In the aftermath of partition of Korea, Kim Il-Sung had arrived in North Korea on August 22 after 26 years in exile. In September 1945, Kim was installed by the Soviets as head of the Provisional People’s Committee. He was not, at this time, the head of the Communist Party, whose headquarters were in Seoul in the U.S.-occupied south.
Kim established a professional army, the Korean People's Army (KPA) aligned with the Communists, formed from a cadre of guerrillas and former soldiers who had gained combat experience in battles against the Japanese and later Nationalist Chinese troops. From their ranks, using Soviet advisers and equipment, Kim constructed a large army skilled in infiltration tactics and guerrilla warfare. Before the outbreak of the Korean War, Joseph Stalin equipped the KPA with modern medium tanks, trucks, artillery, and small arms. Kim also formed an air force, equipped at first with ex-Soviet propeller-driven fighter and attack aircraft. Later, North Korean pilot candidates were sent to the Soviet Union and China to train in MiG-15 jet aircraft at secret bases.
Although original plans called for all-Korean elections sponsored by the United Nations in 1948, Kim persuaded the Soviets not to allow the UN north of the 38th parallel. As a result, a month after the South was granted independence as the Republic of Korea, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was proclaimed on September 9, with Kim as premier. On October 12, the Soviet Union declared that Kim's regime was the only lawful government on the peninsula. The Communist Party merged with the New People's Party to form the Workers Party of North Korea (of which Kim was vice-chairman). In 1949, the Workers Party of North Korea merged with its southern counterpart to become the Workers Party of Korea (WPK) with Kim as party chairman.
By 1949, North Korea was a full-fledged Communist dictatorship. All parties and mass organizations joined the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, ostensibly a popular front but in reality dominated by the Communists. The government moved rapidly to establish a political system that was partly styled on the Soviet system, with political power monopolised by the Worker's Party of Korea (WPK). The establishment of a command economy followed. Most of the country's productive assets had been owned by the Japanese or by Koreans who had been collaborators. The nationalization of these assets in 1946 placed 70% of industry under state control. By 1949 this percentage had risen to 90%. Since then, virtually all manufacturing, finance and internal and external trade has been conducted by the state.
In agriculture, the government moved more slowly towards a command economy. The "land to the tiller" reform of 1946 redistributed the bulk of agricultural land to the poor and landless peasant population, effectively breaking the power of the landed class. In 1954, however, a partial collectivization was carried out, with peasants being urged, and often forced, into agricultural co-operatives. By 1958, virtually all farming was being carried out collectively, and the co-operatives were increasingly merged into larger productive units.
Like all the postwar communist states, North Korea undertook massive state investment in heavy industry, state infrastructure and military strength, neglecting the production of consumer goods. By paying the collectivized peasants low state-controlled prices for their product, and using the surplus thus extracted to pay for industrial development, the state carried out a series of three-year plans, which brought industry's share of the economy from 47% in 1946 to 70% in 1959, despite the devastation of the Korean War. There were huge increases in electricity production, steel production and machine building. The large output of tractors and other agricultural machinery achieved a great increase in agricultural productivity.
See main article: Korean War. The consolidation of Syngman Rhee's government in the South with American military support and the suppression of the October 1948 insurrection ended hopes that the country could be reunified by way of Stalinist revolution in the South, and from early 1949 Kim sought Soviet and Chinese support for a military campaign to reunify the country by force. The withdrawal of most U.S. forces from South Korea in June 1949 left the southern government defended only by a weak and inexperienced South Korean army. The southern regime also had to deal with a citizenry of uncertain loyalty. The North Korean army, by contrast, had been the beneficiary of the Soviet Union's outdated Soviet WWII-era equipment, and had a core of hardened veterans who had fought as anti-Japanese guerrillas or with the Chinese Communists.
