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North Korea Modern History

Korea was entered by the Soviet Union and the United States at the end of the Second World War. In 1948, North Korea was proclaimed and in 1950–1953, a bloody war raged between the Communist state, with Chinese and Soviet support, and South Korea supported by US-led UN troops. North Korea has subsequently been ruled by iron hand by Kim Il-Sung, his son Kim Jong-Il and, since 2011, by his grandson Kim Jong-Un. Since the 1990s, the economy has been in crisis and famine has hit the population. At the same time, North Korea puts huge sums on the military and, in spite of protests around the world, blasted its first nuclear weapon in 2006.

When Japan was defeated by the Allied victories at the end of World War II, North Korea was invaded by the Soviet military while the southern part was taken by the Americans. A dividing line between the Soviet troops in the north and the American in the south was drawn along the 38th latitude. The USSR formed a communist system in the north under the leadership of Kim Il-Sung. In the south, the United States established a temporary government of moderate nationalists.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing North Korea. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

The United States drew the Korean issue to the UN in 1947. The General Assembly appointed a commission to organize elections throughout Korea. The Soviet refused to let the Commission into "its" part of the country, and the UN could only arrange elections in the south.

Following the May 1948 elections, a new state in the South - the Republic of Korea - was proclaimed in August. The same month elections were held for a North Korean People's Assembly and on September 9, 1948, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was formed. Kim Il-Sung was appointed prime minister. In 1949 the Communist Korean Workers' Party was founded, with Kim as chairman.

Contemporary History of North KoreaThe new state received political, economic and military support from the Soviet Union, but Kim Il-Sung also sought to maintain good relations with China's new communist regime under Mao Zedong. North Korea's military was built strong with Soviet weapons. Propaganda wars were going on between the north and the south, and along the standstill line there were many screen savers.

Korean War

In June 1950, North Korea attacked over the 38th latitude. At the initiative of the United States, the UN Security Council (boycotted by the Soviet Union) called on the members of the organization to support South Korea with troops. The United States came to lead and dominate the UN operation.

The North Koreans quickly occupied much of South Korea, but were soon forced back to the border with China. When a few hundred thousand Chinese soldiers intervened, the UN troops were in turn pushed back. From April 1951 the front stabilized along the 38th latitude, but fighting continued until July 1953, when a standstill agreement was concluded in Panmunjon. However, no peace agreement was ever reached and the demilitarized zone along the latitude still forms the border between North and South Korea. The Korean War claimed at least a few million lives, but according to some sources, more than 5 million died.

The Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe contributed financially to North Korea's reconstruction. During the 1950s, the country's industry surpassed South Korea and the North Koreans were given free education and medical care.

By the early 1960s, Kim Il-Sung had outmaneuvered all competitors for power. But his focus on North Korean self-reliance, juche (see Political system), led to isolation.

However, there was a certain opening to the outside world, including South Korea, in the early 1970s. Modern technology was imported from the West and trade increased. But North Korea could not afford to pay for its imports, and soon there were reports of shortages of food and other goods. At the same time, an ideological campaign was launched for the North Koreans to devote their days to eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, and eight hours of study of the juche ideology.

Kim Jong-Il takes over power

When it was announced in 1984 that Kim Il-Sung's eldest son Kim Jong-Il would eventually succeed his father as president, the son had already gained a prominent position in the power apparatus. He was appointed commander-in-chief in 1991 and chaired by the National Defense Commission in 1993, and was gradually considered in practice as the country's leader.

Disarmament among the military and confrontations between soldiers and workers, who complained about working and living conditions, created political concern. In addition, North Korea's isolation and economic problems increased after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 (see Economic overview).

Kim Il-Sung's death in 1994 sparked speculation about possible upheavals or course changes in closed North Korea. Kim Jong-Il seemed to have a firm grip on power, but more and more dropouts contributed to speculation about power struggles, social unrest and growing economic problems.

