forces had seized all but a small corner of southeastern Korea anchored by the port city of Pusan. Repeated North Korean efforts, blunted by heavy United States Air Force bombing and stubborn resistance by the combined United States and South Korean forces on the Pusan perimeter, denied Kim Il Sung forceful reunification of the peninsula. The fortunes of war reversed abruptly in early September when General MacArthur boldly landed his forces at Inch'n, the port city for Seoul in west central Korea. This action severed the lines of communication and supply between the North Korean army and its base in the north. The army quickly collapsed, and combined United States and South Korean forces drove Kim Il Sung's units northward and into complete defeat.

The United States thrust in the fall of 1950, however, motivated China to bring its forces--the Chinese People's Volunteer Army--in on the northern side; these "volunteers" and the North Korean army pushed United States and South Korean forces out of North Korea within a month. Although the war lasted another two years, until the summer of 1953, the outcome of early 1951 was definitive: both a stalemate and a United States commitment to containment that accepted the de facto reality of two Koreas.

By the time the armistice was signed in 1953, North Korea had been devastated by three years of bombing attacks that had left almost no modern buildings standing. Both Koreas had watched as their country was ravaged and the expectations of 1945 were turned into a nightmare. Furthermore, when Kim's regime was nearly extinguished in the fall of 1950, the Soviet Union did very little to save it--China picked up the pieces.

North Korea


North Korea

North Korea has a socialist command economy. Beginning with the Three-Year Plan (1954-56) at the end of the Korean War and the shortened Five-Year Plan (1957-60) that succeeded it, reconstruction and the priority development of heavy industry has been stressed, with consumer goods a low priority. This strategy of industrialization, biased toward heavy industry, pushed the economy forward at record growth rates in the 1950s and 1960s. The First Seven-Year Plan (1961-70--extended for three years because of Soviet aid stoppages in the early 1960s caused by North Korea's support for China in the Sino-Soviet dispute)--also projected a higher than average growth rate.

By the early 1970s, North Korea had clearly exhausted extensive development of its industries based on its own, prewar Japanese, or new Soviet technologies, and therefore turned to the West and Japan to purchase turnkey plants. These purchases ultimately caused North Korea's problems with servicing its external debt-- estimated at between US$2 billion and US$3 billion for the years 1972-79. Later seven- and ten-year plans failed to reach projected growth rates; still, a study published by the United States Central Intelligence Agency in 1978 estimated that North Korea's per capita gross national product (GNP) equaled South Korea's as late as 1976. Since that time, however, it has fallen behind South Korea, and transportation bottlenecks and fuel resource problems have plagued the economy.

Agriculture was collectivized after the Korean War, in stages that went from mutual aid teams to second-stage cooperatives, but stopped short of building the huge state farms found in the Soviet Union or the communes of China. Relying mostly on cooperative farms corresponding to the old natural villages and using material incentives (there was apparently little ideological bias against using such incentives), North Korea pushed agricultural production ahead, and its general agricultural success was acknowledged. The United States government estimated in 1978 that grain production had grown more rapidly in North Korea than in South Korea and that living standards in North Korea's rural areas had probably improved more quickly than those in South Korea. Nevertheless, production has fallen behind and North Korea has failed to reach projected targets, for example, the production of 10 million tons of grain by 1986.

North Korea


North Korea

Marxism did not present a political model for achieving socialism, only an opaque set of prescriptions. This political vacuum opened the way for the development of an indigenous political culture. The strongest foreign influence on North Korea's leadership has been the Chinese communist model. Like Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung has been very much a mass line leader, making frequent visits to factories and the countryside, sending cadres down to local levels to help policy implementation and to solicit local opinion, requiring small-group political study and so-called criticism and self-criticism, using periodic campaigns to mobilize people for production or education, and encouraging soldiers to engage in production in good "people's army" fashion.

The North Korean political system also differs in many respects from China and the former Soviet Union. The symbol of the KWP is a hammer and sickle with a superimposed writing brush, symbolizing the "three-class alliance" of workers, peasants, and intellectuals. Unlike Mao's China, the Kim regime has never excoriated intellectuals as a potential "new class" of exploiters; instead, it has followed an inclusive policy toward them, perhaps because postwar Korea was short of intellectuals and experts and because so many had left North Korea for South Korea in the 1945-50 period. For P'yongyang, the term intellectual refers to experts and technocrats, of which there are exceedingly few in North Korea. North Korea's political system is thus a mix of Marxism-Leninism, Korean nationalism, and indigenous political culture. The term that perhaps best captures this system is corporatism. Socialist corporatist doctrine has always preferred an organic politic to the liberal, pluralist conception: a corporeal body politic rather than a set of diverse groups and interests.

North Korea's goal of tight unity at home has produced a remarkable organicism, unprecedented in any existing communist regime. Kim Il Sung is not just the "iron-willed, ever-victorious commander," the "respected and beloved Great Leader"; he also is the "head and heart" of the body politic (even "the supreme brain of the nation"!). The flavor of this politics can be demonstrated through quotations taken from KWP newspapers in the spring of 1981:


Kim Il Sung ... is the great father of our people....Long is the history of the word father being used as a word representing love and reverence ... expressing the unbreak-able blood ties between the people and the leader. Father. This familiar word represents our people's single heart of boundless respect and loyalty.... The love shown by the Great Leader for our people is the love of kinship. Our respected and beloved Leader is the tender-hearted father of all the people.... Love of paternity ... is the noblest ideological sentiment possessed only by our people.