Initially, the Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin rejected Kim's requests for permission to invade the South, but in late 1949 the Communist victory in China and the development of Soviet nuclear weapons made him re-consider Kim's proposal. In January 1950, after China's Mao Zedong indicated that China would send troops and other support to Kim, Stalin approved an invasion. The Soviets provided limited support in the form of advisors who helped the North Koreans as they planned the operation, and Soviet military instructors to train some of the Korean units. However, from the very beginning Stalin made it clear that the Soviet Union would avoid a direct confrontation with the U.S. over Korea and would not commit ground forces even in case of some major military crisis. The stage was set for a civil war between two rival regimes on the Korean peninsula.
For over a year before North Korean forces tried to attack the southern government on June 25, 1950, the two sides had been engaged in a series of bloody clashes along the 38th parallel, especially in the Ongjin area on the west coast. On June 25, 1950, the northern forces escalated the battles into a full-fledged offensive and crossed the parallel in large numbers. Due to a combination of surprise, superior military forces, and a poorly armed South Korean army, the Northern forces quickly captured Seoul and Syngman Rhee and his government was forced to flee further south. However, the North Koreans failed to unify the peninsula when foreign powers entered the civil war. North Korean forces were soon defeated and driven northwards by United Nations forces led by the U.S. By October, the U.N. forces had retaken Seoul and captured Pyongyang, and it became Kim's turn to flee. But in November, Chinese forces entered the war and pushed the U.N. forces back, retaking Pyongyang in December and Seoul in January 1951. In March U.N. forces retook Seoul, and the war essentially became a bloody stalemate for the next two years. The front was stabilized in 1953 along what eventually became the current Armistice Line. After long negotiations, the two sides agreed on a border.
See also: Korean DMZ Conflict (1966-1969). The whole of the Korean peninsula lay in ruins when the armistice was signed at Pammunjon on July 27, 1953. Despite the failure of his attempt at unifying the nation under his rule, Kim Il-sung considered the war a success in the sense that he remained in power. The armistice was celebrated in Pyongyang with a military parade in which Kim declared "Despite their best efforts, the imperialist invaders were defeated with great loss in men and material."
Reconstruction of the DPRK proceeded with Chinese and Soviet assistance, a task that took the next few years. Meanwhile, Kim began gradually consolidating his power. Up to this time, North Korean politics were represented by four factions: the Yunan (pro-Chinese) faction, pro-Soviet, native Korean communists, and Kim's own group, those who had fought guerrilla actions against Japan in the 1930s and 1940s.
Pak Hon-yong, party vice chairman and Foreign Minister of the DPRK, was blamed for the failure of the southern population to support North Korea during the war and was executed after a show-trial in 1955. Most of the South Korean leftists who defected to the North in 1945–1953 were also accused of espionage and other crimes and killed, imprisoned or exiled to remote agricultural and mining villages. Potential rivals from other groups such as Kim Tu-bong were also purged. Then in 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made a sweeping denunciation of Stalin, which sent shock waves throughout the communist world. North Korea, Albania, and China were among the loudest opponents of de-Stalinization. While Kim Il-sung was visiting Moscow that August, a group of his opponents tried to seize control of the government machinery in Pyongyang. They denounced Kim as a tyrant who practiced arbitrary, one-man rule. When he hastily returned home, the brief attempt at political liberalization in North Korea was ended. Kim and his guerrilla faction had the advantage of appearing as national heroes due to their resistance against the Japanese and there was no question about their patriotism. By contrast, the pro-Chinese and Soviet groups tended to appear as the representatives of other nations. A series of purges followed in 1956-1958, and by 1961 the last remaining opposition to Kim had disappeared.
Stalin continued to be honored in North Korea, and a street in Pyongyang bore his name until 1980. By contrast, Chinese leader Mao Zedong was mostly ignored and Kim Il-sung rejected most of his policies such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign and (later) the Cultural Revolution. However, the Great Leap Forward lead to a Korean imitation in 1958-1960 known as the Chollima (Flying Horse) Campaign. Still, Kim himself remained the primary object of veneration in the DPRK. He had always had a personality cult from 1949 onward, and by the 1970s it would reach unprecedented dimensions.
