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2008/09/11 11:28 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 20 (September 11, 2008)


60 Years of North Korea: Past, Present and Future

By Chon Hyun-joon, senior research fellow
The Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, Korea

Sixty years have passed since the Korean communists established their regime in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula on Sept. 9, 1948. Over those decades North Korea has witnessed various drastic changes in an array of sectors, and struggled with deepening isolation.

   The northern half of the 38th parallel, the dividing line drawn by Allied Forces at the end of World War II, came under the control of the Soviet army and Korean communists as the peninsula was liberated from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. Amid a power vacuum, the southern half was taken over by the U.S. army and Korean capitalists. For the few years that followed independence, Koreans on both sides vied with each other for the establishment of an autonomous unified government.

   Many nationalists, including the famed Kim Gu, took strong steps towards establishing a Korean regime on the peninsula, trying to find a common ideological ground between the two sides. But the efforts of such activists ultimately came to naught.

   As a result, there emerged the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) led by President Syngman Rhee in the southern half of the peninsula and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) led by Premier Kim Il-sung in the northern half in 1948, giving birth to the decades-long tragic division of the Korean peninsula, home of the fatherland for Koreans for more than a thousand years.

The Foundation of the Kim Il-sung Regime

In June 1950, North Korea launched a surprise attack on the South in an attempt to unify the Korean peninsula under its ideology, starting a war that would last for three years. The war claimed over five million troops and civilians from North and South Korea, the United Nations and China. The scars left by the fighting solidified the division of the peninsula, and generated a deep mutual distrust.

   North Korean leader Kim Il-sung laid the blame for the North's failure to reclaim the peninsula on the South Korean Workers' Party led by Pak Hon-young and purged them from the country while removing his political rivals -- including Mu Jong, who served as a leading North Korean commander during the Korean War. The confrontation between the Juche (self-reliant) line and the Soviet-Chinese line also resulted in the purging of Soviet and Chinese factions.

   In simple terms, the Soviet-Chinese factions' revolt against Kim Il-sung in late August 1956 brought about the removal of those groups and the establishment of Kim's absolute dictatorial rule in North Korea, which was to be inherited by his son Kim Jong-il after the senior Kim's death in 1994.

   One of the most conspicuous political developments in North Korea during the past 60 years is the establishment of a doctrine regarding its leader, known as the "Suryong doctrine." It is the quintessence of the Juche idea, aimed at making the leadership absolute and strictly forbidding unsanctioned citizen activities. Under the Suryong doctrine, all North Koreans, regardless of their status, are required to abide by the command of the leader -- with no exceptions.

   This development is at least partly responsible for the North's economic failure. The adverse situations facing the North Korean economy have caused many of its citizens to starve to death and led others to defect out of desperation. Moreover, North Korea's nuclear development program, which surfaced in 1992, touched off more intensive U.S. measures against the North, and perhaps signaled the beginning of the communist state's collapse. The regime is in such dire straits that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has clenched control even more firmly in order to maintain the status quo. In an effort to justify the measures, Pyongyang has introduced new political rhetoric such as the "Songun (military-first) politics," and ramped up its propaganda against the West and its southern neighbor.

The Collapse of the Soviet Bloc and North Korea's Economic Difficulties

Pyongyang's strategy for economic development, which was based on ideological mobilization around Juche-oriented socialism, began to lose steam in the 1970s and hit bottom in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet socialist bloc. North Korea's self-reliant economy, which had depended on moral rather than material incentives, broke down helplessly when the socialist camp, which had served as its support, went under. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans starved to death when a series of natural disasters exacerbated its economic situation. As a result, North Korea had to ask for international assistance, further deteriorating the country's central philosophy: "We can live independently without outside help."

   Reflecting a remarkable upheaval in world history, the collapse of the socialist bloc also led to the breakdown of the North's "One Korea" policy -- its guiding principle regarding the South. With the political landscape changing, North Korea won membership in the United Nations in 1991, along with South Korea, and two nations signed the "South-North Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-aggression, Exchanges and Cooperation," dubbed the "Basic Agreement." It was a clear sign that North Korea acknowledged the states' separate governments.

   Pyongyang, which had become to be unable to safeguard its political system let alone achieve its long-held goal of bringing South Korea under its control, came forth for negotiations with the U.S. -- despite continuing to define the Western superpower as a "sworn enemy."
Progress in talks between Washington and Pyongyang has ebbed and flowed, but the two nations aimed at making a breakthrough following the first and second nuclear crises involving the North. Superficially, North Korea seems to have won a diplomatic war with the U.S. thanks to its brinkmanship strategy, but it has in reality finally turned helpless.

   North Korea conducted a nuclear test in October 2006, likely hoping to use its nuclear capability as a bargaining chip, but this time brinksmanship has proved to be an ineffective policy. The removal of Pyongyang from the U.S.'s list of state sponsors of terror -- as agreed upon under an earlier denuclearization deal -- has been halted and talks have once again entered a quagmire. Despite this, Kim Jong-il is undoubtedly well aware of the fact that the North can hardly be successful in reforming and opening-up economically without U.S. assistance.

The Future of the Kim Jong-il Regime

In the meantime, Kim, who emerged officially as North Korea's leader shortly after the death of his father in July 1994, set as a state goal in 1998 the rebuilding of the North as a Kangsong Taeguk, or a great, strong, and prosperous country, and has allowed domestic commercial activities while exerting efforts for improving relations with the U.S., Japan and the European Union. But Kim's efforts in that direction have yet to pay off because of disputes between the North and the U.S. over the North's nuclear program.

   The disputes between the U.S. and the North can hardly be resolved quickly. The U.S. is unlikely to come forth to improve relations with the North, even if Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama wins in the presidential election this coming November. The North must first take active and positive approach towards denuclearization -- an opinion shared by the majority of U.S. citizens.

   North Korea set 2012 as the target year for completing its ambitious plan to rebuild as a Kangsong Taeguk. Whether or not the North can revive its moribund economy depends on its choice of policies, both domestic and international. North Korea has made progress in improving its relations with western countries, including the U.S., under the title "socialism oriented with practical benefits," but it has still not adequately addressed its nuclear weapons development program or its abysmal human rights record.

   North Korea must show that it is not an "abnormal state" through active dialogue with the international community. Only through communication can Pyongyang secure the international assistance that is essential to achieving its ambitious economic goal by 2012.

   The point Seoul needs to put into consideration as the 60th founding anniversary of the North Korean regime passes is that the problems of the North are also those of the South. For better or worse, the North is inextricably linked to both the South's security and prosperity. A key North Korea policy of the current South Korean government led by President Lee Myung-bak calls for "mutual benefits and common prosperity of the two Koreas." It is clear that North Korea's close cooperation is necessary for the success of that policy.

   The current situation demands that the two Koreas reach a compromise, to improve their relations today and in the future, despite glaring disparities in values and sentiments between them. It may be that "creative pragmatism" should be the new mantra of both ROK and the DPRK, now more ever this year as they mark the 60th anniversary of their foundations.