In 1995 and 1996, the situation worsened dramatically with floods, and in 1997 the country was hit by severe drought. Reluctantly, North Korea acknowledged "temporary food problems". The country was forced to accept extensive food aid from the outside world. Some sources estimate that at least one million people starved to death in three years. According to other estimates, it was rather two million - one in ten inhabitants of the country.

The economic and social collapse strengthened the military's power. Political purges occurred while promoting military service. The emphasis on the principle of the "military first", songun, with absolute priority for military spending was given increased importance (see Political system).

Thunderstorm with South Korea

Increasing contacts with South Korea culminated in June 2000, when Kim Jong-Il received South Korea's President Kim Dae-Jung during a historic state visit to Pyongyang (see Foreign Policy and Defense). The continued relations were marked by North Korea's economic crisis. Hard winters created an acute energy shortage. Pyongyang demanded electricity supplies as a condition for continued talks with Seoul. New floods and continued famine were followed by UN calls for relief.

At the same time as the military strengthened its grip, North Korea initiated cautious reforms in the market economy in 2002 (see Economic overview). The regime was felt compelled to do so to avoid collapse of the petrified society. But the experiment led to inflation and growing gaps between businessmen in larger cities and the majority of people who have to trade ration cards in government stores. The scope for reform was also minimal, when the "military first" policy applied.

Economic cooperation with the Western world was complicated by the conflict over North Korea's nuclear program. In October 2006, for the first time, the country blasted a nuclear weapons charge (see Foreign Policy and Defense).

From 2008 Kim failed to appear from some official contexts and it was later confirmed that he suffered a severe stroke. Nevertheless, he was re-elected chairman of the National Defense Commission in March 2009 and his position was strengthened through changes in the constitution.

Protests against currency reform

Following a second test of nuclear weapons in the spring of 2009, UN sanctions were tightened, the world's aid willingness decreased and food shortages in the country worsened. At the same time, measures were taken to reduce inflation and take control of the emerging market economy with growing income gaps. Private shops, markets and restaurants that emerged were closed and the use of foreign currency was banned. In December 2009, a currency reform was implemented, in which one hundred won became a single won. People had a week to exchange old notes for new ones, and no one had to exchange more than 100,000 won, about SEK 250.

The reform triggered great anger among many North Koreans who at one time became poorer. There were reports of riots and attacks on security people who tried to stop food smuggling. Several people must have been executed as a result.

The social unrest caused the regime to mitigate the currency reform, partly through increased exchange rate limits (see also Economic overview). The political failure led to a number of layoffs within the military and party leadership. The food shortage worsened in 2010, partly due to the withdrawal of assistance from South Korea (see Foreign Policy and Defense).

Kim Jong-Un becomes new leader

In December 2011, Kim Jong-Il died in a heart attack, 69 years old. The scene had already been prepared for his youngest son Kim Jong-Un, barely 30 years old, to take over. He had already received prominent posts when the party held its first major meeting in 30 years in 2010. Soon he was appointed chairman of the party's central military commission, chairman of the National Defense Commission (see Political system) and first secretary of the party.

The world hopes that the change of leadership would lead to greater openness and less confrontation soon came to shame. In April 2012, Pyongyang launched a long-range rocket to deploy a satellite into space. However, the launch was a failure as the rocket crashed shortly after takeoff. The reactions around the world became strong, because it was all seen as a disguised attempt to test a long-range weapon. The United States immediately broke an agreement to provide North Korea with extensive food assistance against the termination of its nuclear weapons and missile program.

In December 2012, North Korea launched a new rocket launch, this time successfully. The condemnations became sharp in the outside world and the UN Security Council decided to extend the existing sanctions against North Korea. When North Korea tested a nuclear weapon for the third time in February 2013, the UN responded with new sanctions. Strict restrictions were imposed on goods imports and financial transactions as well as travel bans for leading persons.

There were no signs of major political course changes. But in the spring of 2013, at the urging of Kim Jong-Un, the party adopted a new political development strategy, byungjin, which prioritized not only the nuclear weapons program and the military, as in the military's first policy, but also the country's economy.

 
 

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