The gradual rift between China and the USSR that developed in the early 1960s caused North Korea to pursue a delicate balancing act between the two communist giants. By 1963, this balance clearly tipped towards Peking. North Korea joined the Chinese in criticizing Khrushchev for "revisionism" and for being too soft on the United States. Official proclamations stated that the DPRK and PRC were in "complete agreement" on all major issues. Racial, cultural, and historical ties also pulled North Korea closer to China. However, Kim Il-sung eventually decided that he was moving too far towards becoming a Chinese satellite. China was also comparatively un-industrialized and could not provide the technical and military assistance Pyongyang sought. Finally, the PRC exploded its first atomic bomb in October 1964 and subsequently refused to give North Korea any nuclear weapons of its own, apparently fearing that Kim was too likely to use them in his quest to reunify the peninsula. In 1965, the pro-Chinese stance of North Korea had noticeably diminished.
Meanwhile, the peninsula remained divided and relations with the ROK and the United States were bitterly hostile. But when the US became engaged in Vietnam around this time, Kim saw an opportunity. Inspired by the actions of the Vietcong, he began employing his own guerrilla squads to infiltrate South Korea, spread propaganda, and commit sabotage. North Korean agents came south in 1966-1969, creating disruption, but ultimately failing to win over the South Korean populace. Actions such as an attempted assassination of ROK president Park Chung-Hee in Seoul failed, and Kim publicly disclaimed any responsibility for them. North Korean fighter pilots were also sent to Hanoi's assistance (and conversely South Korea sent a contingent of troops to aid the government in Saigon).
Relations with China collapsed when that country became engulfed in the Cultural Revolution. North Korea refused to condemn the campaign, stating that it was Peking's internal affair. However, when visiting Moscow in 1966, Kim expressed to the Soviets his bewilderment at the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards then denounced him as a "millionaire, a revisionist, and a capitalist" who lived in splendor while American imperialists made war on Vietnam (all the while ignoring Pyongyang's assistance to the DRV). In the end, North Korea could not condemn a neighbor that was easily capable of putting a million troops on the border and had no choice but to lie low until the Cultural Revolution ended. There were isolated clashes with Chinese troops in 1968, and Red Guards erected loudspeakers on the Korean border where they denounced Kim Il-sung and read from Mao's Little Red Book. North Korean troops responded by airing quotations from their leader's writings. But by 1970, the storm clouds of the Cultural Revolution had blown away and relations with China returned to normal. Chinese premier Zhou Enlai visited Pyongyang that year and apologized for the attacks made on Kim by the Red Guards. At the same time, the Soviets were again criticized for being too soft on the United States.
1968 was mainly dominated by the capture of the USS Pueblo, a reconnaissance ship captured in the Sea of Japan that January. The crew were held captive throughout the year despite American protests that the vessel was in international waters and finally released in December after a formal US apology was issued. North Korea went in for a repeat performance in April 1969 by shooting down an EC-121 aircraft, killing everyone on board. The Nixon administration found itself unable to react at all, since the US was heavily committed in Vietnam and had no troops to spare if the situation in Korea escalated. However, the Pueblo capture and EC-121 shootdown did not find approval in Moscow or Peking, as neither country wanted a second major war to erupt in Asia.
In 1972, the first formal summit meeting between Pyongyang and Seoul was held, but cautious talks did not lead much of anywhere and relations between the two Koreas continued down the path of hostility. In 1975, with the fall of South Vietnam, Kim Il-sung began to feel that the US had shown its weakness and that reunification of Korea was finally possible. He visited Peking in the hope of gaining support for this plan, but Mao Zedong refused, saying the China would be unable to assist North Korea this time because of the lingering after-effects of the Cultural Revolution and because they had recently restored relations with the US. Kim therefore went home empty-handed.