His heart is a traction power attracting the hearts of all people and a centripetal force uniting them as one.... Kim Il Sung is the great sun and great man ... thanks to this great heart, national independence is firmly guaranteed.

This type of language was especially strong when the succession of Kim Jong Il was publicly announced at the Sixth Party Congress in 1980. The KWP often is referred to as the "Mother" party, the mass line is said to provide "blood ties," the leader always is "fatherly," and the country is one big "family." Kim Il Sung is said to be paternal, devoted, and benevolent, and the people presumably respond with loyalty, obedience, and mutual love.

North Korean ideology buries Marxism-Leninism under the ubiquitous, always-trumpeted chuch'e idea. By the 1970s, chuch'e had triumphed fundamentally over Marxism-Leninism as the basic ideology of the regime, but the emphases were there from the beginning. Chuch'e is the opaque core of North Korean national solipsism.

National solipsism expresses an omnipotent theme found in North Korean written materials: an assumption that Korea is the center of the world, radiating outward the rays of chuch'e, especially to Third World countries that are thought by the North Koreans to be ready for chuch'e. The world tends toward Korea, with all eyes on Kim Il Sung. The presence of such an attitude is perhaps the most bizarre aspect of North Korea, but also one of the most noticeable. The model of ever-widening concentric circles--at the center of which is Kim Il Sung, next his family, next the guerrillas who fought with him, and then the KWP elite--is profoundly Korean and has characterized North Korea since 1946. This core circle controls everything at the top levels of the regime. The core moves outward and downward concentrically to encompass other elements of the population and provides the glue holding the system together. As the penumbra of workers and peasants is reached, trust gives way to control on a bureaucratic basis and to a mixture of normative and remunerative incentives. Nonetheless, the family remains the model for societal organization. An outer circle distinguishes the Korean from the foreign, a reflection of the extraordinary ethnic and linguistic unity of Koreans and Korea's history of exclusionism. Yet the circle keeps on expanding, as if to encompass foreigners under the mantle of Kim and his chuch'e idea.

North Korea


North Korea

Since the end of the Korean War, the two Koreas have faced each other across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), engaged most of the time in unremitting, withering, unregenerate hostility, punctuated by occasional, brief thaws and increasing exchanges between P'yongyang and Seoul. Huge armies still are poised to fight at a moment's notice. The emergence of the Sino-Soviet conflict in 1969, the United States opening to China in 1971-72, and the end of the Second Indochina War in 1975, however, were some of the watershed changes in world politics that both seemed to empty the Cold War logic of its previous meaning and changed the great power configuration.

The strategic logic of the 1970s had an immediate and beneficial impact on Korea. The Nixon administration withdrew a division of United States soldiers from South Korea. North Korea responded by virtually halting attempts at infiltration (compared with 1968, when more than 100 soldiers died along the DMZ and the United States spy ship Pueblo was seized) and by significantly reducing the defense budget in 1971. In what seemed to be a miraculous development, the Koreas held talks at a high level. These talks between the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency and Kim Yng-ju, Kim Il Sung's younger brother, in early 1972, culminated in a July 4, 1972, announcement that both sides would seek reunification peacefully, independently of outside forces, and with common efforts toward creating a "great national unity" that would transcend the many differences between the two systems. Within a year, however, this initiative had effectively failed.

United States policy again shifted, if less dramatically, when the administration of Jimmy Carter announced plans for a gradual but complete withdrawal of United States ground forces from South Korea (air and naval units would remain deployed in or near Korea). At that time, a prolonged period of North Korean courting of the United States began. In 1978, however, the first of the large-scale military exercises called Team Spirit, involving more than 200,000 United States and South Korean troops, was held. And, in 1979, the Carter administration dropped its program of troop withdrawal in reaction to North Korea's rapid and extensive upgrading of its army and the discovery of North Korean-built tunnels under the DMZ; the administration committed itself to a modest but significant build-up of force and equipment levels in South Korea.

In the late 1970s, P'yongyang's policy towards Moscow and Beijing was somewhat of a balancing act. Nonetheless, North Korea began using a term of opprobrium for Soviet imperialism, dominationism (chibaejui), a term akin to the Chinese term, hegemonism. By and large, P'yongyang adhered to the Chinese foreign policy line during the Carter years, while taking care not to antagonize the Soviet Union needlessly. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, North Korea forcefully and publicly condemned the invasion while maintaining a studied silence when China responded by invading Vietnam.

By the early 1980s, changing United States-China relations also had repercussions in the two Koreas. China said publicly that it wished to play a role in reducing tension on the Korean Peninsula. In January 1984, for the first time, a major North Korean initiative called for three-way talks between the United States, South Korea, and North Korea. Through most of the 1980s, China sought to sponsor talks between Washington and P'yongyang-- talks that occasionally took place in Beijing at the ministercounselor level--and encouraged Kim Il Sung to take the path of diplomacy.

The reemergence of detente between the United States and the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s has provided a major opportunity to resolve the Korean confrontation. Seoul, more than P'yongyang, has been effective in exploiting these new opportunities. As Seoul's prestige has grown, it has clearly put P'yongyang on the defensive, perhaps more than at any time since the Korean War. The sharp changes in world politics in the late 1980s placed the fate of the Kim regime in the balance. If North Korea survives amid the failure of most other communist systems, it will be because of the historical, nationalistic, and indigenous roots that its leaders have sought to foster since the 1940s. Drawing on a tradition of resistance to foreign pressure going back to the states of Kogury and Parhae, the North Koreans demonstrated their tenacity and their resilience during the time of the Korean War. They will probably find the 1990s equally challenging.

North Korea

CITATION: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

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