On Sunday North Korea failed in an attempt to test a new missile, sparking new concerns about the country’s threat to U.S. and global security. Here is what you should know about the secretive autocratic regime that has ruled North Korea for more than sixty years:
1. Since the mid-1940s, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been ruled by the autocratic Kim family: Kim Il-sung held power from 1948 until his death in 1994; his son, Kim Jong-il, ruled the country from 1994 to 2011; and his grandson, Kim Jong-un, has been the supreme leader since 2011.
2. Following the surrender of Japanese forces in 1945, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, issued General Order No. 1. In this order, the Japanese empire was required to surrender all portions of Korea north of 38 north latitude to the Soviet Union and all of Korea south of that marker to the United States (the arbitrary choice of the dividing line, which has affected international relations for more than seventy years, was “recommended by two tired colonels working late at night”). That December, the Soviets installed a communist guerrilla leader named Kim Il-sung as the chairman of the North Korean branch of the Korean Communist Party. When the DPRK was formed in September 1948, the Soviets recognized Kim Il-sung as the leader of Korea, both North and South.
3. Attempting to make his dream of unification a reality, Kim Il-sung launched the first military action of the Cold War by invading the Republic of Korea (ROK) in July 1950. The United Nations came to the aide of South Korea, with the U.S. providing over two-thirds of the military forces. After four months of fighting, the DPRK was on the verge of losing when China came to their rescue. The fighting continued until 1953 when an armistice was signed that created the Korean Demilitarized Zone, separating North and South Korea. Because no peace treaty was ever signed, and because the U.S. has a mutual defense treaty with the Republic of Korea, the U.S. is positioned to go to war if the DPRK resumes attacks on South Korea.
4. Soon after taking control of his country, Kim Il-sung developed such a strong personality cult that under the DPRK constitution he remains, even in death, the “eternal President of the Republic.” Within a year of being appointed premier, Kim Il-sung was referring to himself as “The Great Leader” and erecting statues of himself (the country now has more than 500 statues of him). His birthday is a national holiday known as the “Day of the Sun”, and in 1997 Kim Il-sung even created a new calendar that recalculated time from the year 1912, when he “came to earth from Heaven.”
5. In 1972, after he surrendered his Soviet premiership and became President of North Korea, Kim Il-sung instituted the ideology known as Juche, a form of hyper-nationalistic self-reliance. As the DPRK explains, “The Juche idea means, in a nutshell, that the masters of the revolution and construction are the masses of the people and that they are also the motive force of the revolution and construction. The Juche idea is based on the philosophical principle that man is the master of everything and decides everything.” Writing in the Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs, Grace Lee explains how this official autarkic state ideology is used to keep the North Korean population under control:
The Kim Il Sung regime instructed the North Korean people in the juche ideology using an analogy drawn from human anatomy. The Great Leader is the brain that makes decisions and issues orders, the Party is the nervous system that channels information, and the people are the bone and muscle that physically execute the orders. This belief system, inculcated in North Koreans since early childhood, made them docile and loyal to Kim Il Sung even in the face of famines and energy crises that have devastated the country.
6. Kim Il-sung placed his son in positions of power so that in 1994 Kim Jong-il would become the “supreme leader” of the DPRK. Over the next three years, Kim Jong-il’s agricultural system would cause a famine that killed 3 million of the country’s 22 million people. (Under the idea of Juche, says The Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann, “Farmers were expected to overcome mother nature and grow enough crops to feed the entire population.”) As his people starved, Kim Jong-il focused on a policy of songun (military first) to maintain the world’s fourth largest army.
7. To keep control of the population, Kim Jong-il maintained a massive system of kwanliso (gulag-like political prison camps). As Human Rights Watch explains:
Between 80,000 and 120,000 North Koreans are estimated to still be in kwanliso, which are characterized by systemic abuse and deadly conditions, including torture and sexual abuse by guards, near-starvation rations, back-breaking forced labor in dangerous conditions, and executions. Working conditions at these sites are extremely difficult, including exposure to harsh weather, rudimentary tools, lack of safety equipment, and high risks of workplace accidents. Death rates in these camps are extremely high, political prison camp survivors told Human Rights Watch.
8. Kim Jong-un became supreme leader after his father’s death in 2012. As the Pentagon explained in a report to Congress, since assuming control Kim Jong-un has “solidified his grip on power by embracing the coercive tools used by his father and grandfather.” The regime has used “force and the threat of force combined with inducements to quell domestic dissent and strengthen internal security; co-opt the North Korean military and elites; develop strategic military capabilities to deter external attack; and challenge the ROK and the U.S.-ROK Alliance.” In April 2013, notes the Pentagon report, Kim Jong-un announced the “byungjin” policy, which emphasizes the parallel development of the country’s economy and nuclear weapons program, to reinforce his regime’s domestic, diplomatic, economic, and security interests.
9. Under the rule of Kim Jong-un, the DPRK has carried out five tests of nuclear armaments. Not much is known about North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities, but it’s estimated the country has nuclear warheads that can be mounted on some of its short-range and perhaps medium-range missiles. Earlier this week, a senior DPRK official told the BBC, “We’ll be conducting more missile tests on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis,” and said an “all-out war” would result if the U.S. took military action.
10. Kim Jong-un’s regime is intent on developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that can strike the U.S. with nuclear warheads. He believes this will help him reach his main strategic goal, which the Pentagon identifies as ensuring “Kim family rule in perpetuity.” The Pentagon also notes that the overarching national security objectives of Kim Jong-un have remained largely consistent: international recognition as a nuclear armed state; maintenance of a viable deterrent capability; the simultaneous development of its economy and nuclear weapons program (i.e., the “byungjin” line); reinforcement of its military-first approach to domestic and foreign affairs (“songun”); tight control over communications, borders, movement, and trade; and reunification of Korea under North Korea’s control.” The Defense Department says North Korea uses reunification with South Korea as a key component of its national identity narrative to validate its strategy and policies, and to justify sacrifices demanded of the populace.
Joe Carter is an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College, an editor for several organizations, and the author of the NIV Lifehacks Bible.
Photo Credit: Large portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on the eastern wall of Grand People’s Study House, facing Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea. By Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, via Wikimedia Commons.