Relations with China remained on an even course after Mao's death in 1976. China's new leaders Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping both visited North Korea in 1978, although they failed to reach a common understanding on relations with the Soviet Union (Peking was not on friendly terms with Moscow during the 1970s, while Pyongyang continued its usual balancing act).
Due to a series of ill fortuned policy decisions concerning military expenditures and mining industries and the radical changes in international oil prices by the late seventies, the North Korean economy began to slow down. These decisions eventually affected the whole economy, forcing the nation to acquire external debts. At the same time North Korea's policy of self-reliance and the antagonism of America and its allies made it difficult for them to expand foreign trade or secure credit.
In the 1970s, expansion of North Korea's economy, with the accompanying rise in living standards, came to an end and a few decades later went into reverse.Compounding this was a decision to borrow foreign capital and invest heavily in military industries. North Korea's desire to lessen its dependence on aid from China and the Soviet Union prompted the expansion of its military power, which had begun in the second half of the 1960s. The government believed such expenditures could be covered by foreign borrowing and increased sales of its mineral wealth in the international market. North Korea invested heavily in its mining industries and purchased a large quantity of mineral extraction infrastructure from abroad. However, soon after making such investments, international prices for many of North Korea's native minerals fell, leaving the country with large debts and an inability to pay them off and still provide a high level of social welfare to its people.
Worsening this already poor situation, the centrally planned economy, which emphasized heavy industry, had reached the limits of its productive potential in North Korea. Juche repeated demands that North Koreans learn to build and innovate domestically had run its course as had the ability of North Koreans to keep technological pace with other industrialized nations. By the mid to late-1970s some parts of the capitalist world, including South Korea, were creating new industries based around computers, electronics, and other advanced technology in contrast to North Korea's Stalinist economy of mining and steel production.
Continuing an ideology that had once been highly successful, Kim Il-Sung was unable to respond effectively to the challenge of an increasingly prosperous and well-armed South Korea, which undermined the legitimacy of his own regime. Having failed at their earlier attempt to conduct market-economy reforms such as those carried out in China by Deng Xiaoping, Kim opted for continued ideological purity. The DPRK by 1980 was faced with the choice of either repaying its international loans, or continuing its support of social welfare for its people. Given the ideals of Juche, North Korea chose to default on its loans and by the late 1980s its industrial output was declining. A 1984 visit to Pyongyang by CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang was received politely, but failed to sell Kim on reforms.
North Korea again drifted towards the Soviet Union after Kim visited Moscow in 1984 (his first trip there since 1966). However, DPRK-USSR relations ran out of gas by 1986. The basic nature of Pyongyang's political system was very different from Moscow's. The Korean Workers Party still existed, but it was essentially ceremonial and had long since been subordinated to Kim's personal dictatorship. Moreover, his Juche philosophy had effectively replaced Marxism-Leninism as North Korea's official ideology (as outlined in the 1974 constitution). In addition, the personality cult of Kim had assumed proportions not seen anywhere else in the world. Most of this (as well as the Juche philosophy) was the work of his son Kim Jong-Il, who had been officially nominated his father's successor in 1980. The elder Kim was unmoved by the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and this contributed to the decline in relations with Moscow. Chinese reforms also had little effect in North Korea, as did the fall of communist states in Eastern Europe during 1989. China endured a period of international isolation after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which caused it to embrace Pyongyang as one of the world's only surviving communist states. Even so, China participated in the 1988 Summer Olympics in South Korea and in 1990 agreed to recognize both Korean governments equally.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 deprived North Korea of its main source of economic aid, leaving China as the isolated regime's only major ally. Without Soviet aid, North Korea's economy went into a free-fall. Kim Jong Il was already conducting most of the day-to-day running of the state, and apparently kept his father in the dark about the growing economic disaster. Also at this time, North Korea was attracting the ire of the international community for its attempts at developing nuclear weapons. Former US president Jimmy Carter made a visit to Pyongyang in June 1994 in which he met with Kim and returned proclaiming that he had settled the nuclear question.
Kim Il-sung died on July 8, 1994, three weeks after the Carter visit. His son, Kim Jong-il, who had already assumed key positions in the government, succeeded as General-Secretary of the Korean Workers' Party. At that time, North Korea had no secretary-general in the party nor a president. Minimal legal procedure that had been established was summarily ignored. Although a new constitution appeared to end the war-time political system, it did not completely terminate the transitional military rule. Rather it legitimized and institutionalized military rule by making the National Defense Commission (NDC) the most important state organ and its chairman the highest authority. Kim Jong-il became Chairman of the NDC, a position described as the nation's "highest administrative authority," and thus North Korea's de facto head of state. His succession had been decided as early as 1980, with the support of the military and party apparatus.
The fundamental cause of this decline is that the state, which runs the entire economy, cannot pay for the necessary imports of capital goods to undertake the desperately needed modernization of its industrial plants. The inefficiency of North Korea's Stalinist-style agricultural system also contributed to the disaster. In addition, North Korea spends about a quarter of its GDP on armaments, including the development of nuclear weapons, and keeps nearly all able-bodied males aged 18–30 in uniform, while the basic infrastructure of the state is allowed to crumble.
Amid these growing problems, Kim Jong Il began reworking the DPRK's political system to accommodate his own style of governing. With the Cold War a thing of the past, the Korean Workers' Party (which was already largely powerless) was made even more ornamental. Instead, Kim adopted a new ideology known as "Songgun". Translated as "Army First", it effectively transformed North Korea into a military dictatorship rather than a traditional communist state. The army would dictate policy from now on.
Kim Jong Il made no serious effort to revive the Stalinist economic system his father had spent years building. Factories and mines were shuttered and abandoned. There was little functioning industry except that related to defense and tourism. Although the personality cult of the two Kims remained, as did the promotion of Juche, in effect North Korea by the 21st century had become a markedly different nation than it had been during the Cold War. Also, while still very much a totalitarian state, the DPRK had become somewhat less rigid than in Kim Il Sung's day. Strict labor discipline broke down with the economy, and people were no longer required to attend mandatory lectures on Juche. The country also achieved a cult following among tourists, because there was nowhere else in the world like it. By comparison, during the Cold War, there were rarely any foreign visitors except from other communist nations. China remained as always Pyongyang's main ally, although the two communist states no longer bore much resemblance to each other or to their own past.
As a result, North Korea is now dependent on international food aid to feed its population. According to Amnesty International, more than 13 million people, over half the population of the country, suffered from malnutrition in the DPRK in 2003. In 2001 the DPRK received nearly $300 million USD in food aid from the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and the European Union, plus much additional aid from the United Nations and non-governmental organizations. Unspecified (but apparently large) amounts of aid in the form of food, oil and coal are also provided by China every year. Despite this North Korea maintained its hostile rhetoric against the U.S., South Korea and Japan. The supply of heating and electricity outside the capital is practically non-existent, and food and medical supplies are scarce. When there is a bad harvest, as has been persistently the case over recent years, the population faces actual famine: a situation never before seen in a peacetime industrial economy. Since 1997 there has been a steady stream of illegal emigration to China, despite the efforts of both countries to prevent it. Koreans caught in China were sent back home where they might be tortured or sent to a labor camp. Those who weren't caught were often forced into slave labor or prostitution.
Kim Jong-il said that the solution to this crisis is earning hard currency, developing information technology, and attracting foreign aid, but very little progress has been made in these areas. So far the DPRK, not surprisingly given Juche and UN attempts to isolate them, has made little progress in attracting foreign capital.
In July 2002 some limited reforms were announced. The currency was devalued and food prices were allowed to rise in the hope of stimulating agricultural production. It was announced that food rationing systems as well as subsidized housing would be phased out. A "family-unit farming system" was introduced on a trial basis for the first time since collectivization in 1954. The government also set up a "special administrative zone" in Sinuiju, a town near the border with China. The local authority was given near-autonomy, especially in its economic affairs. This was an attempt to emulate the success of such free-trade zones in China, but it attracted little outside interest. Despite some optimistic talk in the foreign press the impetus of these reforms has not been followed with, for example, a large-scale decollectivization such as occurred in China under Deng.
President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea actively attempted to reduce tensions between the two Koreas under the Sunshine Policy, but this produced few immediate results. Since the election of George W. Bush as the President of the United States, North Korea has faced renewed external pressure over its nuclear program, reducing the prospect of international economic assistance.
North Korea remains a totalitarian Stalinist state. The lack of access to the foreign media and the tradition of secrecy in North Korea means that there is little news about political conditions, but Amnesty International's 2003 report on North Korea says that "there were reports of severe repression of people involved in public and private religious activities, including imprisonment, torture and executions. Unconfirmed reports suggested that torture and ill-treatment were widespread in North Korean prisons and labour camps. Conditions were reportedly extremely harsh."
There seems little immediate likelihood that North Korea will undergo an East German-style transition: a prospect that South Korea and China view with great trepidation because of the fear of a sudden and large exodus of North Korean refugees into their countries. There appears to be little significant internal opposition to the regime. Indeed, a great many of the refugees fleeing to China because of famine still showed significant support for the current government as well as pride in their homeland. Many of these food refugees reportedly return to North Korea after earning sufficient money.
In 2002 Kim Jong Il declared that "money should be capable of measuring the worth of all commodities", followed by some small market-oriented measures, and the creation of the Kaesong Industrial Region with transport links to South Korea was announced. Experiments are under way to allow factory managers to fire underperforming workers and give bonuses. China’s investments increased to $200 million in 2004. China has counseled North Korea’s leaders to gradually open the economy to market forces, and it is possible this path will be successfully followed as well as China's policy of keeping political control firmly in the hands of the Communist Party.
China for its part has sought to preserve North Korea as a strategic buffer zone, in part to prevent a mass influx of refugees and also out of the desire to not have a unified, American-backed Korea on its border.
North Korea declared on Feb. 10, 2005 that it has nuclear weapons bringing widespread calls for the North to return to the six-party talks aimed at curbing its nuclear program. It was initially disputed by outside sources whether or not North Korea has nuclear weapons, and many Russian sources denied that North Korea has the technology necessary to build a nuclear weapon. On Monday, 9 October 2006, North Korea has announced that it had successfully detonated a nuclear device underground at 10:36 am local time without any radiation leak. An official at South Korea's seismic monitoring center confirmed a magnitude-3.6 tremor felt at the time North Korea said it conducted the test was not a natural occurrence. Associated Press
Additionally, North Korea has a very active missile development program. In 1998, North Korea tested a Taepondong-1 Space Launch Vehicle, which successfully launched but failed to reach orbit. On July 5, 2006, they tested a Taepodong-2 ICBM that reportedly could reach the west coast of the U.S. in the 2-stage version, or the entire U.S. with a third stage. However, the missile failed shortly after launch, so it is unknown what its exact capabilities are or how close North Korea is to perfecting the technology.
North Korea's advancements in weapons technology appear to give them leverage in ongoing negotiations with the United Nations and other countries. On Feb 13, 2007, North Korea signed an agreement with South Korea, the United States, Russia, China, and Japan, in which North Korea will shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor in exchange for economic and energy assistance. However in 2009 the North continued its nuclear test program.
Further tensions between the north and south began in 2010 when a South Korean navy ship was sunk, later reports revealed a torpedo from North Korea was the cause.